christopher funderburg

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of The Godfather need to be extolled? If you love horror movies, do you ever need to read anything else about (the truly excellent, totally brilliant) Halloween or The Evil Dead? How many "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see The Shining and Casablanca?"

There's a whole universe of movies out there, but you wouldn't know it by perusing critical websites. Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like Stranger than Paradise, Breathless and On the Waterfront, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.

françois ozon, 1997.

If you like:
Familial interloper horror flicks, idyllic rural French beaches, Marina der Van, an aesthetic of naturalism/minimalism.

Recommending prolific self-styled provocateur Francois Ozon's best film almost seems too easy, but this is a deeply over-looked film. It clocks in at 52 minutes - the generally critical tendency to undervalue short films has undoubtedly contributed to this disturbing French thriller's meager reputation. The plot follows a young mother (Sasha Hails) taking care of her infant daughter at a beautiful beach-house in the French countryside. The listless woman spends her days wandering from the beach to the house, changing diapers and cooing at a baby too young to do much beyond register her presence. She stumbles across a drifter played by Marina der Van (In My Skin, Sitcom) camping out on her property and rather than kick the squatter out, Hails stumbles into an uneasy friendship with the sanguine young woman. Her loneliness causes her to overlook (or at least forgive) the fact that der Van's sullen character gives off some pretty weird signals from the get-go. Their interaction grows more and more tense, der Van's actions more and more unpleasant before reaching a point of no return - any thriller can be described in such formulaic terms, the interest (obviously) is in how the filmmakers and actors handle it.

Ozon never lets up from a languid, quiet approach even as truly horrific images begin to spill forth off of the screen. He's primarily interested in the plot as a psychological study contrasting two woman: one seemingly at home with her role in the world and one never able to wholly settle in to her reality. That their personalities inevitably bleed over the border between these two roles is precisely the point. It would be simple enough to divulge the entirety of the terse plot, but like any thriller See the Sea  is ultimately built upon a series of shocks and writing about them in-depth would defeat the purpose of convincing you to see it.

Ozon, as a director, has cultivated a filmography that's both prolific and eclectic: he's made campy drawing room comedies, vicious satires, sensuous psychological thrillers, emotional dramas, fantasy-tinged allegories, even an adaptation of a Fassbinder play done in the style of the Antitheater. For my money, he's decisively best when taking a less stylized and campy tact: 5x2, Time to Leave and Le Refuge are compelling, aesthetically realistic dramas - and his absolutely best films are the thrillers like Swimming Pool, Under the Sand and See the Sea that combine his talent for long takes and naturalistic performances with gripping plots. Swimming Pool and Under the Sand are obviously not devoid of fantasy elements, but the fantasies are strictly psychologically grounded - a big difference from the French "Broadway" Comedy winking of Potiche or the "baby with angel wings makes everybody happy" story of Ricky. See the Sea, despite roots firmly entrenched in the thriller genre, manages to be one of his most realistic and unadorned works - that's a good thing considering how outrageously he fails at camp in the idiotic, unlovable Sitcom, 8 Women and Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

A stylized (or even campy) tone might seem a more reasonable approach to this sordid, intense story, but the performances of der Van and Hails ground the film and ultimately give it a gravity and depravity beyond what even the most aggressively unpleasant horror films can approach. Plus, if you want to watch Ozon fail miserably at campy violence, you can just watch Criminal Lovers. If I'm being too hard on Ozon's overall body of work, it only just emphasizes how brilliant of a film See the Sea truly is - anyone who has delved even slightly in Ozon's oeuvre has undoubtedly been disappointed at times, but his spotty track record is no reason to have second thoughts about seeking out this one. It's the one time that Ozon earns favorable comparison to the greats he's so clearly desperate to ape throughout his career: Douglas Sirk's use of color, Hitchcock's deftness with plot machination, Fassbinder's curdled views on sexual identity politics; See the Sea reaches the level of true greatness.

r.w. fassbinder, 1976

If you like:
Fin-de-siècle Teutonic poetry, Kurt Raab: leading man, a well-researched depiction of the 70's gay bathroom pick-up scene in Berlin, fleazen-flicken.

