In a thankless role as one of the most morose femmes fatales in memory, Nour Hajri plays Nada, a (mostly) mute office worker by day, serial killer (men only, natch) by night. We never find out why. Such is the pseudo-provocative premise of Black Medusa, the debut film from two Tunisian brothers: Youssef Chebbi and (the unbearably pretentious, must be lower-case when typed) ismaël. The action (or more often inaction) here is ostensibly intended to be taken as a metaphor, one the audience can elucidate with their sure-to-be-extensive knowledge of post-revolution Tunisia’s social environment. At least, that seems like the best bet for tracing the genesis of both Nada’s rigorously introverted demeanor and her nocturnal violent streak. Other possibilities given to us in the film include: a bowie knife, found at one of her victim’s apartments and with which Nada becomes enamored, and a vaguely romantic entanglement Nada has with a new coworker, Noura (Rym Hayouni) — although pretty much from frame-one, Nada is cutting down her suitors (literally), letting the poor schmucks flirtatiously regale her with a lame story about themselves before getting shanked or… well, no other memorable killings come to mind.
And that’s really the issue with Black Medusa: It’s neither a film of captivating substance nor of anything but utilitarian form. Sure, the black-and-white cinematography has a certain austere beauty to it, especially one long tracking shot of Noura slinking through a forest, leading a man (whose perspective the sequence is shot from) to his imminent doom. But when it comes to the violent acts themselves, we are firmly in the realm of self-important arthouse filmmaking that clearly thinks itself above genre aesthetics. (This, even though one scene of Nada’s repeated thrusting of her blade into an unsuspecting date’s gut barely tries to hide that said blade is one of those retractable props, a side-effect of shooting the sequence in a single wide shot with clear view of the knifing!) Genre-heads can stomach a whole lot of ambiguity if a threadbare narrative is packaged attractively, but Black Medusa is long on tasteful tracking shots and very light on visual verve. And if this film isn’t for that set, it’s hard to see what those looking for a more psychologically-focused form of thriller will find in a heroine who speaks a handful of words and about whom, prior to our introduction, we never learn anything. The film’s title, that knife, and the sole relationship here that amounts to anything approaching connection all hint at potential areas that the Chebbis— excuse me, Chebbi and ismaël — could have probed. And while the Tunisian cityscape (blaring club life and eerily quiet streets alike) is often eye-catching, what audience wants to come to a serial killer movie to admire the scenery?
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Of Stan Brakhage’s ephemeral Desert, Fred Camper once wrote that “large and small, and inner and outer, worlds dance about each other in a kind of equivalency,” which is high praise for a piece that wasn’t even shot in an actual desert, and was instead just a series of extreme close-ups of a motel room table. Daïchi Saïto’s earthearthearth attempts the same sort of mysticism, albeit not from a sense of abstraction, but from the sheer magnitude of malleable physicality on display. At least that’s where the piece ultimately builds toward; the short, at first, seems constructed around a series of quick edits that function in tandem with Jason Sharp’s swelling score. These opening frames capture a wide range of dim light gradients breaking free from the darkness, with daybreak erupting from the confines of night; these flashes happen so quickly that one’s left with the imprint of an image, even when nothing is on screen. Soon, Saïto begins to superimpose these scenes on top of one another, gently layering his images with careful ease. It’s after this transitory segment that we enter into a more aggressive domain, where we’re no longer shrouded in complete darkness — it should be noted that the work comes with a recommendation to “watch in a darkened room,” which would be the only way to properly detect the opening’s visual subtleties — and now have to contend with garish color pigments and harsher noise.
The footage that follows now consists of wide, sweeping landscape shots that have been color reversed and manipulated on a tangible level (Saïto shot earthearthearth with a 16mm Bolex camera in the Atacama desert during an artistic residency in northern Argentina). These materialist manipulations encourage a more granular conception of these towering mountains, as wave after wave of intense winds blows a seemingly endless amount of loose sediments from these land masses, a process made visible only through these post-processes. But it’s around here that things begin to lose steam — or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say the work plateaus into a long, sustained section that’s still impressive without becoming inert. The score becomes less erratic, but doesn’t abandon its heightened tenor or volume; it’s certainly loud, but in a way that just hovers over the images and subsumes viewer attention in the process. So the images march on, all majestic in their own right, but perfectly content with sustaining at the same visceral register for half-an-hour. Sierras are made of pebbles, pebbles are what form sierras; we enter and exit from these two worlds, and then the sun sets once again.
