Wuthering Heights (2011) and the uncanny connection with nature

The following film stills represent a collection of brief moments providing a glimpse of the haunting, alluringly grim aesthetic of Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold. The film is a moody, visceral, atmospheric cinematic version of the story featuring the natural beauty and intensity of Kaya Scodelario as Cathy and her ineffable connection with Heathcliff, both of them sharing a deep bond with the gloomy, bleak, foggy surroundings.

The scenery is dark and as chaotic and turbulent as the compelling cinematography of the film. The atmospheric sounds are intense and loud. From the very beginning, the sound makes us anticipate the eerie human-nature connection. A grown-up Heathcliff wanders around thoughtfully in an empty room, in what appears to be an abandoned house. We can hear the loud wind from outside, as well as the cracking sounds of the doors and the floor. There is something eerie about the location and the unfolding of this initial scene. It looks and sounds as if it could be a house from a horror film. The moment when the branches of a tree hit the window reminds us of the scene from the book in which Mr. Lockwood breaks the window to make the tapping stop. In the film, Heathcliff runs against the wall and ends up collapsing on the floor. After he starts crying, we hear four blows on the window, followed by Heathcliff’s matching response: hitting the floor four times while crying in despair. Then, we hear the impetuous rain and the powerful wind followed by the loud bark of the dogs. The wuthering sound remains constant. Heathcliff remains behind and is barked at by a dog, to which he responds with a savage snarl that implies his wild nature.

The chemistry between young Heathcliff and Cathy seems to be quite unusual: it is not represented through words, but mainly through looks, gestures, and, symbolically, through the agitation of the natural elements on the moors. Their bond is closely intertwined with the human-nature bond. The point-of-view shots showing Cathy’s wild hair blown in the wind are followed by shots of the wild, high grass and weeds, suggesting a correlation between the aspect of her messy hair and the chaotic movement of the plants. Even though Heathcliff showed he was capable of speaking (despite being mostly uneducated), the two children rarely talk: it seems that there is an unspoken understanding between them or a sense of telepathy whilst they listen to the whistling of the wind and admire the haunting beauty of the landscape. The actors’ performances are very instinctive and have a visceral quality.

The environment provides refuge for Cathy and Heathcliff from the rest of the world. After their escape from the baptising moment, they start running on the windy, misty moors, happy and carefree. When they get back home, they are slapped by her father for their little rebellion. The film highlights metaphors for the conflict between culture and nature, culture trying to dominate nature, but failing, as nature does not succumb so easily.

During the playful yet tension-imbued mud fight scene, the two children bond with each other and with the earth at the same time. The playful exploration of childhood is essential in the film. Everything between them seems pure, simple, and physical when they are little. The moors become a symbol for their love affair that becomes more complicated as they grow up. What for the spectator might look like a bleak dystopian or threatening landscape, was actually Heathcliff’s Arcadia. When a grown-up Heathcliff returns after a long absence, it’s not only for his love, Cathy, but also for the place and time when he experienced that pure bliss. An idyllic image of unattainable splendour is engraved in his mind. Childhood often seems to reside in the realm of Arcadia in our minds, offering a unique way of feeling and experiencing things, which cannot be brought back or re-adopted.

The moors can also be associated with the dark brooding character of a lonely soul (Heathcliff): the moors are infertile, arid, wild, and even threatening. They are not supposed to be cultivated. They are untouched, uninfluenced by culture. Healthcliff is wild in the traditional way which implies unfitness for civil society, yet he is also wild in the modern use of the word, in that he signifies an antidote to hypercivilisation. The concept of wildness denotes something that is shared between humans and nonhuman entities. There are various examples of how this refers to Heathcliff: consider any scene where young Heathcliff resonates with the natural elements.