Kurt Raab, normally reserved for sideline roles as creepy pervs and obsequeous losers, stars as Walter Kranz, a superstar poet with an intractable case of writer's block. The artistic constipation wouldn't bother him if it didn't force his publishing company to cut off his stream of advance money until he produces some new material. Pathologically averse to work, Kranz does everything he can to avoid getting down to business: he displays an admirable enthusiasm for leeching, mooching, borrowing - and, eventually, criminality. He justifies his "at any cost" system of ethics by citing his need to support his wife and her mentally handicapped brother, but truthfully, as much of it ends up spent on wine and mistresses. Finally, he reaches wits' end - and a burst of inspiration spurs him to fill notebook after notebook with what he considers to be the finest work of his career! Too bad it's all plargiarized from aristocratic 19th century poet Stefen George. Lesser men would throw in the towel but not Kranz; what's going on is obvious: he's not a common plagiarist, he's clearly the reincarnation of George. Kranz throws himself into the role of "George," not only holding elaborate intellectual salons modeled after the George-Kreis circle's gatherings, but attempting to adopt George's homosexuality.

Raab was rarely afforded a leading role and his brilliant, repulsive work as Kranz both confirms and shatters the notion that he was a character actor in his very essence. The film is a perversion of a domestic drama (well, a perversion of a domestic drama as well as a perversion of the theme of perversion) with the core of the story revolving around the relationship of Kranz and his portly, put-upon wife. Beyond that, however, it's the story of an egomaniac who forces the world interact with him as though he's got the leading role in the story of humanity (with an appropriate sidebar on Art as the inevitable culmination of self-absorption and laziness.) The murder subplot and emotional bullying are just a bonus.

The film feels like the most unobstructed view of the inner-workings of Fassbinder's brain, which admittedly not everyone will enjoy. Upon its 1976 release, my former pseudo-boss Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times "If you doubt there's such thing as being too prolific by all means go see [Satansbraten]... the film... showcases most of the director's worst qualities without leaving room for his best" and that seems to be the prevailing sentiment about the movie: he made so many films (8 features in 1975-1977 alone) that a few were bound to be real stinkers. There's no denying it's one of his most aggressively weird films and Raab's wonderfully malignant performance as a grade-A asshole certainly doesn't help anything - but if you care about art and don't romanticize artists, if you want to create but fear that impulse to create is little more than self-involvement run amok, if you regret the pain you cause your loved ones in pursuit of your own happiness, then this is a film for you.

Additionally, it's one of Fassbinder's most playfully insane dissections of his two favorite themes: the inscrutable instability of human sexuality and the history of fascism in Germany. (In typically loaded Fassbinder move, the choice of George is pointed: the aristocratic, snobbish poet's penultimate, 1916 work The War famously predicted Germany's bleak, fascistic future.) Maybe more importantly, any critic of the film must admit that it works flawlessly on its own terms; Satansbraten is exactly the artwork Fassbinder intends it to be. I guess it's fair to reject it altogether, but any implication that it's a muddled or ineffective work are objectively, inarguably wrong. Unpleasant, yes: but that descriptor only exists alongside "incisive," "searing" and "unforgettable."  I'd say it's my favorite Fassbinder film, but every Fassbinder film made between Nora Helmer and Veronika Voss is my favorite. It would hyperbolic to write that no one in their right mind would recommend you see this movie, but it would be entirely correct to suggest that an audience's affection for Satansbraten will be in direct relationship to how much they want to embrace Fassbinder's singular madness versus how much they want to keep it at arm's length.

Incidentally, the film was released in the U.S. under the title Satan's Brew, but that's not a literal translation - a more accurate version would be something like "Roast Satan" or "Satan's Cooked Meat." Either one would be more much awesome than the tepid translation normally used.

~ APRIL 6, 2012 ~