O Fantasma - The Dehumanizer

177402_full.jpg

Joao Rodrigues’ 2000 feature debut O Fantasma, a dreamy tale about a Lisbon garbage man’s sexual exploits, is the kind of film that nestles itself into the subconscious. The kind of film I love.

The film appropriately opens on a dog whining at a locked door - a foreshadowing of the main character’s journey - then reveals that on the other side of the door his owner is getting aggressively topped, possibly raped, by a man in a black latex bodysuit. The man in the suit is Sergio, a trash collector leading a lonely nocturnal existence in Lisbon. Much of the film portrays Sergio’s regular routine, spiked with increasingly desperate sexual encounters. A feeling of loneliness hangs over the narrative as Sergio meanders through the streets on his collection route as his behavior becomes increasingly risky and desperate.

The only affection sergio shows another creature is toward Lorde, the trash depot’s dog. Otherwise, he is brushing off the advances from co-worker Fatima and having banal conversation with his route partner. Everything in this film is sexualized, giving his affection for Lorde a kinky subtext. Early in the film, Sergio reacts to Fatima’s flirting with growls and sniffs - the first sign of his declining humanity. There are several explicit sexual encounters with other men, beginning with Sergio discovering a kidnapped police officer in the back of a car. Rather than attempt to free him, Sergio gropes for the officer’s penis, brings him to climax and leaves. The officer’s lack of resistance in the act sets up the transactional nature of sex in this story, as well as the impending plays on power dynamics.

Sergio’s job as a trash collector sees him mapping the loneliest parts of the city, interacting with peoples’ tossed off property. There’s a touch of psychogeography here - a map of Lisbon through the eyes of a depraved trashman.

MV5BMzIxN2ZiYzAtNzllMS00YjE3LWEwNzMtZWUwYWRlZThjMGFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjgyOTI4Mg@@._V1_.jpg

Sergio’s animal longing begins to escalate after he meets João, a stud with a motorcycle, on his route. In addition to cruising public pools and restrooms he begins to stalk João, lurking around his yard, humping his motorcycle. Encounters with police officers show sexual power plays with erotic use of handcuffs and batons.

After João explicitly rejects him, Sergio’s already animalistic nature seemingly takes over. Soon after, Sergio dons his latex suit from the beginning of the film, which he wears for the rest of the run time of the film. From here, Sergio’s behavior is pure animal, inhuman. After a failed attempt at taking advantage of João, he’s gallops around the trash dump, killing a rabbit and consuming waste.

He’s no longer human at all. Is this caused by his social alienation? Night shifts on the trash route placing him in a dark, nighttime space. Is Sergio a man degraded or was he all along a repressed animal? His final descent from humanity feels less like a transformation and more like an acceptance. This resonates with a gay audience, grappling with the darker instincts - especially when one comes from an isolated social or emotional state. As a dark, humorous comment on queer isolation, O Fantasma displays the murkier corners of psychosexuality like few films I’ve seen.

Tropical Malady

TropicalMalady2_756_426_81_s.jpg

I finally sat down to watch Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady. I've been meaning to see it for some time, looking for one of the elusive "actually good gay movies," and I’ve added this one to my personal canon. Weerasethakul’s movies have the effect of pulling you out of your body and making you feel completely out of place for a period after the viewing; when I saw Cemetery of Splendour in its theatrical release, my friend and I walked home in near silence as we regained footing in the material world.

One of the few directors who can actually sell magic realism, Weerasethakul also presents one of the most organic and believable romantic build ups in recent memory. It's sweet and charming but there's still the sense that the two men, Keng, a soldier who just arrived in town and Tong, a villager are concealing something. There are so many honest moments, how they meet in the crowded city street with Tong riding in a truck, the way Keng erotically smells Tong's hand after he urinates, their bashful entanglement of limbs in a movie theater. The film projects a sense of true affection littered discreetly with signals that the two men aren't completely allowing one to know the other fully.

