After Blue (Dirty Paradise)
Bertrand Mandico’s new lo-fi whatsit After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is wildly ambitious, extremely beautiful, and maddeningly dull. In the film’s unspecified future, humankind has abandoned Earth and colonized a new, distant planet, After Blue. Determined to not repeat the same mistakes that lead to calamity back on Earth, society has been realigned into discrete settlements based on nationality with little or no interactions between groups. Curiously, this new planet’s atmosphere has killed off all men, leaving various matriarchal governing factions in place and necessitating reproduction by artificial insemination. In this strange, otherworldly place we meet Roxy (Paula-Luna Breitenfelder), who’s being bullied by another group of young women. The gang come across a head on the beach, only to discover that it’s a woman who has been buried up to her neck and left for dead. Roxy decides to help the woman, digging her up out of the sand; once free, she announces herself as the the notorious criminal Kate Bush (Agata Buzek). Kate proceeds to grant Roxy three wishes, then immediately murders the other women as they swim in the ocean. Roxy protests that she wished for no such thing, but Kate declares that she can tell Roxy’s true intentions, and then flees the scene. News of Kate Bush’s escape soon reaches Roxy’s camp, where the elders declare that Roxy’s mother, Zora (Elina Löwensohn), the local hairdresser is now responsible for hunting down and killing Kate.
And so mother and daughter set off to find their quarry, and the film transitions from its largely sci-fi trappings to become a kind of bizarre neo-western, as Zora and Roxy traverse various psychedelic landscapes and meet the strange denizens of other settlements. Eventually they cross paths with Sternberg (Vimala Pons), a cryptic woman who claims to be Kate’s neighbor but seems to be hiding something. Zora and Roxy settle in with her, as Roxy has increasingly frequent visions of Kate that are either erotic or threatening — or both. Indeed, most of the characters in the film seem to exist in a constant state of sensual reverie, a state of arousal that Mandico emphasizes with his strange production design. The world of After Blue (planet and film) is one of phallic symbols and gaping vaginal orifices. Characters are constantly entering holes, massaging themselves or each other while covered in viscous fluids. While casual nudity abounds, it’s not exactly a sexual film, at least not explicitly so. Instead, it’s a kind of state of primordial longing, psychological as much as physical. The cast eventually expands to include an androgynous android, Olgar 2 (Michael Erpelding), as well as a couple of bounty hunters named Kiffer (Pauline Lorillard) and Climax (Anais Thomas). Kate Bush is the one that binds them together, an outsider who claims to be the spirit of After Blue and who can communicate with the planet’s original inhabitants (people in large rubber suits with gaping holes for mouths). It’s all very weird and cosmic, but despite the oddity on display it moves at a glacial pace. Mandico and cinematographer Pascale Granel bathe everything in pastel pinks and blues, with a heaping dose of fog and gauzy soft focus. As with Mandico’s other work, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and Jean Cocteau are obvious influences, as well as the stylized bric-a-brac of Josef von Sternberg, particularly the entirely artificial environs of Anatahan. After Blue is strikingly designed, but Mandico only has a handful of ideas, and once he begins repeating himself the film’s novelty quickly wears thin. There’s plenty to like here — surely the film is destined for some cult status amongst adventurous cinephiles. But rhythm and pacing still matter even in the avant-garde, and creative paper-mache sets and pounds of glitter can only get you so far.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Where is Anne Frank?
We’re now quite a few years removed from Ari Folman’s critically hyped festival and awards season run for his animated documentary Waltz With Bashir — 13 years removed, in fact, during which time the director has gotten to make very little. Follow-up feature The Congress came out not so long after, but while its massive, bold live action-animation hybrid approach to reworking Stanislaw Lem got it some decent critical attention and Cannes play, the film ultimately got a poorly marketed U.S. theatrical rollout from Drafthouse Films, which killed its momentum. It’s not unfeasible that this is responsible for Folman’s considerable time away from director’s chair, his newest film having had its premiere at this past Cannes Film Festival, eight full years after The Congress.