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Review / analysis: Osmosis (2019, TV series)

Osmosis (2019, TV, now on Netflix), created by Audrey Fouché, is a French sci-fi drama series with echoes of Black Mirror, albeit less nihilistic, and a tinge of Sense8, with its telepathic encounters. It revolves around the frequently explored sci-fi concept of AI-facilitated romance, interwoven with corresponding existential, moral, and political concerns, as well as realistic coexisting anxieties. The revealing biological term from the title is also the name of the futuristic dating app which collects, uses, and monitors the brain data of the testers for the purpose of uniting them with their ideal romantic match for life. There are also parallel narratives accompanying this romance-centric plot line, featuring non-romantic characters whose lives are driven by different purposes, with motivations such as family or sociopolitical agendas.

The specifics of the Osmosis process include swallowing a pill delivering nanorobots into the brains of the volunteers, as a way of picking up thoughts, characteristics, responses, and so on. At the end of the process, the algorithm not only reveals the face of their Osmotic partner, but allows the tech team to further analyse brain information in real time to examine the hormone levels, impulses, and reactions of the participant. When both partners are implanted, their brains can connect from afar, allowing them to share an otherworldly connection and moments of ineffable exaltation. There is a moment in which Paul, the protagonist and pioneer of Osmosis, visualises and tries to capture the phenomenon in words, yet the cynical unknowing man listening to him can’t grasp the reality or extent of the experience, dismissing it as poetic embellishment for falling in love.

The way the TV show depicts the connection is as intertwining physical bodies floating in a dark virtual space. However, there is an element of subjectivity which makes you reluctant to take Paul’s symbolic descriptions for granted, as well as the consistency of Osmosis. Whilst Paul seems to be infatuated with and devoted to the Osmosis process, describing it as otherworldly, if we consider his partner’s dissatisfaction and actions in the show (which I will not spoil too much) we could infer that she may not feel it to the same intensity. It could be that certain issues regarding the scientific predictability and the controlling aspects of Osmosis represent a strong incentive for her actions, overriding the augmented Osmosis euphoria, yet we never hear her describe the same remarkable experience, which makes you wonder- to what extent does the Osmosis experience vary based on brain chemistry? Is it comparable to a normal intimate encounter between infatuated lovers? Is it as varied as people’s capacity for and perception of love? Who knows? Perhaps I will re-watch this, in case I can’t recall something. There is another aspect that is in line with the view of subjectivity and inconsistency: the moment Paul starts saying Osmosis didn’t seem as strong/ intense at particular times and tries to figure out the reasons. Not to mention Lucas, whose abnormal Osmosis experience was dismissed as the inevitable error of/exception to the test. Is Osmosis as reliable as Paul hopes?

Osmosis is a complex show in its dystopian/utopian ambiguity, especially regarding the reliance on advanced invasive technology in the pursuit of human desires, the trustworthiness of and control exerted by tech companies, as well as the idea of controlling and monitoring feelings and predicting love-related outcomes. Some characters vouch for the project, some exhibit outright pessimism, others express some moral and existential doubts- including the supporters of a competing app based on a different, less fatalistic ideology. This will probably echo the responses of the viewers as well, and the common concerns anyone will have on this topic- the oscillations between rejecting and embracing the potential impact of such advanced technology, seeing it as a threatening aspect of the bleak dark future ahead or as an enlightening step forward.

Another significant dimension of the series- a contemporary element among more futuristic concerns, is the complicated familial bond between the creators of Osmosis, Esther (Agathe Bonitzer) and Paul (Hugo Becker). Paul believes in Osmosis with an obsessive dedication, yet everyone around him seems to have other conflicting interests. His sister, Esther, the tech mastermind behind the project, explores the alternative, medical uses derived from Osmosis, such as using the technology to revive their comatose mother, which leads to a sinister family secret being revealed through memory reconstruction. Meanwhile, another character reconsiders their own ulterior motive for signing up for the app, whilst an important piece of the puzzle experiences a change of heart, threatening Paul’s beliefs and life, and AI sentience may also make a short-lived appearance.

