A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

April 28, 2009

Nagisa Oshima’s “Realm of the Senses”: An Engrossing, But Also a Grossing-Out Film

This is a piece of cinema that I long suspected it was censored in the US. “I Am Curious” comes to mind, but also the fact that it’s next to impossible to find a copy of another “art-house porn”, Lars von Trier’s “Idioterne”. Well, lately the less-important Caligula was released on DVD, as well as Pierpaolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, re-released by the Criterion Collection. Still, I managed to get a copy of “Realm of the Senses” from Amazon UK. Well, little did I know at that time that the Criterion Collection was planning to launch its own US version.

If the question is “was it worth it?”, the answer might depend. It was worth for me to see it. On the other hand, although the price is not terribly high, I can see why this film can constitute a big no-no to a lot of people. Even judging by the above list of “questionable” films, one can foresee what its problem is. Yes, it has sex galore. And, most importantly, not that kind you see in porn productions. Hence we can gradually reach the conclusion that it’s actually a film on its own, the fact that a lot of sex happens in it does not make it at all a member of the porn genre.

What do I mean by this? Merely the fact that the main point of the film is not to titillate the viewer, although, with such a subject, such side effect (as well as the opposite effect, when it comes to certain sex acts) is inevitable. The film has a coherent plot with all necessary parts, which seems to have a (relative) psychological sense, not because such “sexual infatuation stories” happen often, but because this one seems to be based on a well-documented real fact. It happened, but this does not mean we’re watching a documentary. Perhaps the event was famous in its time just because of its nature.
Well, I want this review to remain online, so I’m not trying to scare people here, or to use incensed wording. (and maybe I am still learning the skill of expressing difficult words in fashions that are “easy to swallow”). I remember that even filmmakers have such difficulties sometimes (in the same vein, there is a particularly sensitive scene in Almodovar’s “Talk to Her”, I won’t name it, for which the director has taken additional precautionary measures).

We are dealing with a prostitute, which we get to know that she is actually the wife of a teacher, who got into debt and then sent his wife to work in a brothel, to recoup the debt amount. This woman seems to have a specific tactile sensitivity, I am even amazed at how many times can she have a climax each day. We are also dealing with the brothel’s owner, who became attracted by her and thus begin an illicit sexual affair with her. I am saying illicit, because, although we are in a brothel, but because he has a devoted wife. These two start by meeting secretly, by hiding themselves from the wife, but eventually nothing else really matters, they keep doing it without control. It’s the image of this obsession spiraling out of control that I believe has a lot of power, and which warrants the fact that you’re witnessing a plausible psycho-erotic event. You can call it erotic folie a deux or otherwise.
The first things we do not quite like to watch are some variations on their sex making (some even including other, not so gracious, people), most of them seeming to come from the woman’s attachment to the man. She also has a strange obsession with knives; she is having jealousy accesses when she threatens him with it and so on. Great, so we have the gunpowder keg, we even have the fuse, all we need is a lighter.

It comes, via a visit the woman makes to her husband. Filled with guilt for the pleasures she is living with her current partner, she feels like dying, so she asks the husband to strangle her. Well, not to death, and the effect of this experience is that the temporary lack of oxygen is emphasizing her orgasmic feel. It something similar to what has been mentioned in the first season of the TV show “Murder One” (I even wonder whether the script writers have found inspiration for that from this Oshima film). Long story short, when she returns, she shares her discovery with her boss, and he enjoys it.
Actually this is when everything gets a dark turn, because the guy stops being able to enjoy the normal intercourse, and he keeps asking her to strangle him. And she keeps doing it. The guy becomes less and less interested in anything except his strange state of suffocation during sex. Actually, his potency suffers.
The final act is now easy to understand. She promises that she will proceed with her strangling even beyond the “safe zone” (now that’s beyond anything that I am comfortable with), and surely she does.

This act was so obvious to me that it will happen, that, also due to some schedule while watching it, I left out the last five minutes of it. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling very comfortable with going back to watch it, anyway. But I’ll do it sometime…

All in all, I hope I was helpful to some people regarding the decision whether to invest in the Criterion version of this film. Actually, some people might even prefer the Blu-Ray clarity (I’m outta here, folks!). But I still claim that this is a good, albeit not very important (except for the moral debate it caused), film, and the cinephiles should watch it. Minors, not so much. Nor is it recommended for the people preferring family movies. I can even see the porn genre fans being somehow disappointed by this. But am not sure.


March 1, 2009

Marco Ferreri’s “La grande bouffe”, not for the faint of heart, or *art

Imagine a certain group of influential people who have reached their expiration date on this earth. A good example that can be
found today is the investment bankers’. Except that they’re not the first, and certainly not the last. A somewhat practical question is: how to describe their disappearance? Since we are not talking about, say, dinosaurs, lost hundreds of millions of
years ago, but about humans, it has to be done by resorting to human traits. And since for the human watcher, the following
assertion applies: “I am human, therefore nothing human is foreign to me”, as Terence once said, it must have a special effect
to stick to certain traits that are human, but exacerbated. Abominable, disgusting traits or drives will work, too.