Scaling down his ambitions significantly, Folman’s return to filmmaking finds him zesting up the Anne Frank story for a contemporary tween audience. Coming back to animation once again, and employing an aesthetic not dissimilar from what he chose for his last two features, Where Is Anne Frank (strangely un-question marked) weaves together a magical realist allegory that attempts to reconsider The Diary of a Young Girl in light of Europe’s current refugee crises and the racism and xenophobia that fuel it. This parallel reveals itself rather immediately to Kitty, Where Is Anne Frank’s protagonist and, yes, the imaginary friend Anne Frank addressed her diary to. Brought to life in modern day Amsterdam, Kitty finds that her existence is directly tethered to the original copy of the famous diary, on display at The Anne Frank House where she finds herself trapped. Eventually breaking out of the museum with diary in hand, Kitty makes her way through the city in an attempt to understand what became of Anne Frank, and along the way finds herself pursued by police and aiding an unhoused family of refugees. Pretty squarely aimed at eight- to ten-year-olds, it’s hard to imagine Where Is Anne Frank affecting anyone outside that demographic. The film’s consideration of Frank’s legacy is purposeful and timely, but unconvincing, offering condemnations of policing via comparison to Nazis that it ultimately steps back from in favor of a succinct, sunny conclusion. Well-meaning yet pretty disingenuous, Where Is Anne Frank has some broad points to make about the necessity of learning from Frank’s diary instead of allowing it to become an unconsidered museum piece, but it’s scared to offer any genuine ideas of how best to implement these teachings. And as a comeback for Folman, this proves to be a significant disappointment, far from the lofty heights of The Congress. One can only hope this is a necessary step back towards more substantial work.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Featuring a floor-to-ceiling stacked cast and a festive setting and title, one might assume that Silent Night, the feature film debut from writer-director Camille Griffin, would be in the same vein as another beloved and meme-able English Christmas staple, Love, Actually — or at the very least, one of those star-studded, overstuffed holiday ensemble pieces Garry Marshall was cranking out at an almost alarming rate before his death in 2016. Yet those seeking any sort of yuletide comfort and joy should look elsewhere, as Silent Night is ultimately an apocalyptic tale detailing humanity’s final moments on Earth, as the family and friends gathered for a final Christmas dinner await deadly toxins from which there is no escape. Co-star Keira Knightley is no stranger to either scenario, having starred in both the aforementioned Love, Actually and the Armageddon-set romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World; if you are going to combine the two, you might as well have an expert on-hand.
But more precisely, Silent Night is the English rendition of It’s a Disaster, in which both indie and mainstream stars trade barbed witticisms as the world crashes around them. Here, the jokes are much drier and oh-so-very British, even as insults are hurled and dirty laundry is aired. Knightley and Matthew Goode star as a bougie couple who invite their well-to-do friends to join them in their country home for one final Christmas Eve party, which will end with the guests taking government-provided pills that will gently send them into The Big Sleep before the poisonous air ravages their internal organs. The guests include a snotty bitch (Annabelle Wallis) and her milquetoast, ineffectual husband (Rufus Jones); a lesbian couple (Lucy Punch and Kirby Howell-Baptiste); a hot doctor (Sope Dirisu) and his obligatory American (and thereby, uncouth) girlfriend (Lily-Rose Depp); and some children (including Jojo Rabbit himself, Roman Griffin Davis). It’s unnecessary to provide names as everyone here is an archetype, defined solely by a few throwaway character traits, making it impossible to truly care what happens to them, regardless of a final stretch that piles on the pathos to an almost embarrassing degree. These people are all generally unlikeable, which seems appropriate given the circumstances, but it doesn’t always make for the most endearing of company, pushing the natural charms of the likes of Knightley and Punch to their absolute limits. Indeed, one wonders how Griffin was able to snag such an notable cast, considering the material is so very feeble, although at least young JoJo’s appearance makes sense upon learning that Griffin is his mother. The fact that his role consists of saying “fuck” every other word and undergoing severe emotional and physical trauma is a bit less explicable.
Silent Night has garnered a bit of controversy on the festival circuit due to its ending, which many view as an extreme example of anti-vaccination rhetoric, but given that the film was shot months before the COVID pandemic ravaged the planet, this seems like a case of unfortunate timing more than anything else, and really only distracts from the fact that the film’s final shot would be cheap and manipulative in any time, under any circumstances. Silent Night is the kind of film that thinks its cliched title — beyond the obvious irony of festive mood it suggests — is clever because its characters never shut up, but thanks to the whole death thing, they soon will. If you think that is ingenious, then you might have a new holiday favorite; everyone else can stick with Richard Curtis.
Writer: Steven Warner
Part of the joy of a film festival (even a virtual one) is discovering hitherto unknown talent that comes from seemingly out of nowhere with a fully-realized vision, a blast of excitement washing over you as you realize you’re watching a bold new filmmaker knock it right out of the park. With Saloum, writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot has crafted a lean, mean, thrilling genre hybrid that starts with a bang and never lets off the gas. Comparisons to John Carpenter are inevitable (and already rampant), but for once, the honorific actually makes sense. Saloum begins with a trio of mercenaries traversing a city block littered with corpses, the men stopping to finish off wounded soldiers and sticking their calling cards in their victim’s lapels. They are “Bangui’s Hyenas,” nigh-mythical warriors who are either folk heroes or vicious murderers, depending on who you ask. Large title cards splash across the screen introducing the men: there’s Chaka (Yann Gael), the leader; Rafa (Roger Sallah), his second in command, and Minuit (Mentor Ba), the oldest and wisest of the three. They make quite an impression, Minuit with his long white hair and Rafa with a closely cropped white beard, all three in dapper clothes beneath their weapons and gear.
