Fantasia was beginning to wind down. After seeing five movies on Sunday, August 2, I only saw four on Monday the 3rd: an Ethiopian post-apocalypse quest called Crumbs; a Spanish crime movie called Marshland; an American suspense movie called The Invitation; and a French science fiction comedy called Cosmodrama. I’d heard good things about each of these movies, and I had cautiously high hopes. Which were mostly fulfilled.
Crumbs was preceded by a Canadian short film called “Fish Out of Water.” Written and directed by Kirsten Carthew, it’s a post-apocalyptic horror story shot near Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. A fisherwoman tries to catch a fish in an iced-over lake, but is herself caught by a lure she didn’t expect. It’s a solid story, at ten minutes perhaps a little long for something so simple, but then agan you can argue it consciously aims for a slow pace. Certainly the natural photography is stunning.
Crumbs was written and directed by Miguel Llansó, a Spaniard based in Ethiopia. It follows Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), a malformed man — in an interesting interview, Llansó describes him as having “an irregular body and a fascinating look” — who lives in an abandoned bowling alley with a woman named Candy (Selam Tesfaye). A spaceship hangs in the sky, and may be coming to life, powering the bowling alley with electricity. Birdy embarks on a quest to find out the truth, about the ship and about his own past. He’s inspired by the image of Superman, but may be taking that inspiration too far. As he makes his way across a desolate but beautiful land, Candy has some strange encounters of her own in the bowling alley. Meanwhile a peculiar antiquities dealer intersects with the story in odd moments.
It’s a good structure, and Llansó fits a lot of incident into the film’s 68 minutes. Everything’s highly symbolic, and therefore on a plot level surreal. Birdy makes his way through a land littered with the debris of Western culture, including a Nazi in a gas mask. These presumably are the crumbs of the title. While Llansó acknowledges debts to Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog (and I can see Herzog in the movie’s pacing and elliptical dialogue), you could just as easily see an influence here from The Wizard of Oz: the discovery at the end of the journey through bizarre lands is not what Birdy expected.
In fact, by the end of the film Birdy’s learned some key truths. There’s a scepticism of simple heroism; Superman’s shield is likened to a swastika, suggesting a linked Nietzschean ideology. Birdy starts out wanting an origin like Superman’s, wants to be the Overman, but we know almost from that start that it’s a misguided desire. The key action of the film is a rejection of that desire, a renunciation of Western idols, replaced by an icon of a lion Birdy sees in a zoo: a real experience of the place where Birdy lives.
Conceptually, this is a strong film. The symbolic encounters Birdy finds are determinedly strange, which does create a distinctive tone for the movie but sometimes feels almost confrontational — as though Llansó’s daring the audience to make sense of what he’s showing. I will readily admit I have difficulty putting everything together after a single showing. But then this passes my ‘would I watch it again to make it make sense’ test: I’d certainly see it a second time. If only to experience the cinematography.
Llansó’s got a wonderful eye for nature, and the terrain Birdy traverses is often stunningly beautiful. Green, overgrown, lush: it may be a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s a living world, humans almost lost against the thriving vegetation. It makes for a striking contrast with the CG spaceship and all that it represents. The ship is technology, is the abandonment of the world. If it’s active again, can it bring any good end?
Crumbs has a consistent vision. It’s inherently satiric, but not in a way that undercuts the seriousness of the story. Indeed, the characters may be mistaken, and occasionally (to us) misguided, but they have an integrity and internal logic. There’s a warmth to them and to the way the movie shows them. Birdy’s quest and hopes are touching even when we know he’s in for a disappointment.
In part, of course, that’s because of the actors. Tadesse gives Birdy a distinctive attitude, the wariness of a man in a post-apocalyptic land, but also the cleverness of a man who’s made his way through that world. He’s brave and determined, always good traits in a hero.
Crumbs is a determinedly strange film, but it works. Llansó’s themes are brought out almost relentlessly, questioning popular culture and capitalism and the value put on things not inherently valuable. It’s a hero’s journey that questions heroism. Or, at least, that questions modern conceptions of what a hero is. There’s no concession here to audience expectations. It’s a movie that requires an acceptance of the strange, and a willingness to work through odd images. Frankly, some of the elements of the story were difficult to parse at one sitting. But I’d see it again, if I get the chance, to try to work it through more thoroughly.
