“Horror is like a serpent,” Dario Argento once said, “always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back.”
At the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival (December 6 – 11, 2016), where Argento presented his cult classic Opera (1987), the creative mutations of the genre were in full force. Though only in its sixth year, the PIFFF has already carved out a place in the festival landscape as an international platform for promising new talent. In addition to celebrating fantastic cinema with retro-cult screenings, the program featured three competitions—Best Motion Picture, Best International Short and Best French Short—awarding a Golden Eye (Œil d’or) prize for each.
The winner of this year’s feature competition was Julia Ducournau’s Raw. The film follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a devoted vegetarian starting her first year of vet school, as she’s forced to undergo a hazing ritual that involves eating raw meat. To her surprise and horror, she develops an extreme appetite for it that eventually turns into cannibalism. With its blood-bathed bacchanalia and its references to Carrie and Suspiria, Raw merges the visceral and the psychic in a shockingly original way. Ducournau handles her material deftly, weaving in thought-provoking themes of body image, conformity, adulthood and female sexuality.
Another visceral festival experience was offered up with Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer. It follows a young teen, Jon Cleaver, who comes face to face with his psychopathic tendencies as he hunts down a paranormal serial killer in his neighborhood. Cleaver: The family name stalks him like an ominous joke, as does his family’s mortuary, where he spends his time obsessing over corpses and criminal psychology. O’Brien’s film is a kind of absurd variation on Silence of the Lambs, where, instead of a FBI trainee dissecting the mind of one killer to catch another, a diagnosed psychopath probes his own disturbed mind to the same end.
Creativity, rather than subtlety, was also the strength of this year’s main sci-fi attraction, Realive. The third feature of Spanish director-screenwriter Mateo Gil, Realive centers on Marc Jarvis (Tom Hughes), a young commercial artist diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to undergo cryogenic preservation as part of a scientific experiment, Project Lazarus, in the hopes of one day being resuscitated. When Marc miraculously wakes up 60 years later—the project’s first successful trial—he finds himself in a brave new world of sprawling technology, smiling doctors, glossy white architecture and eugenically perfect, pleasure-seeking human beings.
The dystopian reality soon sinks in. Marc is undergoing rapid memory loss, ironically severing his tie to the life he wanted to preserve all along. Though he technically salvages most of it through the lab’s “mind-writing” technology, it results in a de-personalization of his past, as he watches it flash up on a screen with detached photographic sharpness. As in Alex Garland’s 2015 Ex Machina, Marc discovers footage of the failed experiments that preceded him and the closets full of dormant bodies waiting to be revived. Among them, it turns out, is Naomi (Oona Chaplin), the love of his life, who also chose to be cryogenically preserved. The doctors have selected her to be their next successful project, showcased alongside Marc as a “perfect couple reunited in the future.”
The weakness of Gil’s film is that it dwells too long on a question hardly new to the sci-fi genre—if you could live forever, would you?—only to answer it with the oft-repeated wisdom that it is ultimately a mistake to seek immortality. Though on par with Ex Machina’s cinematography, Gil’s film lacks the narrative nuances of the earlier film; the climax veers into histrionics as Marc leaves a suicide note for Naomi, deciding to poison himself before she is reanimated. There is, however, some clever ambiguity inserted in the final shot, where we see, through a pair of awakening eyes, the doctors’ faces coming into focus. Is it Naomi waking up? Or is it Marc, nightmarishly revived by the doctors a second time, doomed to the cycle of “immortality” he has chosen?
Themes of time, identity and relationships also emerged front and center in this year’s Spanish short “Cambio” (“Change”), by Daniel Romero. The film revolves around a couple, Ana and Victor, who have returned to the lake where they spent their first idyllic vacation. We soon realize that the two are deeply at odds. While Victor longs for the blissful days of their blossoming romance, Ana has grown exasperated with his inability to face their weakening relationship.
After a bitter argument, they each have an uncanny encounter. Wandering through the woods, Victor approaches a figure that looks just like him, only slightly younger. As they stand face to face, his double suddenly takes out a rock and smashes him to death. When Ana returns to find “Victor,” his hands covered in blood, she gives him a horrified look, dashes into the car, and drives off. Left alone, he goes down to the beach and finds a corpse that resembles Ana. This interchange of doubles is puzzling at first, but as metaphor, the meaning is clear: Ana has buried the past, while Victor lies crushed beneath its weight. His failure to acknowledge the change that has marked their relationship has a deeply ironic consequence, as his old self finally reunites with “the old Ana” on the beach, only to realize this version of her is dead.
“Cambio” might top its class in cleverness, but the Golden Eye prize went to Tim Egan’s less elaborate, but much more petrifying, “Curve.” His 10-minute reel of pure tension grips the audience with its parsed-down premise: a girl at the edge of a chasm, trying to climb out as strange noises rise from its depths. The camera repeatedly pans to show us bloody handprints along the rock above and below her. Are they hers? Or are they the handprints of others who have fallen in? Egan’s film gives no answers; it simply has us gape and speculate in absolute terror.