Making off with a drug dealer’s stash of gold bars, they meet up with another dealer who’s on the run from the cartels, and who has offered them the use of his private plane in exchange for protection. But as soon as the men are up in the air, they begin losing fuel, and are forced to make an emergency landing in Senegal, in the Saloum region of the title. Trudging through inhospitable land, they find shelter at a commune of sorts buried deep from prying eyes. The proprietor, Omar (Bruno Henry), explains that here, everyone pays only what they can, and that guests divvy up chores to make up for the rest. It appears innocent enough, at least at first, but soon cracks begin to show. Unexpectedly, a police officer shows up unannounced, while the drug dealer that the Hyenas are supposed to be protecting begins acting strangely and threatening to blow their cover. There’s also a young, deaf-mute woman on site, Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who knows exactly who these men are and what they are doing there. It seems that Chaka has a history with this place, and with Omar, that he hasn’t shared with his crew, and Awa is going to reveal his secret if he doesn’t let her leave with them and join the Hyenas. As the men attempt to keep up their ruse and somehow acquire fuel for their plane, Omar and Chaka find common ground in their violent pasts, a veritable horror show of historical atrocities on the African continent during the 20th century. To reveal more would be criminal, but suffice to say that things go from bad to worse at around the halfway mark, with strange supernatural occurrences bubbling up from beneath the ancient ground that these men do battle on.
Herbulot maintains a fantastic sense of suspense throughout his film’s brief 80-minute runtime, not an ounce of fat on its propulsive narrative. Character is revealed through actions, with exposition delivered in tense, suspenseful exchanges, and quick bursts of gunfire occurring in brief, unexpected flashes. Herbulot and cinematographer Gregory Corandi cram as much visual information as they can into each widescreen composition, cutting from scene to scene quickly but never frenetically. Indeed, Saloum is a master class in forward momentum, with characters in constant motion. But Herbulot also knows when to keep his characters motionless, allowing tension to mount until someone, or something, comes tearing out to attack. It’s never a particularly scary movie, but it’s decidedly suspenseful, with a Morricone-esque electronic soundtrack by Reksider that evokes both spaghetti westerns and Carpenter’s patented synth droning. Eventually turning into a siege film, Herbulot manages to create an emotional treatise on the bonds of brotherhood as well as the destructive nature of revenge. Personal struggles play out across a canvas of spiritual, mythopoetic landscapes as the ghosts of the past return to haunt our ostensible heroes. Saloum is an absolute blast, that most pleasant of surprises that genre fans can only find in programmes like Midnight Madness, and it announces a major new filmmaker — hopefully soon, people will be able to see this one with a crowd.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Lorenzo Vigas’s The Box opens with a monotonous thump: the rhythmic sound of a shoe beating against the stained stall of a moving lavatory introduces the viewer to the tragic life of young Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete). The desert scope — shot enigmatically in glorious widescreen — demonstrates the cruelty of the Mexican outback, but for Hatzín, the endless desert is a faint afterthought. Death is merely a confirmation of his own familiar crisis; an ongoing parable that connects Hatzín with a mysterious man who resembles his own father. The grief that the young child holds is what ultimately drives The Box’s more intriguing social thematics, ones largely concerning labor exploitation, and which, in the way of so many such cinematic portraits of grief, prove ripe for post-screening discourse.
Admittedly, the intrinsic motivation behind Hatzín’s blunt efforts toward catharsis and is vapidly skimmed over in the film’s rushed opening act. The Box —aptly titled— traps itself within its desire to comment on the current labor crisis, utilizing Hatzín’s character as an emotionless vessel. Navarrete’s committed, inscrutable performance is both impressive and frustrating, and this is where Vigas’s attempts at forcing narrative stakes and intrigue is proven counterproductive. The film’s suffocating atmosphere and endless vistas already afford enough harrowing tension, amidst the film’s pre-established endgoals. The prominent issue, then, is with the needless ambiguity of Hatzín’s family-routed motivations, which leaves minimal emotional connectivity for the lead protagonist.
As the film progresses and the visual allegories continuously ramp with each revelation, Vigas’s unpredictable feature evolves into an unconventional Western: an unknown man and his silent sidekick, paired in a time-sprawling saga of crime, connection, and dysfunction. Genre is quite literally weaponized within the context of the narrative, with the intent being so that audiences around the globe can overtly relate and comprehend the nuances and even spoken messages found throughout the self-conscious and preachy film. Still, through the prowess of cultural connotation, the American tropes employed in The Box are able to enhance the grim realist drama; the power dynamics are neither gratuitous nor insensitive, but rather carefully executed in an intricately-woven patchwork of insightful social commentary.
Recurring images of mortality flirt with the gripping atmosphere and the riveting tension within The Box’s universe — just as in the film’s opening scene. The repeated thump featured in its first minutes are, more or less, also the perfect summation of Vigas’ latest venture: each thump represents yet another disappearance, another unmarked soul consumed by the underbelly of labor exploitation. Hatzín’s hardened shoe is an obvious symbol, a representation of youth and vulnerability consumed by the immediate social integration of manhood. It’s a blunt and obvious visual paradigm, one that immediately sells its thematic crux. And so, despite suffering from an instinct for the unsubtle, The Box is ultimately economical, and brilliantly simple in its premise, and distinguishes Vigas’s strength for ambitious but grounded social-realist drama amidst the density of Mexico’s aspiring auteurs.
Writer: David Cuevas