rhgrATY.jpg

The film's second half places Keng alone in the forest, hunting a dangerous tiger who has been mutilating cattle throughout the story. Barely a word is spoken outside of Keng unsuccessfully  trying to communicate through a walkie talkie and the brief appearance of a subtitled monkey. The tiger is Tong, sometimes in human form, sometimes as an actual tiger. There are references here to a Thai folk tale that the two seem to be reenacting. The fact that Tong is hunting his lover, who the monkey tells him is also stalking him, casts a dark shadow over the sweetness of the film's first half. The monkey informs Tong that he must either kill the tiger to set its soul free, or allow the tiger to kill him, where Tong will join the tiger in the darkness forever. Keng and Tong's relationship is subverted through this metaphorical hunt, demonstrating what was perhaps the secret nature of their courtship all along.

Darkness and all, the film somehow feels hopeful, even if just for the uplifting first half and jaw dropping beauty throughout. As in many of Weerasethakul's films, he spiritual world invades gently, mingling with the mundane. A woman might be talking about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and in the same breath talking about a genuine ghost. In the more recent Cemetery of Splendour, a woman mingles with Goddesses and later takes a tour through her companion's dream world while we watch from the outside.

cri_000000323094.jpg

A key to the beauty of Weerasethakul's films is the way the viewers distanced from the action. So many shots are full body, showing a person in their larger surrounding, and a close up is rare. Silence is allowed to exist; so many moments of this film are filled with sound of wind blowing and leaves rustling. This gives the environment and its mystic nature narrative weight while giving every moment ample breathing room. It's in this sense that Tropical Malady itself seems to breathe, take on a life of its own and linger in the audience’s heart.

Fat Girl -or- Getting what you ask for

Catherine Breillat's 2003 film A Ma Soeur!, released in the States as Fat Girl, is a rough watch, the kind you can' turn away from. Alternately (sometimes simultaneously) disturbing, horrifying, romantic and hilarious, the film succeeds based on a superb script that doesn't hold back and forces the viewers to participate.

Twelve year old Anaïs is an overweight, somewhat annoying but oddly relatable girl. She's dressed in garish green swimwear through most of the film to underscore her awkward physique and postures. Anaïs's sister, fifteen year old Elena, stands in contrast - a budding beauty, ready to explore her sexuality. The pair of sisters open the film discussing their personal views on sex and love. Anaïs claiming her first sexual encounter should be with someone she doesn't care about, just something to get it out of the way, Elena dreaming of the moment being a perfect manifestation of young love. Interestingly, Elena comes across outwardly as far less romantic in nature, while Anaïs dreams up a love triangle between herself and the ladders in the pool while swimming alone.

548id_036_w1600.jpg

The film's simple setting  - a remote resort town in coastal France - removes the family from their normal trappings. It creates an atmosphere of isolation - we're stuck here with this dysfunctional family on their vacation as observers. This idea is reflected in the micro via the sisters' shared bedroom. Elena won't let anything stop her quest to lose her virginity to an Italian tourist she's just met, conflating her adolescent longing for the true love that she needs to surrender herself to, as per the rules she's set for herself. Not even her sister in a bed just feet away deter her from twice inviting her lover over to seal her destiny.

The viewers are forced into the extreme discomfort of Anaïs as the scene drags on. Breillat doesn't spare us a single uncomfortable moment or bit of dialogue as Elena navigates and negotiates her first time. After getting cold feet, her partner assures her that going in the back door will assure that she'll retain her virginity. Here, in one of the few moments we're spared of directly experiencing a graphic incident, the camera focuses on Anaïs, pretending to sleep, just barely covering her eyes through a few fingers. We hear Elena and it's obvious that this isn't a pleasant experience for her.

This scene feels like the centerpiece for the film, which is really just a handful of incredibly long scenes. A less artful film maker would have made this absolutely punishing to sit through. Between the scenes of excruciating discomfort are some very realistic, moving scenes of the sisters' love hate relationship. They snap at each other, Elena makes Anaïs cry when forcing her to cover up her exploits, they giggle in the mirror about how different they are, they lay in bed laughing at shared experiences. This completely convincing sisterhood makes the pair's actions believable, and makes you root for both of them at the same time.

