Archive for September, 2012 | Monthly archive page

Livide (2011)

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I’d like to tell you all about one of my new favorite movies, Livide (2011). I’d like to go into detail about its sense of style… its amazing fantastique imagery… its references to horror icons, including one jaw-dropping throwaway scene that pays tribute to a very famous director through one of his least-appreciated movies. I’d like to analyze the ways writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside / À l’intérieur) subvert the conventions of the films they so clearly love, or wax rhapsodic over the way they combine reality and fantasy so that it’s difficult to decide which of the two is more believable.

I’d like to. But I can’t. At least, not as much as I want to.

For the truth is, Livide‘s plot is so slight that if I give away any more than the most basic details, I’ll have spoiled the wonder of it. If I tell you exactly what conventions are being overturned, what film references are being made, even what kind of monsters lurk in the shadows, I’ll have ruined the experience for any first-time viewer.

Normally, I don’t particularly care about including spoilers in a review, since most of the movies I write about are so old their secrets are well-known… that, or else they don’t rely so much on the first-time surprises to make them watchable. But this one… this one’s different. This one’s special. It will certainly bear repeated viewings after the twists and shocks have been revealed; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you decide you want to watch it again and again — starting from the very moment you’ve finished watching it for the first time. But the thrill of the discovery… the gradual unfolding of those secrets and shocks… that represents an experience I wouldn’t keep from anyone.

I suppose I can tell you a little bit, hopefully enough to whet your appetite. After all, the basic setup of the plot is so familiar and shop-worn that you may be tempted to pass the movie by, if you’re just going by bare outlines:

Chloé Coulloud plays Lucie, a 20-year-old student nurse on her first day of field training. Lucie lives in a small town on the northern coast of France. The only thing remarkable about Lucie is that her left and right eyes are different colors. The only thing remarkable about her town is the number of young children who’ve been disappearing from it.

(What’s happening to the children is revealed to us very early in the movie, so you needn’t pay much attention to that. The knowledge increases our sense of unease, but has much less to do with the unfolding story than you might think.)

Lucie accompanies an older woman, Catherine, on her rounds, visiting various invalids and shut-ins to give them their injections, clean their bedding and make sure they’re all right. It’s pretty uneventful and routine, and Lucie proves herself to be very good for a novice.

But then… the two women arrive at the house of Mrs. Jessel. Yes, Mrs. Jessel; no apparent relation… her screw is probably still loose. Anyway: Mrs. Jessel is in a permanent coma. Having no surviving relatives (since her daughter died tragically young), the old woman is left alone, silent, unaware of her surroundings, in her antique bed on the top floor of her ancient house.

The house is terrifying. If ever a house looked haunted, it’s this one… except you can’t help but think any sensible ghosts have long since fled, gibbering in terror. But poor old Mrs. Jessel seems like the perfect inhabitant for such a house: grey and still, rendered faceless by a respirator; smothered by the richness of the furniture and drapery; her fingernails grown to horny claws, and a bag of vivid red blood hanging by her bedside.

LIVIDE: The house.

Catherine confides to Lucie that Mrs. Jessel is rumored to have some sort of treasure hidden in the house. She’s even looked for it, in the brief times she’s been alone in the house; but she’s never found a trace of it. Later on, when Lucie half-jokingly tells her fisherman boyfriend William about what Catherine said, she’s horrified when he becomes determined to go look for it.

Eventually, thanks to some developments I’m not going to reveal, Lucie, her boyfriend, and their friend Ben end up going out to Mrs. Jessel’s house, intending to break in and look for the treasure. That’s right: young people trapped in the haunted house. Oh — and it’s Hallowe’en night. Naturally. Where have you heard that sort of setup before, right? What’s to differentiate this from, say, Spookies, or The Unnameable?

Forget your expectations. Even though I’ve explained the setup of the plot, I’ve told you next to nothing about what happens thereafter, and what they find.

Let me give you one tiny taste of the attitude this film has: when the three young people set out for Mrs. Jessel’s house, it’s emphasized that Ben’s car — which they’re forced to use, because Ben’s the only one who has a car, let alone a driver’s license — is in terrible shape, and never starts up the first time. Aha, we think. They’re setting up the old monsters-are-after-us-car-won’t-start gag. It’s a reasonable assumption. But after this expectation has been firmly planted in our postmodern 21st-century heads, the car doesn’t even reappear in the second half of the movie.

But perhaps I’ve already said too much.

Let me put it this way: the better you know horror movies, the more subtleties you will find to enjoy in Livide. But if you are familiar with 19th century French ballets, that will help, too. If you’re not so big on the horror, you may still find so many astonishing, beautiful, even poignant images in the movie that you’ll still find it rewarding. Maybe even more so: I thought the horrors lurking in Mrs. Jessel’s mansion were much scarier when they were lurking in the shadows, waiting, than when they were doing their terrible deeds. But that’s fitting, somehow: for all their skill in realizing the obligatory shock scenes, Bustillo and Maury seem less interested in them than they are in, well, everything else.