Nowadays, people have a high disrespect of the financial establishment, whose greed is already proverbial, and this world is
crumbling under its effect of its own greed. So it would make sense that, if one wants to make a film about such guys, describing them die while incessantly eating would not be too far off.

There is a problem, though, with this approach. It’s not that it’s not realistic, in the artistic sense. It’s that the idea was
used decades ago, for the purpose of describing the end of bourgeoisie, as we know it. (La grande bouffe) is maybe the pinnacle of this approach. Let’s review: four successful people (all males), for reasons that are not fully explained (but we are allowed glimpses into it), decide to retreat in one week-end to a manor and, taking advantage of the great chef skills of one of them, to eat first class food until they literally die. We get to see awesome gourmet dishes going down their throats. Whose theirs? Well, the characters have the actors’ last names: Ugo (Tognazzi) the chef, Michel (Piccoli) the entertainment business tycoon, Marcello (Mastroianni) the airline pilot who can’t spend any single night without getting laid, and Philippe (Noiret), the sexually-repressed judge. As we can see, opposites come together here as parts of the same socio-economic niche.

We are introduced into their preparations for the final rides of the four protagonists (or knights of Apocalypse?) and arrival
to the manor, where we witness an unforgettable adaptation of Othello’s monologue “To be or not to be, that is the question”,
in the manor’s yard, with a cow’s head in the hand. One has to suspect that Jeunet’s (mostly known for “Amelie”) “Delicatessen” take on post-apocalyptic gourmet food, is in fact a pastiche (a pretty good one, I must say) of Marco Ferreri’s film.

The first night of feast passes as planned, with only pictures of naked women on the screen. But the next morning Marcello
threatens to leave unless he can get his hands on some girls. So he snags a few “lost souls”, but there’s also a “real woman”,
a grade school teacher, attracted by the men’s clout and the good food, who will come to spend the night with them. This woman is actually a character which can also be found in “end of times” films like Jiri Menzel’s “The End of the old Times”
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097681/) or Eldar Ryazanov’s Cruel Romance / The Girl Without Dowry (see a lyrical excerpt here ), a woman-accessory, without actually being considered fully as an equal. Although the scenes in which she is involved are extremely funny. First, she wants to tie the missing buttons of Philippe’s pants, and then she moves on to… you know what. Philippe’s reaction is maybe the most hilarious scene in the entire film: he asks her to marry him. He even sticks to his decision even after she gives herself (not because she is being “frivolous”, but out of the *goodness of her heart*) to the other suffering guys there.

We get to witness several side effects of over-eating, effects which should be reviewed by some corporate decision-makers in
financial institutions thriving on pushing credit. First, it’s the “*art” from this review’s title, which is actually a sign of relief from the stomach pain. Also, Marcello gets to know another painful effect on what he hurts most: severe difficulty in
maintaining erection and reaching orgasm. This, more so than overeating, is pushing him to death. Last, but not least, is the
logical problem of residue: if you’re eating too much, there’s the obvious problem of feces, which nastily overflow and give
everything a brownish flavor. Over-producing consumer crap issue, anyone?

Words to the wise: I consider this as mature artistic vision, and the author is not to blame for the vision his artistic eyes
are set on more than Zapruder getting on celluloid the murder of a president. And, if we do not reduce Marco Ferreri’s film to
a Nostradamus-like prediction of the end of the financial burgeoisie, we can appreciate it for what it is, in its wider scope.
It is, to a certain extent, parallel to another masterpiece of the cinema which can sometimes be perceived as abominable, just
because it speaks clearly about some human traits that are less praiseworthy, and some viewers lack the inner hinges to fully
grasp it. I am talking about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, in which Italian fascists do unspeakable things to a group of
youths, in a visionary warning about a consumerist society which has no saints, no morals, and will likely end up by reducing
itself to nought. Unfortunately, in this case of Salo, the director fell first prey to his vision. He was assassinated close to
the beach where Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 was shot, and later his film was banned for so many years.

Coming back to “La grande bouffe”, everything goes as planned. The whores, not getting the point, leave after overeating a few times (they also exhibit a few side effects of eating too much), and the teacher assists them while they make steps toward their passing, A specific scene, when she gives pleasure to a dying Ugo who doesn’t stop eating, is reminiscent of a scene in Roman Polanski’s “What?“.

But it is the magnificent ending which is leading us back to the philosophical question “To Be or Not To Be”. Since the dead bodies have taken the place of the meat in the fridge, the next batch of fresh meat which is delivered cannot fit in, hence it is left in the yard, next to the dogs and other animals. A carcass is even put on a smaller tree. Leaving us to wonder which is the next carnivorous species who will replace this breed that has just disappeared. Like the sheep in Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” ( recently released in the US in the Criterion Edition) replacing humans in another bourgeoisie-bashing film made by a director happy to hit on bourgeois morals.

Needless to say that this is not a film to recommend watching with minors or people with rigid morals around. Judging by my
experience, I would not even recommend a masterpiece like Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” to be watched in such conservative environments. But the deep meaning of the film is, ironically, very understandable even by the adopters of “doom and gloom” attitude. So, it’s more about being flexible enough to discuss it, even view it as a scenario coming time and again in the cyclical historical time, make steps to come to terms with it, and move on.

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