Fat Girl's controversial and shocking final scene is something that won't leave one's mind for a long time after viewing. Elena is exposed by her lover's other and the vacation is cut short. The drive home build suspense masterfully using the emotions of the passengers - the mother's anger, Elena's dejection and Anaïs's pain over being unished for her sisters wrongdongs - to create a tension that you can feel through he screen. This is coupled with long shots outside the car showing the poor driving skills of their mother, cutting off trucks with no regard, the sisters talking about  their mother's mortality as cars pass frighteningly close while they're pulled over. Such an atmosphere of dread is created that we know something is going to happen, and when it turns out to be an axe murderer at a rest sop the shock is so great that we almost piss ourselves at the same time as Anaïs.

The attack ends with Anaïs as the only survivor, raped in the woods by the attacker. The script set us up for this  - the story is all about young sexuality, expectations and disappointment. Moreso, it's about the horror of getting what you want. Both Elena and Anaïs lose their virginity in the ways they wanted, but absolutely not the ways they'd expected to.

Hour of the Wolf

Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, shot exquisitely by Sven Nykvist, is a fascinating entry in the auteur's catalogue. Considered by many a minor work for Bergman, it's an odd, intriguing piece that surprises and resonates in ways that few films can. It's often treated as his only explicit "horror" film, yet thematically it falls in line with many of his other films, which create their own horrors through exploration of the human psyche.

The film opens by informing the viewers through on screen text that Johan, an artist, has gone missing. The film about to be screened is based on his diaries and the accounts of his wife, Alma. The couple are portrayed by Bergman standards Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman.  As is typical of his 60s films, we're treated to some meta context as the director's voice is heard over the title and introduction setting up a shot. This element combined with the set up of unreliable narrators (the diary and the wife) creates the expectation that the account of events we're about to witness will blur reality and fiction, and that nothing can be counted on as "real."

9f658376eb65e5568c658645e29aa052.jpg

The story is set up as Johan and Alma arrive on an isolated island on a small boat. They carry their possessions, consisting mostly of Joahn's canvases, up a steep hill in a wheelbarrow. Here, Alma tends the home while Johan works on his paintings. They are initially happy - when he promises to draw her every day, she shyly but playfully exposes her neck in precisely the right way.

Their happiness begins to dissolve as Johan becomes increasingly more distant and frustrated. I would be shocked if Darren Aronofsky weren't referencing this film when he was producing Mother!, but then again the tale of a self-centered, tortured male artist neglecting his poor lover is hardly a new tale. We discover through a nightmarish sketchbook that Johan is seeing monsters; a woman who can remove her face when she takes off her hat, a winged bird man, and assorted other creeps.

A key piece of dialogue comes when Alma tells Johan about how she wants them to grow old together until they look alike, but then wonders if a couple can begin to share psychological aspects as well. Not long after this, she is visited by a strange old woman in a large hat. She and the audience are just waiting for her to remove her face as the woman advises her to look under the bed for Johan's diary, which discovers and reads. Here, the distrust settles in, her loneliness transforms to fear.

hour of the wolf 0.png

Soon, unusual characters are coming out of the woodwork to interrogate Johan while he paints. An intrusive professor who gets a slap in the face, the wealthy owners of the island and, somehow, the woman with whom Johan had years earlier had a scandalous affair. These encounters lead to an invitation to a horrific dinner party, including over eager widows and a freakish puppet show. The tension and events escalate, as the motley crew of wealthy eccentrics seem to be trying to divide Johan and Alma - they are obsessed with his former lover and even own Johan's painting of her for the house. The couple are forced to look at the painting as its owner gushes about obsession and love (also inappropriately revealing a sex related injury to the pair, to drive home the discomfort of the situation.)