Writer: Paul Attard
Offering a solemn look at Soviet society in the 1960s, Andrei Konchalovsky adds to his diverse body of work with Dear Comrades!, a period-drama depicting the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre which left 26 confirmed dead and more than 80 injured. Anchored by Yuliya Vysotskaya’s masterful and sardonic performance as Lyuda, a devoted party bureaucrat, the film is at its best when showing us a world not so different from our own. Lyuda’s chief concern is for her family and her career, her affair with a married man barely a footnote in her life, and her teenage daughter a source of constant conflict. Even given Lyuda’s sharp exterior, Konchalovsky deftly avoids any cliched depictions of Soviet-era Russians by focusing not on any ideological specificities or highlighting outlandishly devoted communists, but instead turns his attention to the low-level corruption and cronyism that’s just as familiar in modern-day capitalism, and a people who are earnest in hoping for the best from their government. Konchalovsky’s grounded view elicits sympathy more than anything — bribery is not an evil to be condemned, but simply a means of feeding your family and keeping them safe. So while the effects of such corruption and enervating bureaucracy are explored, for the first half of Dear Comrades!, it’s still easy to not even sense the oncoming disaster. Despite the slowly-ramping tension built from decisions being quietly and calmly made in bland meeting rooms, just like the crowds of civilians captured on screen, viewers too have barely a hint of the bloodshed to come.
Despite its bleak sensibility, Dear Comrades! is perhaps most recently reminiscent of Armando Iannucci’s dark-comedy The Death of Stalin. The latter depicts a crucial moment in Soviet history — the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious head of the Ministry for Internal Affairs, in order to prevent him from taking advantage of the power vacuum left after Stalin’s death. As far as most historians are concerned, this was the last time that being defeated in a Soviet power struggle ended in the murder of the loser, with Nikita Khrushchev, whose visage looms large over Dear Comrades!, being casually usurped and retired in 1964. Civil servants were no longer executed or subjected to show trials for their blunders, but instead demoted to the point of humiliation. Where Konchalovsky’s concerns diverge from Iannucci, then, is in his willingness to point out that this violence largely only ended for the political class, and that the workers were left to suffer and, in some cases, be shot on sight. Across the narrative, Vysotskaya’s Lyuda varies between whole-hearted devotion to the party, careful maneuvering of the political arena, and sheer desperation as she tries to track down her daughter after the chaos at Novocherkassk. Through this one complicated woman, Konchalovsky reckons with Stalinist legacy, exposing the blood on the hands of his successors and detailing the terrifying fragility of this era’s relative peace.
What Konchalovsky is ultimately offering here is a nuanced rebuttal of the notion that brutality ended with Stalin — certainly nothing revelatory there — but in also refusing to indulge in the idea of the USSR as a solely brutal regime, he welcomingly complicates the material. In an era defined by a constant rewriting of the truth, Konchalovsky’s second act, focused on the tying-up of loose ends and potential liabilities, hits particularly hard. As the blood is washed from the streets, the black-and-white color palette leaves the day looking no different than any other, and the pained echoes of crowds shouting for food at the deli or the throngs of people begging for information on their loved ones strike directly at the heart of the issue: what can people do in the face of violence that has become routine, both at the level of the individual and of the state.
Writer: Molly Adams
The new Brazilian feature Carro Rei (King Car) is aggressively weird, the kind of film that bends over backward to announce its singularity. Director/co-writer Renata Pinheiro is working in a vein similar to early Quentin Dupieux, presenting big ideas in an overly flashy package that distracts from, rather than deepens its overall themes. Perhaps it is foolish to expect subtlety from a movie whose protagonist, automotive communicator Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.) — yes, he literally can talk to cars — rejects motorized transportation after witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of the taxicab in which he was born. A potential career in agriculture is sidelined by family illness, leading Uno to embrace the mechanical once more in an effort to save his father’s taxi business, which has come under fire for its use of cabs older than 15 years, recently banned by the local government. If you think this is needlessly complicated, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this story, which also includes a possibly developmentally disabled uncle who loves to pole dance, a performance artist who favors vaginal rebellion, and the titular vehicle itself, which becomes something of a cult leader and attempts to overthrow the ruling class with the help of his human disciples.
The sheer ambition on display is admittedly admirable, but it is hard to determine what Pinheiro is saying on any one topic. Power as a corrupting force? The enslavement of the working class? The disparity between the haves and the have-nots? Nature vs. technology? All get a workout, but none in a way that is profound or meaningful. For every scene that works — such as a choreographed dance number in which a handful of mechanics start moving robotically in sync with engine noises while swigging transmission fluid — there are three others that fall flat simply because of their heavy-handedness. Uno’s uncle bluntly states that technology has been bred into our DNA ever since man first picked up a stone and used it as a tool. “Are we human? Or are we simply machines, and these devices our offspring?” he states while gesturing toward a car. His character proceeds to literally devolve throughout the film, taking on the mannerisms of an ape, until he is simply beating his chest and grunting at film’s end. This idea is clever in theory, but to what purpose? That technology has stopped evolution dead in its tracks, humanity simply willing victims enslaved to its machines? That doesn’t really gibe with the subplot where advancements in agriculture ultimately save humanity, which would imply that technology can in fact be used positively, but it is obvious that no sort of careful thought or effort was put into this other than, “Wouldn’t it be cool if a woman stamped the word ‘Dead’ on her boyfriend — who is a car, mind you — with menstrual blood?” Large chunks of this film also appear to be missing, connective tissue necessary to explain the escalation of events, especially in the movie’s final third — yet there is a lengthy scene where two characters robotically discuss the virtues of phosphorous, so thank God for that. Perhaps more could be forgiven if even Carro Rei’s edginess didn’t feel quite so secondhand. Hey, Pinheiro, Cameron Diaz fucked a car in The Counselor, you’re not shocking me with your car-nal passions. Somewhere, a cheetah named Raul weeps.