Marshland (La isla mínima), the next movie I saw, almost couldn’t help but be more conventional. Still, it did interesting things in a genre framework. It’s a movie about two detectives, new partners, assigned to catch a serial killer. The setting is the south of Spain in 1980, after Franco’s death and while the country’s still moving toward democracy. The agricultral area is politically restless, with labourers exploited by the rich; the killer, meanwhile, seems a misogynist whose murders of young girls are linked to sex. The two investigators trying to solve the mystery, the fiery idealist Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) and the older cynic Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), have secrets of their own.
Marshland won ten Goya Awards, the main prizes in Spanish film, as well as any number of other awards at festivals around the world (it would win the Audience Award at Fantasia for Best Thriller or Suspense Film, too). You can see why. It’s a tremendously solid movie, that establishes character and tells a strong mystery story that works as a puzzle while also having social and thematic resonance. There are clues and red herrings and narrow escapes in the movie, but the intellectual challenge of working through what’s going on is secondary to the richness of character. The two detectives react differently to the same things, and as the movie goes on we come to know them quite well in all their richness — which is why we’re saddened but not entirely surprised by revelations about one of them confirmed near the movie’s end.
The film reminds me of The French Connection in the way character’s established. As there, we follow two detectives working on a case, and what we learn about their personal lives comes almost entirely through their professional actions. We see who they are by the way they handle their investigations, along with a few hints and glimpses. Here, though, the tensions and slow growth of a bond between the detectives is more visible. Oddly, there’s a car chase in Marshland that’s vaguely similar to The French Connection in the first-person craziness of the chase — in this case a frantic night drive into swampland. The scene does the same thing as the French Connection chase, establishing the detective’s determination to catch the criminals at the risk of his own life. But here the visuals are different: everything’s obscure, uncertain.
Generally, Marshland’s photography is a tremendous strength. Murky yet richly coloured, everything’s textured; everywhere the camera looks is another brilliant composition, another painterly image. The scenery isn’t tame, though, isn’t a vacation land. There’s something hard about it. The sense of place the movie develops is deep and strong. And the sense of time, as well: fashions, hairstyles, and the production design in general all have a strong sense of 1980 without crossing the line into self-parody.
Beyond time and place are touches of the surreal and even mystical. A woman claims to be a psychic, then reveals herself to be a fraud; but you wonder. The sunlight in this film hardly seems natural. And who can know how many secrets the swamps hold? From time to time we get aerial views, a pulling away from all complexities of mire or blood, abandoning human affairs to see the whole scene from a distance. The swamp has the whorled outline of a brain, as though in watching the film we are seeing the interior of a single organism, as though all the mystery and politics were the thoughts of a single psyche.
Is that part of the thematic point? I would say the movie generally is more interested in typical crime fiction territory: digging up truths, and the omnipresence of corruption, and how to choose one’s loyalties in a fallen world. And yet there’s also a brooding sense of something more, of a significance weighing on the detective’s actions. Perhaps it’s just the way everything seems tied to everything else: sex and power and labour and all the world. It’s hardly an encyclopedic film — there are few active female characters, for example — but there’s a focus of the sort that implies much that is not seen.
Marshland is a well-made gritty crime story. It uses its setting to spectacular effect, and builds richly-textured main characters. Visually stunning, it’s a rewarding film, I suspect especially for fans of crime drama. But there’s a value to it for more than just genre fans.
Following Marshland came The Invitation. Directed by Karyn Kusama from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, it’s a suspense movie that follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as he and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) attend a dinner party at the house of Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Many of Will and Eden’s friends will be there, and Will knows it’ll be a tense situation; he and Eden’s divorce followed from the death of their son, and feelings are still raw. Once Will gets there, though, it’s worse than he thought. Eden and David keep talking about the new religious movement they’ve joined. A new friend of theirs, a man named Pruitt, looms over everything. They play a video about the joyous acceptance of death. There seems to be something ominous going on — or is it all in Will’s head?
Well, no, it isn’t, and you know that almost from the start. The movie tries to set up a tension between Will’s suspicions and the obliviousness of the other guests, and tries to keep it an open question whether Will’s right to be worried. But it fails to pull that off. It’s far too clear early on that there’s some kind of scheme underneath the party. Lacking that tension, The Invitation comes off as a competently-executed exercise in the inevitable.