The show is mostly slow-paced, especially in the first episodes, and exudes some art film vibes, and the characters, as well as the actors’ performances, might have a polarising effect in terms of likeability. Esther is the highly intelligent, calculated component of Osmosis, with a background in AI and computational neuroscience -who is, however, perhaps ironically, quite detached from the actual experience and aims of the project. She is absent-minded and somewhat discourteous with people in her vicinity, intense yet emotionally detached from everything aside from being invested in and consumed by family events, doing questionable deeds for pure reasons. Meanwhile, her interest in romantic love is non-existent and replaced by her love for her brother and mother, her sexual encounters in Virtual Reality, and her conversations with the Osmosis-powering computer, the disembodied voice of Martin. Esther is self-contained, tense, rarely smiling, unwavering in her goals- the sterile, clinical room she is usually seen in being a reflection of her clinical self. On the other hand, her brother, Paul, is quite the opposite, expansive, prone to worrying, emotionally transparent, lively, with his constantly reinforced devotion to the Osmosis project and his passionate discourse on the sublimity of love, even whilst the connection which started everything shows signs of disintegrating. If there is one character that will probably annoy you, that will be Ana, you might feel like yelling at her poor decision-making, unassured, flimsily duplicitous manner and random last-minute changes of heart- some nonsensical (for her character) and some belated; she was essential in the delivery of the plot, but her character could have made a lot more sense.

Osmosis starts from a common sci-fi premise and tropes including AI matchmaking, tech threats, surveillance, AI sentience, and data corruption, exploring themes of alienation, soulmates, family ties, alternative sexual orientation, addictions, proceeding to delve into the humanity of the characters, into character flaws, into stories not going as planned, into reality rather than pessimistic apocalyptic nightmares or make-believe romantic ideals.

A glimpse of Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue (1997), directed by Satoshi Kon, is a disturbing, disorienting, surreal Japanese animated psychological horror/thriller film based on the 1991 novel “Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis” written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Mima, a 21-year-old former pop icon pursuing an acting career, can no longer discern between reality and fantasy, as she is haunted by ghosts of her past as a teen idol and subsequently delves into paranoid delusions and nightmares. Her doppelgänger- an elusive mirror figure seemingly belonging to a parallel reality- is an embodiment of her former J-pop self whose taunting remarks about her failed diva status seem to spring from her own unconscious mind. The underlying commentary of the film touches the theme of unstable selfhood correlated with celebrity and the vicious effects of stardom, in a dark critique of Japanese pop culture and the cult of celebrity.
This eerie stylised depiction of madness filled with blood, violence, and suspense, has been seen as an animated version of a Giallo thriller directed by Dario Argento; it has also been cited as the inspiration behind Darren Aronofsky’s work, the most obvious one being Black Swan.

Short reviews: Lurid Cult Horror films – Fascination, The Beyond, and Videodrome

Fascination (1979) is an artful aesthetically-pleasing erotic Gothic horror film situated between arthouse and grindhouse, directed by Jean Rollin. Rollin tends to be associated with the sexploitation genre, yet he is recognised for the surreal dark fantasy style of his lyrical, tantalising, elegant, and atmospheric films, combining sensuality and visual poetry. Fascination’s opening scene takes place in 1905 in an abattoir where seemingly ordinary French women drink ox blood, considered a cure for anaemia at the time. Despite this bizarre moment and the fact that, as one of the ethereal vampire girls picks up a scythe, the film appears to progress into the slasher realm, Fascination is soft compared to other gore films, and not as surreal or bewildering as other Rollin films. The little gore that appears in the film is almost elegantly depicted.
Fascination is shot in a ghostly sinister castle surrounded by mist and emptiness. A thief ends up hiding in the chateau, where he finds two enigmatic nymph-like angelic-looking young women all alone, Eva and Elizabeth. They initially seem to be easy prey, but there is something unsettling about them, and it turns out they are actually part of a cult of aristocratic vampires.

The Beyond (1981) is a surreal cult horror film with Southern Gothic echoes, directed by Lucio Fulci, who is known as “The Godfather of Gore”. When Liza decides to renovate her newly-inherited dilapidated hotel, the activity triggers a series of mysterious deaths. It is revealed that the hotel is built over one of the seven portals to Hell, which was activated by the renovation. The violent darkness of the film unfolds in an unsettling combination of supernatural events, visceral graphic scenes featuring tarantulas and ghastly rotten zombie flesh, and uncanny silhouettes haunting empty houses. Towards the end, the afterlife is painted as an eerie wasteland filled with corpses. The film exhibits a chaotic dreamlike atmosphere mixed with gruesome visuals and otherworldly sounds.