For Livide isn’t just another horror film: it’s an amazing piece of cinematic storytelling. When Bustillo and Maury want to explain something, they do so visually, and with perfect economy… for instance, we learn everything we need to know about Lucie’s family with barely a word being spoken. When Bustillo and Maury want to leave something unexplained, the strength of their images is enough to make an impression in the viewer’s imagination… the images will stick there, resonating quietly and making their own self-sufficient meanings.

Welcome to the Monkey House

Monday, September 17th, 2012

On September 21, 2012, the Hungarian Cultural Centre of London and the Royal College of Art are teaming to present a symposium called ZOO-TOPIA. It’s a day-long investigation of the cultural and architectural significance of zoo design, held as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

I bring this up in part because I play a tiny, tiny part in the project. My translation of a minor poem by a major Hungarian poet — Weöres Sándor’s “Monkeyland” — is being included in the book of essays and artworks that will accompany the symposium.

But I also bring it up because I think the subject is fascinating. Though I’d never before given it any serious thought, now that the topic’s been raised I can’t stop turning it over in my head.

Here’s the brief description of the focus of the symposium, from the Cultural Centre’s website:

The ZOO-TOPIA symposium explores the display of architecture within zoological gardens, and zoos will be also considered in relation to the city, as psycho-geographical spaces of fantasy, and as sites of national representation.

I may be showing my age, but I have to admit: when I think of zoos, the first image that comes into my mind is the classic model from the Bad Old Days: great cats on one side, monkeys and apes on the other; somewhere in between, the bears or the reptile room… animals segregated by type, placed in separate cages or bare concrete enclosures, all for the supposed entertainment and enlightenment of the human visitors. Certainly that’s an image of a zoo that still appears in the movies and pop culture.

In fact, ethical zoo design is evolving beyond this model. Over the course of the twentieth century, the idea of the zoo underwent a major transformation. We began to realize that we couldn’t just treat living creatures like static displays in a museum… Doing so not only told us very little about the animals or their behaviour, but also had a terrible effect on their physical and psychological well-being.

In most major Western zoos, attempts have been made to accomodate the animals in a reasonable approximation of their own habitats. This has meant that designers and architects have needed to de-emphasize the elements in their plans that appealed solely to the aesthetic sense of the visitors, and become really clever at modeling nature while remaining practical in their design. That is, zoos have had to balance between being an expression of local and national identity… and being a model of the real, natural world — from which both nation and city have struggled for centuries to assert their independence.

In fact, the very idea of the zoo forces us to confront what it means to be human.

When we talk about “being human”, we mean several contradictory things. For example… on the one hand, there’s our existence as cultural beings, with our ability to speak, to write, to speculate about the future, to use the conditional tense; with our ability to consider our species’ place in the world (and even beyond it, in the universe as a whole); with our ability to create and appreciate things like art, design and architecture, or come up with such ideas as “national identity”.

On the other hand, there’s the sense of being human as being only human: being strictly biological creatures, frail in some respects and amazingly strong in others; fitting an evolutionary niche that has allowed us to survive and prosper — so far — yet still sharing kinship and a remarkable amount of genetic information with the chimp, the rabbit, the mouse… and other creatures we once thought so distant and separate from us.

If the classic zoo was an attempt to recontextualize the natural world — to bring it into the cultural framework of the city; to attempt to control it by recasting it into the terms of human culture — then looking back at the history of architecture and design in zoos should be eye-opening. It’s a way to examine the changes in our understanding of mankind’s position in nature. When we, in effect, create a zoo for zoos, we place ourselves in a unique vantage point: we observe ourselves observing.

We can see how the discovery of evolution and genetics has influenced our thinking on the relative standing of the zoo animal and the human visitor, and the way both are accomodated through design. We can investigate how the contributions of individual artists and architects, or the goals of aesthetic movements, have helped or hindered the practical purposes of zoos, and the care and treatment of the creatures in them. We can ask how the zoo as an architectual “site of national representation” impacts, e.g., the mountain gorilla in London, or the polar bear in Miami. We can see where we have succeeded in combining our need for “psycho-geographical spaces of fantasy” with the modern zoo’s commitment to science, conservation, and humane care… and where we have failed, since there are plenty of documented cases of dismal failure.

Of course, I have no idea if this kind of speculation has anything at all to do with the actual line-up of the symposium. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend to find out — there’s this pesky ocean in the way. But this whole line of thought fits so perfectly with my long-standing interest in animal welfare that I can’t help but think it will result in some new creative work down the road…