Everyone we meet here is a personification of one of Johan's demons. They're lustful, indulgent, they needle Johan for the pretension of considering himself an artist, and they all seem obsessed with his sexual appetites. Notably, one of the men is pointed out as a homosexual, implying a more complicated sexual psyche for Johan.

After their horrific dinner, Johan and Alma stay up all night in terror, while Johan begins confessing even more secrets. Shown in an overexposed silent flashback, without and indication of when it happened or IF it actually did, we see Johan painting near a cliff as a barely dressed pre-pubescent boy crawls over the rocks to provoke him.

The boy is intrusive and annoying, and is clearly trying Johan's patience, but it seems to be the last straw when the boy lays down and strikes a provocative pose in the sun. Johan is infuriated and attacks the boy, screaming something that the audience never hears. Ultimately, he kills the boy and disposes of the body in the sea over the cliff.

28876id_022_w1600-e1532703501985.jpg

The point is reached where we see Johan's lust, in various forms, a sexual deviancy, a tendency towards violence and a deep insecurity as an artist. The lead up to this tense moment has Johan in a mentally fragile state - underslept and ravaged by his own demons. Alma, desiring so much to be a part of her husband's world, has subjected herself to these very entities, leaving herself frayed and vulnerable.

A late night visit from the professor leaves the pair with a gun, a heightened sense of fear, and the information that Johan's former lover is waiting for him back at the castle. Johan, being swayed by the professor's guidance to eliminate any small threats, shoots Alma and runs back to the castle.

Here, the monsters reveal themselves, the woman removes her face, a man shows his hideous wings and walks across the ceiling while bemoaning that it's all because of his jealousy. Johan is treated to a makeover to prepare him for his meeting, where he is transformed into a ghoulishly feminized version of himself, gaudy eye shadow and lipstick smeared over his mouth. He is told to wear a robe before entering, further emasculating him. He discovers his lover as the residents of the castle laugh.

Far more explicitly surreal and horrific than most of Bergman's films, Hour of the Wolf  is a thrilling ride through the darkness of a man's psyche. His mind over processing his guilt and repression, warping reality into a landscape of monsters and demons must have been a huge influence on David Lynch - what fictions does a person create to make sense of the horrors of trauma and failure? No one explores this space as elegantly and horrifically as Bergman.

Doing it Through a Hole in a Sheet

A slow, understated and painfully affecting story about loss and time; A Ghost Story is a film I slept on in 2017 and absolutely regret not catching it in its theatrical release.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara portray a young married couple, credited only as C and M -  a very real one (except for Affleck's body - was he training for an action movie? Why the abs?) with relationship ups and downs and a convincing connection. They play it low key and their pairing pays off in the smaller notes and quiet moments, which are the main fabric of the story.

The movie is framed, literally, through a square viewing screen, given the feeling that you're watching the events through a crack in the wall, or through eyeholes cut into a sheet. It's intimate while distant, like being an unseen ghost in the room. The plot is simple; a young couple's life together is ended prematurely by the husband's death. The husband remains in the earthly realm, unable to leave his wife or the home they built together. He takes on the appearance of a man with a sheet over his body and occasionally, in moments of emotional intensity, causes disruptions in the physical world.

A-Ghost-Story_Bret-Curry-A24-copy-900x580.jpg

Time slips and loops in a manner that feels familiar, making me as a viewer understand how this lonely entity perceives time. Much of the first half of the movie is spent with C simply watching M as she lives on without him. There are flashbacks to their relationship, arguments and distances growing as well as their deep love for each other. He stays in the house - forever trying to retrieve a note that she left in a crack in the wall - an old childhood habit of hers - which is his last connection to this world as people come in and out of the house and it is eventually demolished.

When the house goes down, C is emotionally and spiritually unanchored, slipping into the past and future - what does any of that mean to a ghost whose only reason for existing is a longing for the life he once had? This is my first viewing of a movie by David Lowery and I'll surely investigate his other work. He seems to be working on a project about Jack Parsons, a pet obsession of mine, so I’m feeling an affinity. Like all relationships, A Ghost Story can test the viewer's patience as well as reward it.