The Uncanny appears in many shapes and forms. Lurid, erotic, provocative, disturbing, hallucinatory, and grotesque are a few words you can use to describe David Cronenberg’s famous body horror film, Videodrome (1983), a sinister commentary on the sadomasochistic consumerist nature of our society & the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of technology. Cronenberg approached this theme in the 80s, yet it becomes increasingly relevant in time. Videodrome is a TV show featuring violent acts of punishment with sexual undertones tailored to an audience belonging to the age of over-stimulation. Marked by his girlfriend’s disappearance after auditioning for the show, Max explores the Videodrome phenomenon, finding out that the line between reality and simulation is blurred. The film ends on a tragic note, including the famous cult line “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” uttered repetitively throughout the film like an incantation.

Costume design symbolism in Crimson Peak (2015): Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress

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Crimson Peak (2015), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a visually stunning, gloomy cinematic horror spectacle, noted for its incredible and haunting aesthetic. A particularly remarkable and alluring feature of the intricate production design is Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress. The bewitching symbolically-charged Victorian design of the dress includes a black garland resembling a vine with withered leaves, claustrophobically climbing towards her pale neck. The owner, played by the mesmerising Jessica Chastain, is a beautiful, tense, frigidly graceful corset-wearing ice queen filled with dark repressed emotions, whose attire reflects her inner state. Her blue, heavy rigid dress seems to blend with her eerie funereal surroundings, the underwater feeling given by the aquatic colours and the flickering interplay of light and darkness, the dark curtains, and the grandiose blue walls of the Gothic mansion. She is tragically connected to the ominous house and the dead vines tangled up around her body further anchor her in it, symbolising her psychological confinement. She is often shown in contrast to pure, innocent, and lively Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, who wears light and loose gowns.

Reviews: Psychological horror films set in the fashion world: The Neon Demon (2016) and Helter Skelter (2012)

The Neon Demon (2016), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a surreal hyper-stylised psychological horror film unveiling a dark satire of the fashion industry. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, who epitomises the trope of the pure, genuine, angelic character entering a wicked world filled with artificial, soulless, manufactured characters, and becoming tainted by her surroundings. Meanwhile, everything spirals out of control and eventually down into the macabre and the gruesome.

The hallucinatory and grotesque spectacle is shown through a slick fashion commercial aesthetic, accompanied by fitting synth sounds and little dialogue, as the film relies on its bewitching atmosphere. Many parallels can be drawn between Refn’s film and the stylish Japanese psychological horror film, Helter Skelter (2012), which was potentially a source of inspiration: they are both bloody, visually stunning, surreal, satirical reflections on the artificiality of the fashion world. They even share torn out eyeballs – the difference being The Neon Demon goes all the way when one character eats a regurgitated eyeball, in one of the many scenes alluding to the theme of women devouring each other and destroying themselves in pursuit of beauty-based fame. The shock value of The Neon Demon is continuously impactful, with elements ranging from self-mutilation and absurd knife fights to cannibalism and necrophilia.

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The ghastly, sickening acts and soft gore visuals are mixed with beautiful, compelling imagery and a glamorous style in such a harmonious way, as if purposely trying to make it hard for viewers to be grossed out; instead, the viewer is under a spell, watching the unfolding of a disturbingly strange dream.

The majority of criticism the film has been subjected to revolves around it being shallow, reductive, objectifying, offensive, form over content. However, the film is clearly self-reflective in the sense that it’s a critique of the things it depicts and the things it exaggerates to an absurd degree. Sometimes the subtext eludes viewers because the film might appear to revel in its own madness and in the culture it condemns, but, in the end, every viewer takes something different from the film. The Neon Demon is hypnotic and compelling with its gripping atmosphere, its dual aesthetic- incorporating both the glamorously exquisite and the macabre, and its bewildering dream sequences.