In an interview at the festival with horror short film director Frederic Lefebvre, Egan opened up about the inspirations for his minimalist thriller. Several years ago, he was struck by a car, and he remembers the feeling of pavement under his fingers, as he waited to be crushed by oncoming traffic. “Curve,” he said, fuses this personal experience with the extreme depression undergone by a female friend of his. “She talked about the good moments of her day being just after she woke up,” he recalled. “Her mind was at peace for a few seconds before she remembered she was in pain. She said the earth opened up beneath her and the rest of her day was about holding on by sheer force of tension.”
“Curve” stages this inner reality with staggering intensity. Egan attributes this both to the performance given by Laura Jane Turner and to the impact of the special effects cinematography. What looks like a very real chasm in the film is actually a set design by Robbie McKenzie. He built half of it, while the other half was digitally reproduced to cut costs. Egan’s one major guiding principle was that the curve needed to be constructed to make escape appear possible, but highly unlikely.
The winner of this year’s French shorts competition, “Margaux,” also focuses on a female protagonist grappling with her demons. In this American Beauty-like film directed by Joséphine Hopkins, Rémy Barbe and Joseph Bouquin, a high-school girl living in (seemingly) untouched suburbia begins to fear the “monster” of her emergent sexuality. A talented artist, she is encouraged by her teacher to “explore her unconscious” through her drawings. Her elaborate sketches of octopi, however, begin to take on a hallucinatory power of their own—ink spilling through the cracks of the door, a tentacle inching its way across her bed sheets—appearing each time she dares to explore her sexual urges. The final moments are terrifying: Margaux in bed, as the octopus devours her, while her mother frantically tries to break down her locked door.
Another knockout among the French shorts, as well as the festival’s Jury Prize-winner, was Julien Homsy’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Popsy.” In this tale of gambling addiction, Mr. Weber (Patrick Haudecoeur) abducts children for a human trafficker (Vincent Grass) in order to pay off his debts. When he finally lures a young girl into his car, she tells him that her “Popsy” is going to save her. Just before Weber arrives at his destination, his vehicle is upended in a violent whirl.
When they emerge from the flaming wreck, a winged creature unveils its face, but it is not what we expect. In a cool femme-fatale twist on King’s story, Popsy turns out to be the girl’s mother (rather than grandfather), a sort of female vampire who proceeds to slit Weber’s throat and feed his blood to her daughter. Another ironic spin comes with the final scene, where we see Popsy, now in her human guise, sitting next to the trafficker inside the casino. When he brags about the “good luck” he’s going to have tonight, she gives him a smile… of impending revenge.
The hidden devices of the double life were also the focus of Ludovic de Gaillande’s “Vargøder.” Executing a kind of experimental fusion of Blow Up and Fight Club, this French short follows an unstable photographer (Nico Rogner) who returns to Paris to document a series of gruesome murders. Each time he looks through the lens, a black hooded figure appears in the frame, disappears when he lowers the camera, then reappears in the shots of the crime scenes as he develops them in the dark room. Antoine Szlafmyc’s cinematography, which splices together a series of spectral, gritty and shadow-filled shots with increasing rapidity, brilliantly mirrors the photographer’s unhinged state of mind.
The word vardøger in Scandinavian folklore means “spirit predecessor,” a double that “precedes” a person by predicting his actions and the places he will pass through. At the end, we realize that the hooded figure is the photographer’s vardøger, tracking the very people he will later kill. While the revelation that he is both investigator and killer amounts to a trite twist, the concept of being stalked by one’s destiny is interesting. The film also subverts the typical notion of forensic evidence as viewed by the clear-headed investigator: the site of the physical, the objective and the concrete. Here, filtered through the eyes of a paranoid schizophrenic, it becomes the site of the psychic, the subjective, the liminal and the phantasmal. Unsurprisingly, Gaillande’s other inspiration for “Vardøger” was Guy de Maupassant’s Le Horla, in which a man succumbs to feelings of anguish so powerful that he begins to feel them as an outside presence, which he calls the “Horla” (meaning “out there”).
In his novel, Maupassant describes the very mentality that propels the horror and fantastic genres: “Instead of concluding with these simple words, ‘I do not understand because the cause eludes me,’ we immediately imagine terrifying mysteries and supernatural powers.” Without this need to explain the murky regions of the unconscious or the strange events that interrupt our lives, a whole wealth of cinematic visions would be lost. In this year’s festival documentary David Lynch: The Art of Life, the director recounts a bizarre, unexplained incident from his childhood that permanently marked him: a naked woman wandering through the street in front of his house, bleeding from her mouth as she sat down to cry. Around this mysterious episode, Lynch would eventually weave the famous scene of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, as well as the troubled women of Inland Empire and Mulholland Dr.
With this year’s Golden Eye shorts, “Curve” and “Margaux,” festivalgoers witnessed other emerging talent in capturing the complexity of the female psyche. If the sixth edition of PIFFF testified to anything, it was the richness of metaphor that continues to dominate fantastic cinema: the gaping crevasse of “Curve,” the slinking octopus of “Margaux,” the resuscitated man of Realive, the rock-wielding double of “Cambio,” the caped figure of “Vardøger.” These, Stephen King once said, are the horrors we invent “to help us cope with the real ones.” MM
The Paris International Fantastic Film Festival ran December 6-11, 2016 in Paris, France.