Monday, February 22, 2016

My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989)

Given his notoriety for histrionics, hyperactive characters and at times delving into the realm of the fantastique, its probably easy for those unfamiliar with the films of Andrzej Zulawski to simply dismiss Zulawski as a hyperbolic fantasist out of touch with reality when in fact the opposite is true. Zulawski was one of the most “human” filmmakers in the sense that the exaggerations on display in his films stripped away all pretense when it comes to human emotions, presenting them in their most exposed and raw form. Perhaps better than any other filmmaker, Zulawski understood both sites of the coin when it came to love being something than can invoke extreme reactions in individuals from the most beautiful of highs but also the most debilitating lows which leads to the behavior seen in many of Zulawski’s films. While Possession (1981) may be Zulawski’s most celebrated treatment of the anxieties relationships can cause, the idea of overwhelming emotions was a constant in Zulawski’s work going all the way back to his debut film The Third Part of the Night (1971) and the theme weighs heavily on films like L'important c'est d'aimer (1975), L’amour braque (1985) and Fidelity (2000). The exquisitely titled My Nights Are More Beautiful Than You Days is yet another one of Zulawski’s treatments on love and pain and one of his most poignant and in typical Zulawski fashion, emotionally draining films.

After finalizing a revolutionary computer language program, Lucas (Jacques Dutronc) a brilliant inventor is dealt a heavy blow by being diagnosed with a rare brain disease that will gradually erase Lucas’s memory and his ability to speak. Soon after, Lucas by chance meets Blanche (Sophie Marceau), a psychic medium in a traveling show. Although awkward at first, the two form a connection and Lucas follows Blanche to her next performance. Lucas reserves a lavish suite at a nearby seaside hotel where Blanche retreats to as a means of escape from her demanding entourage, including her husband and mother, and the two begin a fierce romance, bonded by past traumas, language and inevitable madness.

When compared to the likes of Diabel (1972), L’amour braque or Szamanka (1996), My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours) is certainly one of Zulawski’s more “calm” efforts while at the same time still being an exhausting whirlwind of emotions that’s equally bewildering as it is beguiling. For the central romance, Zulawski strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and melancholy, with the scenes of Lucas and Blanche being tender and loving yet always shrouded by the dark cloud of inevitability, be it Lucas’s impending insanity or Blanche’s constantly being haunted by traumatic memories. Zulawski takes Lucas’s condition and the concept of madness in a fascinating direction by essentially having Lucas go mad on his own terms, willingly beating his illness to the punch. This leaves a good portion of the film, particularly the final third, open to interpretation as to whether or not what is being seen is reality or Lucas’s shattered version of reality, either by his own doing or his diseases. The madness angle also allows Zulawski’s surrealist tendencies to come to the forefront which includes the likes of a dwarf hotel porter who may or may not be a ghost and a man in a giant blue rabbit costume. Being a Zulawski film, there’s also the cast of loony side characters, mostly Blanche’s gang of hangers-on who’s antics give way to several hilarious moments and Blanche’s stage show is rather bizarre in itself with her audience interactions also being quite humorous.

While being interviewed for Eyeball, Zulawski expounded upon the importance of language and his having Lucas desperately cling to his loosening grasp of language by engaging in bizarre wordplay, either by himself or with Blanche, spouting nonsense at random and at times even speaking in rhyme, stating “With Mes nuits and Dutronic, I did it because I was really shocked by the fact that most of the films that are meant to be intelligent that I see are blah-blah films. Nothing happens, they talk. So I wanted to push this up to an absurd point, in which even the talk dissolves into a nightmare… of nonreason, whatever… and of cinema, of real cinema. Because for cinema, language or literature is only a go-between. Between the money and the screen.” Its also worth mentioning that My Nights was Zulawski’s second film to feature Sophie Marceau who made her Zulawski debut with L’amour braque and following My Nights would go on to feature in La note bleue (1991) and Fidelity. “I understand. Love means pain, lots of pain” says Marceau in one of the films most affecting moments. Its Zulawski’s understanding of that very concept and his ability to explore it in an entirely singular manner along with infusing it with moments of quirkiness and occasional off-center humor make My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days a film more poignant and cathartic than most.