41272426_1918757085094468_5702621502751375360_nBased on the Japanese exploitative psychological horror manga by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter (2012), directed by Mika Ninagawa, is a disturbing hyperstylised surreal drama depicting the chaotic life of manufactured superstar Lilico, who navigates the dark side of the fashion world. What lurks beyond the glamorous facade is portrayed as not only sad, but grim, and merging with the macabre. Whilst Lilico gradually delves into psychotic delusions, the film touches upon notions of transience, artificiality, the impact of stardom and its correlation with mental state deterioration, the identification of the self purely with the image and the (fluctuating and inevitably fading) success of the image, and the consequent predictable corruption of the soul.

Lilico, played by suitably controversial Erika Sawajiri, is an influential and highly appreciated Japanese supermodel whose beautiful appearance permeates the news, magazines, and minds of Japanese teenage girls who look up to and aspire to be her – or the idea of her. Behind the scenes and the smiles, she embodies a clear case of narcissistic personality disorder, her existence solely dictated by an insatiable ego which is fed by fame and dependent on the recognition of her physical beauty and success. In some ways, her life seems to be a heavenly dream that she just grows tired of: she is always found either revelling or agonising in aesthetic, lurid, and shiny surroundings, around people who satisfy her every whim. She lives in an alluring, luxurious, decadent place, where the colour palette is dominated by red, the vividness of the decor being reminiscent of Argento’s classic, Suspiria (1977).

Jaded, tragically cynical, shallow, and malicious, Lilico ends up being a toxic presence in the lives of the few people in her proximity, constantly undermining and treating her assistant harshly despite her blind devotion, and trying to sabotage others’ happiness. Her self-centred, vitriolic demeanour is counteracted by moments of vulnerability in which she drowns in her own dramatic sadness, as depicted in explicit shots finding her collapsed and lying motionless on the floor. Lilico is unhinged, oscillating between feeling on top of the world, completely apathetic, in total agony, and at times terrifyingly psychotic. The psychotic episodes unfold like visually stunning, distorted psychedelic nightmares, featuring blood rain, optical illusions, and ominous butterflies.

When another model enters the picture and seems to steal the spotlight, threatening her goddess status with her presence, Lilico is faced with the acute awareness of the flimsy quality of the fashion industry. Consumed by feelings of helplessness and resentment, she wants to destroy the new star, Kozue Yoshikawa, despite acknowledging the inherent ephemeral nature of modelling careers and the hunt for newness. However, since her numerous cosmetic surgeries are taking their toll as the clinic she went to is accused of suspicious conduct in their treatments, Lilico’s physical health diminishes and she ends up destroying herself and performing a shocking act in front of a myriad of cameras pointed at her- an act which, of course, involves the eyes.

Aesthetically, Helter Skelter is a hypnotic feast for the senses, which is unsurprising considering the director of the film is Mika Ninagawa, who has a background in commercial photography and a lurid, vividly-coloured signature photographic style. The message is transparent in this twisted, grotesque, yet highly aesthetic spectacle, namely a poignant and compelling critique of the fashion world, its objectifying nature, and the concept of stardom which encourages the cultivation of appearance over essence. The protagonist displays a perfect, glamourous, appealing image out into the world, whilst being rotten on the inside- both mentally and physically. Lilico is unequivocally damned, however not entirely responsible for her own damnation.

Film review: Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

“I wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious” — Carl Theodor Dreyer about his film, Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr is a hypnotic and claustrophobic mix of eerie images featuring surreal elements shown through an interplay of light and darkness, disorienting geography and camera movement, morbid shot compositions, and occult symbolism. Some thematic elements are obscure sickness, a man’s shadow coming to life, the iconic horror film sight of the man with the scythe, constantly misty weather, and nightmares about being buried alive.

