Following quickly after the opening credits to She is Conann — a rapid montage of freakish landscapes played to a hypnotic classical piece — director Bertrand Mandico throws us into a beguiling opening sequence that immediately situates viewers in a strange world. An elderly woman, cloaked in a foil gown, enters a room where the walls are paved with a shimmering silver material. She is greeted by an exceptionally creepy anthropomorphic dog, later referred to as a hellhound, named Rainer (played by a fantastic and unrecognizable Elina Löwensohn). Rainer informs our mysterious old woman that she is, in fact, dead, and as they leave the confines of the room, they are greeted with the expansive cosmos of Hell. Our central figure is then revealed: Conann the Barbarian, now a Queen of Hell who rules over the abyss. Conann, who has a long-running history with Rainer, proceeds to offer up her savage backstory as a bloodthirsty warrior, and claims willingness to give up her throne to anyone who can prove to have lived a more barbaric life than her.
Mandico’s film is primarily a take on the mythos of Conan — the almighty barbarian first created in the 1930s but immortalized on celluloid with John Milius’ 1982 Schwarzenegger-starring treatment — but She is Conann is much more than just a simple role reversal spin; it’s also a queer retelling wherein female sexuality is centered but not exploited. The Conann of this film has a similar backstory to the original figure: her parents are butchered by a group of vicious warriors, led by another central character, Sanja (Julia Riedler), who then enslave and torment her, creating a bloodthirsty killer in the process. Eventually, while Sanja is away from camp, Conann, with the help of her new companion Rainer, murders her captors, escapes captivity, and wanders into the wastelands that surround. These flashback sequences, which make up the majority of the film, are shot on black-and-white 35mm, and this decision helps set and maintain the film’s pervasively grim tone, which features a world full of grotesque violence and debauchery. But occasionally, the film flickers back to color during scenes of intense ultra-violence, such as Conann gunning down a pool full of investment bankers and scientists.
An immediate comparison point for Mandico’s film is Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God; not only do both films revel in bombarding the audience with cinematic barbarism, but they also both share the impression of taking place in a world devoid of any distinct sense of location or time. She is Conann is realized as highly-stylized combination of ancient fantasy tropes — such as the armor-clad, sword-wielding brutes that fill its frames — and modern amenities like cars, guns and mobile phones. The production design across all of the film’s environs is incredibly meticulous, and despite the low budget, in reliable Mandico fashion, looks exquisite throughout. The director takes full advantage of each set, moving his characters across the screen as if they were caught in the middle of some unrelenting dance. This abstraction of any visible temporality fits nicely into the film’s experimental narrative, which constantly jumps between universes. In fact, like the different worlds on display, the character of Conann is similarly in constant flux, with six different actors (including her final form played by Nathalie Richard) each playing her at a different stage in her life: dying and being reborn into a new body, with a new personality.
The most interesting one of these Conanns is her third iteration, which sees the character change race and is played by Sandra Parfait: this version of Conann finds herself in love with her previous capture Sanja and starts a new life, free of cruel torment. Mandico switches the film’s environment from bewitching fantasy landscape to dystopian urban sprawl, not unlike something you’d see from a 1980s Italian exploitation film like The Bronx Warriors or Endgame. In this realm, Conann is a stuntwoman who performs death-defying spectacles with her lover, including one incredibly staged sequence involving a car and a copious amount of gore — enough to give Titane a run for its money. This section represents She is Conann at its absolute peak, largely on the strength of the tragic romance it builds between its two doomed lovers. For a brief moment, the film becomes more than just tableaux of absurdities — and that mode already has a very high floor.
The downside to this mid-film apex is that things start to lag a bit in the after, when Conann essentially becomes a notorious warlord who talks about dominating Europe through bloodshed, bragging about how many victims she’s claimed over the years. The cyclical rotation of different eras and aesthetics of suffering becomes a bit stale at this point, and the firmness of the character in this stretch can feel slightly dulled in comparison to the others. However, things pick back up when Conann is again killed, this time by a mysterious cloaked figure, surrounded by soldiers who begin to film her on their smartphones, following her around as she writhes around in agony before expiring. The act of engaging in spectatorship is one of the film’s most emphatic themes, especially via the character of Rainer — appearing in every iteration of Conann’s story — who follows the action and continually takes photos of the brutal events that take place, Mandico seemingly engaging in the long-standing discourse on the complicity between filmmakers and audiences with regards to depicting violence.
But attempting to extract any overtly legible thematic angle or political concern from She is Conann is mostly futile, as the film purposefully engages in an abstraction of storytelling: despite the ostensible six-part framework, there is no real coherent structure or traditional narrative work here, the film obfuscating much through its high degree of eccentricity. The most obvious sense of direct meaning comes from the film’s highly engaging finale, in which the final iteration of Conann, now an aristocratic lord in a collapsed economy, offers a Faustian deal to a group of struggling artists: if they devour her entire body — which is cooked despite her remaining alive — they will inherent her fortune. It’s an idiosyncratic takedown of the restrictions imposed on creative freedom under capitalism and the soul-destroying lengths one goes to in order to make art, played out in a style that truly emphasizes the film’s macabre theatrics. And so, while She is Conann is unabashedly and appealingly a gender-flipped, queer version of the traditionally hyper-masculine tale, it isn’t only that: it’s a complete contortion of what a fantasy film can be. Mandico takes the excessive violence of traditional action films and transforms it into something that is both frequently comic and vividly bizarre, offering plenty of allure for audiences inclined toward absurdist humor, dazzling production design, and puckish genre play.
DIRECTOR: Bertrand Mandico; CAST: Elina Löwensohn, Julia Riedler, Claire Duburcq, Agata Buzek; DISTRIBUTOR: Altered Innocence; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.