Writer: Steven Warner
For nearly as long as humans have been eating and screwing, food and sex have been linked in philosophy, science, and art. Edible aphrodisiacs have been mythologized for nearly all of recorded history, the term food porn has been in use since at least the 1970s, and films like Tampopo have memorably linked the culinary and the erotic. Yoshida Kota’s Sexual Drive fits fairly squarely within this lineage, but it doesn’t do much to suggest it’s of particular interest or perspective in its own right. For a film that largely consists of filthy conversations, its destinations are too often mundane and sexually platitudinous, continuously arriving at the conclusion you’d expect it to: food makes people horny.
Split into three stories, each focused on a different dish — natto, mapo tofu, and ramen — Sexual Drive has one character who recurs throughout. This man appears to be the main character of each section and acts as a sort of prurient fairy, regaling the others with erotic tales somehow related to food. In the first, he tells a sexless man that he is cuckolding him and that his wife’s genitals smell like natto, the fermented soybean dish she loves to eat. Next, he tracks down a woman who bullied him in grade school and instructs her to embrace her sadistic sexual nature and, also, make homemade mapo tofu. She does so and becomes aroused, practically climaxing from the dish’s heat. Finally, he phones a man to tell him he picked up his abandoned mistress at a ramen shop and is now having sex with her. Guess what, this guy is horny too. It’s this thudding repetition that makes it obvious that Sexual Drive only has one idea, and not a novel one at that. The closest Kota comes to an exciting, perverse notion is in the second segment, when the man, in a masochistic fervor, begs the woman to hit him with her car. But this fantasy isn’t even made good on, as the film is content to trade in the most staid ideas of eroticism. One money shot, so to speak, is simply a close-up on a woman eating as sticky strands of food extend from her lips to the dish. It’s a basic and unimaginative approach that mirrors common pornographic images, drawing the straightest line possible between food and sex, without striving for anything deeper or more creative. And so, while all of this hinges on an ostensible connection between food and sex, outside of basic simile, the two are kept shockingly, disappointingly separate.
Writer: Chris Mello
In 2008, three Dutchmen were accused of deliberately infecting scores of men with HIV during a series of sex parties in a crime that came to be known as the “Groningen case,” after the city in the Netherlands in which it took place. Evidence soon suggested that not only were the men invited to the parties with the goal of infecting them with HIV, but that the men were drugged and forcibly injected with HIV+ blood. It was a sensational case, one ultimately coded with homophobia and judgment toward the men who became infected, with some even suggesting that they were somehow to blame for their own infection with the virus because they were not practicing safe sex.
Tim Leyendekker‘s documentary hybrid, Feast, explores the case from radically new angles, tackling the misconceptions and prejudice surrounding it, while putting the viewer squarely in the middle of the confusion and misinformation surrounding the case. Through a series of dramatizations, interviews, mock interviews, and hazy recollections, Leyendekker creates a kind of avant-garde portrait of sexual freedom, debauchery, and sexual assault, and the places where those things sometimes overlap. Leyendekker will open on interviews with subjects that we think are the perpetrators, their faces hidden in shadow, only to stop the interview, coach the subject, then begin again, slowly raising the lights to reveal the actor underneath. The effect is jarring, almost Brechtian in its sly revealing of the filmmaking process, but one that consistently jars the audience and forces us to reframe our concept not only of the film, but of the event itself. It occasionally recalls William Greaves’ landmark documentary, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, in its complete disregard for the “rules” of filmmaking, often ripping back the facade to reveal the inner workings of the film beneath.
But the effect here isn’t simply for show, Feast forces us to recalibrate our perception of reality, to take a deeper look at the events that gave rise to the crime at its center and examine its painful ramifications. Leyendekker seems deeply disturbed by the way in which victims were silenced or were made to feel culpable in their own assault as authorities (and the perpetrators themselves), insist that the victims should have known the risks of unprotected sex, never mind the fact that the sex isn’t how they became infected in the first place. Or was it? That there’s really no way to tell is very much the point, but are the perpetrators still responsible for their failure to disclose their HIV positive status? And why did the men continue to return to the parties if they felt unsafe? The burden of proof is heavy, no doubt, and Feast deftly, often dazzlingly, dives straight into the heart of the case’s many facets, slowly peeling back layers to reveal wholly new perspectives, be they scientific, ethical, or emotional. By blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Leyendekker has created a wholly original work of art that exists in the liminal spaces between, forcing the audience to grapple with its themes in unexpected and often troubling ways.
Writer: Mattie Lucas