The chambers of the abandoned buildings are metaphors for the rooms of the mind. Any lines between reality and nightmare appear to be blurred. Allan, the dreamer, has an obsession with the occult, and his perspective is sometimes ambiguous, seemingly unreliable. Through the technique of superimposition, his identity is split, and a ghostly image of him emerges.

The haziness of the shots was initially accidental, due to light exposure; then Dryer decided this aesthetic was suitable for the concept of the film and adopted the look using translucent fabric over the lens as a texture and soft focus photography.
The elusive and ephemeral quality of the film is also given by the fact that some of the material was lost, some of it was later restored and re-edited, and the film exists in different versions.

Film sequence analysis: Melancholia (2011) – the surreal overture

The opening sequence of Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier), a collection of gloomy, surreal, painting-resembling, slow-motion shots, is an insidious introduction to the themes of this compelling cinematic symphony of death and destruction. What completes the eerie dreamscape is the exquisite, haunting piece of music by Wagner – the Prelude to the tragic opera Tristan und Isolde, which magnifies the sorrow depicted in the shots and throughout the whole film. The film and the opera both exhibit the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, revolving around unhappiness, death, and painful, unfulfilled human yearning. The nocturnal landscape, the Realm of the Night from Wagner’s opera, symbolically stands for the realm of hidden truth; and the only escape or redemption from a world perceived as evil and relentlessly suffering, is spiritual release, death, hence Justine’s morbid Ophelia moment and the early appearance of the destructive planet, “Melancholia”. The deadly planet, with its suggestive name, is a metaphor most beautifully conveyed visually when Justine, the perpetually despondent and apathetic bride, bathes naked in its light and is shown yearning for its life-threatening touch, on the same musical notes from the Prelude. Death appears in other forms in von Trier’s haunting cinematic overture as well, such as the striking nightmarish image of the dead birds falling from the sky in the background whilst Justine’s cold blank face is shown in a close-up shot; or the horse collapsing backwards in bleak surroundings. Another memorable surreal image is that of a fascinated Justine staring at her fingertips as they seem to be connected to the bolts of lightning.

Within the themes and the atmosphere of Melancholia, we can also find echoes of Wagner’s own beautifully dark poetic words about Tristan und Isolde, once again resonating with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. He describes the tragic story as “a tale of endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love; world, power, fame, honour, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship all blown away like an insubstantial dream; one thing left living – longing, longing unquenchable, a yearning, a hunger, a languishing forever renewing itself; one sole redemption – death, finality, a sleep without awakening…”

A glimpse of Annihilation (2018). The Uncanny Within.

After the success of his intense directorial debut, Ex Machina, Alex Garland creates a cinematic adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book from the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation. The sci-fi thriller turns out to be a visually stunning exploration into the unknown, which in this case borrows the form of the enigmatic ‘Shimmer’, a disquieting yet alluring foreign veil encompassing a part of the Earth, Area X – ceaselessly expanding and threatening to swallow the whole world.

The film opening reveals Lena, the protagonist, a biologist portrayed by the enigmatic, detached Natalie Portman who appears disoriented while being interrogated about the expedition and its survivors. The next scene introduces us for a brief moment to the desolate landscape surrounding the lighthouse, which is mysteriously related to the powerful alien presence the film revolves around. The lighthouse becomes a symbol, the connection with another world, with something uncanny, just like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The eerie and toxic beauty of the scenery from Area X echoes the dystopian “Zone” depicted in the well-known sci-fi, Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarly, just as the Zone proves to be a philosophical journey, the Area X expedition also symbolises an exploration inwards, and eventually, a disintegration of identity – an idea poetically alluded to through the words of the psychologist in a crucial intense scene towards the end: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”, quoting Samuel Beckett.

A geomorphologist, a paramedic, a physicist, a biologist, and a psychologist enter the Shimmer seeking answers and, whilst they encounter biological anomalies, beauty and decay, and a lot of unanswerable questions, we are encouraged to wonder what really lies beyond their (and our) human drive to enter the unknown, and how the uncanny encountered outwards echoes the uncanny within each of them.

Annihilation (2018), the absorbing sci-fi thriller, can be found on Netflix.