The movie’s shot well, almost entirely within Eden’s house, but never evokes a particularly strong atmosphere. I’ve seen some critics argue that by restricting the setting almost entirely to the home Kusama builds a sense of claustrophobia, but I don’t buy it. The house high on the Hollywood hills is far too expansive, with terraces and gardens, to ever feel claustrophobic. The acting’s solid, though Marshall-Green arguably makes Will too sympathetic a character; had he been played closer to the edge, we might be more inclined to doubt his perception of the subtext of the dinner party. I doubt it, though. The writing’s too unsubtle.
The script tries to create social awkwardness, but I found consistently missed its mark. You wonder why anyone would want to spend time with this collection of people, and when any of them will show an honest emotion. A party game leading to uncomfortable truths is forced and artificial. When faced with any serious emotional moment, character reactions are underwritten, lacking believable responses. Actors have to mug their way through generic expressions of surprise; it’s as though the facades these characters show the world are imagined to be all they have. They lack interiority. Which means there’s no depth to their conversations. For this movie to work, the social interactions had to be finely-judged; they weren’t. There’s a clumsiness to the dialogue that’s surprising, as though the script needed another draft or two.
Which may be the case. Certainly the plot’s surprisingly clunky. There’s a moment not far past the middle of the film when Will’s able to check his cell phone — of course the house just happens to be located in a spot where cell reception happens to be terrible — and finds a message which seems to confirm his suspicions. He confronts the others with his fears, and then at that exact moment one of the other characters happens to do something that undermines Will’s case. But: there’s no reason for that thing to happen at that moment. I assumed it meant that the other character was in on whatever scheme was going on; but even that was giving the movie too much credit. It was simply an improbably convenient coincidence.
Eventually, violence starts happening, and people run around attacking each other, and you watch it and wait for it to be over, There’s no particular tension, and no inherent interest in the characters. Kusama’s talked about the movie as having to do with pain and loss, and the importance of accepting pain; but that theme seems vestigial in the movie as it is. Viewed on its own, I felt that while I could read a number of things into it, it didn’t seem to be about anything in particular.
The film builds to a powerful final shot, a striking image — until you think about what you’re seeing, and realise that while it’s conceptually interesting, it’s also completely improbable without a lot more practical plot set-up than it receives. It seems somehow appropriate for this movie. There are some good story ideas, and it’s very watchable. But the plotting’s slack, and the characters generally underwritten. It makes for an acceptable B-movie with pretensions, but on its own terms it’s a failure.
I moved on to the De Sève. Before Cosmodrama screened there was the showing of a short film called “Juliet.” It was a near-future story of a businessman who creates idealised android wives, the Juliet model. And then creates upgrades — Juliet2, Juliet3, and so on. The comparison to Apple is pointed; the company that makes Juilet is named Seed. Seed also starts making a Romeo model. And then an idealised child, the Emily. And an idealised father figure, the Robert. And so on. Where will it end? It’s a funny, cynical film that contrasts dark humour with the bright, glossy Apple aesthetic to good effect.
After that came Cosmodrama. It’s a highly cerebral work that pays homage to SF TV shows of the 1960s and 70s, which sounds like an odd mix. And yet it works, creating an almost 2001-like feel — at least in visual terms.
It opens with a man waking up. He soon realises he’s on a spaceship. He meets another man. They chat cautiously; it soon becomes clear they both recently woke with no memory whatsoever of who they are or why they’re on the ship. Another passerby tells them that a meeting’s about to get underway. They follow, and we’re introduced to the full crew complement, a total of seven humans (plus a dog and a monkey), each with a specialised function; we’ve been following the Reporter (Bernard Blancan). The seven explore the ship, and set about trying to understand where they are. The Astronomer (Jackie Berroyer) soon begins rediscovering modern cosmology, much to the annoyance of the Psychologist (Emmanuel Moynot), who feels there are bigger questions to deal with. Meanwhile, the Reporter begins to see haunting images of a beautiful woman on one of the ship’s viewscreens.
Written and directed by Philippe Fernandez, it’s a very distinctive movie. There isn’t much external conflict, only arguments among the crew, and occasional peculiar space effects — at one point they begin to manifest doubles of themselves. There are highly allegorical overtones to the whole movie, which is divided into fourteen chapters with titles echoing the Stations of the Cross. And yet there’s also a sly, highly intellectual humour that undercuts the various philosophical theories the crew put forward.