"Whisper everybody can - go and shriek!" R.I.P. Andrzej Zulawski (1940-2016)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Body Snatchers (1993)

Although it hasn’t been adapted to the screen nearly as much as say Frankenstein or Dracula, Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has nonetheless gone on to become one of the most iconic stories in science fiction and horror. To date there have been four film adaptations of the novel, each with their own individual flavors, although the flavor of the fourth version, The Invasion (2007) left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the first film based on the book directed by Don Sigel is largely considered one of the greatest and most important sci-fi films ever made and the 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman is again considered of the best films in the sci-fi and horror genres and is just as and may even be more respected than the 1956 version. Lost in the shuffle is third adaptation made in the 1993 and its this version which is unquestionably the most undervalued and definitely the most curious as it was directed by Abel Ferrara. Simply titled Body Snatchers, the film is certainly an oddity in Ferrara’s filmography as it was a major studio production with a massive budget behind it. Body Snatchers is unique amongst Ferrara’s other ventures in the horror genre and an excellent example of the 90’s having produced more quality genre fare than said decade is given credit for.

EPA scientist Steve Malone along with his second wife Carol (Meg Tilly), daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) and son Andy are sent to live on a military base while Steve gathers information regarding the effects of chemicals stored on the base. Already upset with the move, Marti soon begins to notice the strange and distant behavior of many on the base and experiences first hand the danger she and her family are in when she is awakened by an alien being attempting to attach itself to her body. Immediately Marti realizes her experience wasn’t an isolated incident as the base is slowly being taken over by aliens harvested from pods who attach themselves to a sleeping human host which it replicates and their numbers are growing at an alarming rate leaving Marti and the select few humans left fighting to retain their humanity.

Body Snatchers is proof positive that great things are possible when a studio (despite interference) is willing to give an artist with actual ideas a large budget to work with. By the time the film was made even those who may not have read the book or seen either of the previous adaptations were probably aware of the general idea of the story but Ferrara presents a completely fresh take on the “pod people”. One of the wisest moves was the military base setting. While the idea of the replicas being a metaphor for the conformity of the military might not seem all that subversive, by having the invasion take place in an already fairly insular community only added to the paranoia that easily arises with such a story. Ferrara establishes this paranoia early on with a general tone of strangeness and mistrust with the zombie-like behavior and glossed over looks of those already taken over. This uneasiness also brilliantly bleeds into the fractured family subplot leading to a fantastic performance from Anwar and an exceptionally creepy turn from Tilly. The films enormous budget clearly wasn’t wasted as the film is one of Ferrara’s strongest both technically and visually from the astonishing nighttime exteriors of the alien pods being harvested from the water and the squirm inducing, almost Cronenbergian replication sequences. Sonically too the film is top-notch with the ear-shattering scream let out by the aliens used to identify those unlike them is sure to give any sound system a proper work out.

The film has a fascinating production history being in developmental hell for years with names like Stuart Gordon and Larry Cohen originally attached before Ferrara finally got the job. Gordon actually received a screenwriting credit in the final film. Ferrara insists that the film was a technical nightmare to shoot citing the films large budget, complicated lighting schemes and the sheer size of the production in general plus instances of studio interference. After throwing outrageous amounts of money at the film and quite a bit of press coverage in various genre magazines for several years when the project was still in its infancy and even a showing at the Cannes Film Festival, Warner Bros. essentially buried the film, only releasing it in a handful of theatres in America and in some cases after the film had already hit home video. Over the years the film has remained somewhat neglected although it does have is supporters rightfully singing its praises. Surprisingly, even Roger Ebert loved the film giving it his highest rating. Obviously when compared to Ferrara’s other genre films, Body Snatchers is worlds removed from the likes of The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981) and The Addiction (1995) but its nonetheless a wonderfully executed horror/sci-fi film with brilliant visual style and plenty of subtext along with being one of the most original takes on Finney’s novel ultimately making it a refreshing watch.