Tonally it doesn’t remind me much of any written science fiction I’ve read. Perhaps Stanislaw Lem a little, in the specific way that it mixes science fiction and satire. Visually, as I said, it’s reminiscent of 2001 but with brighter colours. It’s more stylised than last year’s Space Station 76, and also much more interesting. Flat colours pop under bright lights. Clothing styles recall the 1960s and 70s without being too tied to any given year. Curiously, some aspects of the ship — particularly the furniture — recall Star Trek: The Next Generation as much as the original Trek. Visually, the movie’s a constant pleasure to look at, highly designed and precise.
Narratively the story works, although there’s not really what you’d call a clear direction to it. Granted that we’re looking at a heavily metaphorical set-up, the story of the metaphor doesn’t develop through the usual assortment of foreshadowing or clues. The characters fumble around trying to work things out. The movie’s the story of the way they interact with each other in doing so, and the interference patterns caused by their different ways of understanding the world around them.
As a result, the movie succeeds because the characters work. They’re just exaggerated enough to feel right. The Astronomer and Psychologist in particular are particularly rich creations. The Astronomer’s infatuated by science, humbled with what he learns, a little in awe of the universe. The Psychologist becomes increasingly grouchy as the Astronomer’s theories leave less and less room for any more spiritual approach. Their one-sided conflict is perfectly written, now bursting out and now subsiding.
Speaking of the Astronomer, it has to be said that it’s amusing to see him reporting actual cosmological science like an engineer reporting technobabble on a Star Trek spinoff. Generally the comedy lands well throughout the movie; it mostly evokes wry grins, but there are some belly laughs in there. Not all the humour’s that highbrow.
And yet you can’t ignore the metaphorical aspect of the story. The characters can be read as aspects of a personality, or as representing ways of knowing. If the fourteen chapters stand for the Stations of the Cross, then the story — their life — is a metaphorical crucifixion.
Still, if there are theological overtones to the film, it’s important also to note that it gives science a lot of screen time too. I’ve read a lot of science fiction fans complain that there’s never enough science in filmed SF; this movie alone goes some way to redress the balance. It’s an oddity, perhaps, in that the film uses science fiction as though from the outside, with the genre trappings merely a mechanism to explore ideas — but I suspect a number of SF fans will love the film more than many more traditional genre films.
At the same time, I’d expect many will hate it. The homage to old TV shows seems to emphasise Cosmodrama’s generally wistful send-up of the idea we’re all heroes of our own stories. That the universe is knowable. It gives nothing away, I think, to say that at the end none of the big questions are answered. When the meaning of life is on the table, can answers really be expected? The point, the drama, even the cosmic drama, lies in asking the questions, and perhaps in asking the same question in different ways. Cosmodrama gets that across.
A question-and-answer session with Fernandez followed the movie. I want to beg pardon for any inaccuracies in my notes; it was about midnight by this point, and Fernandez spoke in French. He was asked about the film’s music (one of the crew is a musician), and Fernandez talked about the exceptional collaboration with the movie’s composer, whose name, alas, I did not catch. Fernandez said he wanted to avoid having music on words and actions, and the composer turned out music quickly. He particularly praised the organ pieces composed for the actor playing a musician.
Asked about the budget, Fernandez mentioned 800,000 Euros and then 1.4 million; I didn’t catch the specific relevance of the two figures. He talked about the possibility of having the film bought for a TV presentation, or about selling it to some scientific organisations or museums; but the presence of alcohol and tobacco in the film was a problem there. Asked about his inspiration for the movie, Fernandez said it came from science, particularly a bestselling popular science book. He mentioned that pure philosophy had not provided him with the answers he wanted.
He answered a question I did not catch by speaking of the cosmic idealism of the 1960s, and the desire to explore, as opposed to the use of telescopes today. He imagined the ship as having been launched in the 1970s, and wanted to use the vocabulary of SF TV to enter the domain of metaphors. Someone else asked about a mention of orgone and the theories of Wilhelm Reich; Fernandez said that references to Reich, the Tao Te Ching, and many other sources could be found in the film, all discourses on the universe trying to find answers. Some answers, he admitted, might be weirder than others; but are still interesting. He said the science in the film was up to date as of 2010 when he finished the script. The hypotheses he presents are not exhaustive, but he felt he could claim some artistic license.
That ended the night. I had seen four movies, all well shot, most of them good, and two of them highly original works of science fiction. I had one more day left at the Fantasia Festival. It would be completely different again.
(You can find links to all my 2015 Fantasia diaries here.)
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.