I Am Mother (2019), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film directed by Grant Sputore, starts off at a slow pace, revealing the eerie routine and mother-daughter bond between an android and a human inside an enclosed, clinical ‘repopulation facility’ resembling a spaceship. Besides them, from the first shots we find out that the site contains thousands of human embryos, as Mother promises the family will extend when she is ready to raise more children. Whilst Daughter receives advanced education in various fields ranging from medicine to philosophy, everything is surrounded by an aura of mystery as the film offers little explanation for the circumstances of the “extinction event” and whatever is happening outside the facility beyond the warnings of Mother about the toxicity of the external environment. When a visitor is surreptitiously granted access to their sanctuary thanks to the rebellious and inquisitive nature of Daughter, the pace and atmosphere of the film change, and we are oscillating between the clashing words, convictions, and insidious influences of Mother and of the newcomer. The evocative performances, touching cinematography, beautiful intimacy, and the maternal bonding established in the first part of the film are powerful elements facilitating the process of empathising with the robot and being invested in their connection, which gets saddening and complicated when conflicts arise between them, when reality outside the protective bubble that Daughter has been raised in is gradually unveiled.
Sixties London represents an alluring myth, a commercialised fantasy, a glamourised concept that conjures up a world of freedom, drugs, fashion, sex, and rock and roll in which young people revelled as a reaction against traditional values. It is a period of revolution and positive changes, which evokes a vibrant, frenetic city where fun and liberation are fundamental. Some underlying aspects of this media construct involve alienation, confusion, disconnection, the elusive nature of communication and existence in a fragmentary world, all of which also resonate with the work of the Italian art cinema director, Michelangelo Antonioni. Blow-Up (1966) reveals what lies behind the mythical London ‘swinging scene’ of the Sixties, at the same time extending its theme beyond London and beyond time, to universal questions about identity.
The rapid cuts and quick shift in images in the film sometimes mirror the characters’ inability to focus on a particular object or action. This is obvious throughout Thomas’ ADHD-like behaviour and his incapability to get fully immersed into any particular activity for the most part of the film. For instance, in the restaurant scene, he shifts his attention away from the photographs, to getting food, then back to a discussion about his fabulous new photograph, followed by a glance through the window and an expression of the wish to leave London. Another key moment that adopts quick editing is Thomas’ photo-shoot featuring Verushka, in a scene described by Danny Powell as “the most iconic of all Sixties cinema”. The dynamic editing, characteristic of the time, shows Verushka in different poses, through still images, imitating the act of photography. This scene is sexualised- through Thomas’ words, their movements, and position towards the end of the shoot. Making fashion and photography sexual is an innovation of the Sixties photographers, David Bailey’s particularly.
The opening of the film provides another sequence of fast cuts, this time between images of mimes revelling on the streets and images of homeless men leaving the shelter. The purpose here is to present different, contrasting sides of London, which indicate that the Sixties period is not only about freedom for everyone: some are still restricted to poor conditions of living and oppression. The less glamorous side of life at that time is omitted from the commercialised dream of Swinging London, which makes the viewers question their perspective of history.
Visually, the group of mimes brings some colour to an otherwise grey cold modern environment. Their make-up and clothes reveal an alternative way of living, shown in contrast to the nuns’ and the royal guard’s costumes. Their dismissal of these symbolic figures represents the rejection of old, traditional values- the attitude of rebelling against authority is characteristic to the Sixties.
Aside from the occasional quick cuts Antonioni employs, the film is generally made up of long sequences, most of unknown significance and amplified in intensity by the long, profound silences. There is not much non-diegetic sound to emphasise moments of importance or convey a certain feeling: the focus is on images, not on sound or words. However, in the end, both ways of communication are shown to be unreliable in determining or defining objective reality. This theme fits into the cultural context of Swinging London: it depicts, again, what lies beyond the glamorised portrayal of those times, namely a fragmentary world.
Thomas, the protagonist, epitomises the figure of the London fashion photographer who wanders aimlessly and has a short attention span and no background or defined identity. Antonioni points out that, like most fashion photographers in London, he belongs to the moment, and no one knows where he comes from or who he is. Admittedly fed up with London, he can’t stay still, moving from one action to another, none of them seeming to impact or interest him greatly; and he does not form any deep connection with any other character. His blasé attitude changes when an eerie event captures his attention – his fascination then makes him totally absorbed in the process of mystery solving through art examination.
Thomas seems to be constantly in search of something he cannot name: he is not satisfied with the world he lives in, and wishes to leave the city: “I’m going off London this week. […] It doesn’t do anything for me […] I’m fed up with those bloody bitches”, he says, echoing the words of the girl from the antiques store who was saying “I’d like to try something different. Get off somewhere. I’m fed up with antiques.”. While she is talking to him about moving away to an exotic place, Thomas does not seem to take her worries into consideration and he does not respond seriously to her- he acts as if he does not understand her. However, by expressing the same longing for something different in the restaurant scene, he seems to establish an indirect connection with the girl, to empathise with someone else for once. The person who listens to him, Ron, laughs and dismisses his train of thought, which further reinforces the disconnection between characters, the loss of communication. Although the characters might have things in common, they don’t really communicate and don’t seem eager to understand others, they’re self-absorbed, but they themselves would like to be listened to and understood.
The relationships between Thomas and women bring forward an important aspect of the film, referring to Antonioni’s views on power relations, gender issues, and toxic masculinity. Thomas the photographer exhibits distant, macho, impudent behaviour towards the women he interacts with and is generally devoid of respect. He has an insolent, dismissive attitude towards the models, he tricks Jane, the mysterious woman from the park and he addresses women as ‘birds’. The term ‘bird’ was commonly attributed to women in the Sixties, which is “a reminder of the attitudes toward women at the time which, despite the new ideas of liberation, are not applied equally”(Powell). However, despite tricking Jane, he seems to have some respect, interest in, and attentiveness towards her, as opposed to the models. This comes from his appreciation of her distinctive qualities: her allure is natural and graceful, she is associated with mystery and nature, she is cut off from the artificiality of the fashion world. Her demeanour and movements appear less performative and calculated. This is indicative of Thomas’ defiance towards and dissatisfaction with the fashion world and its artificiality and his longing for something different. On a larger scale, it is Antonioni’s comment on the lure of the Sixties’ myth – which is not ideal, as it seems to be in the pictures. Thomas’ problematic controlling, objectifying attitude towards the models reflects that.
Thomas seeks to escape from the artificiality of the fashion world by heading towards the park. This is what the Sixties were supposed to be about, moving away from a consumerist to an environmentalist world, which is depicted by moving away from the grey urban space to the green space of the park. This chromatic change marks entering ‘an island of relative peace’ in William Arrowsmith’s view, which sets up a binary opposition between nature and culture, however, as Brunette states, nature in Blow Up is not presented as separate from culture, but as a product of it. For instance, just before heading towards the park, Thomas enters the antique store where he is asked what he is looking for. He replies he is looking for pictures – landscapes in particular. He eventually sees a painting of a landscape which the owner says is sold. Nature is therefore objectified in this scene, just as in the next scene where Thomas takes his camera to photograph landscapes in the park. People cannot escape the artificiality of their world so easily: mod lifestyle in London became so embedded in a glamourised artificial world that a return to the natural would be impossible. It does not take us by surprise then, when the park turns from a place of illusory peace into a violent crime scene, supposedly.
The crime scene is a metaphor for the swinging London scene. Just as we are only aware of Sixties London through a media construct presenting the modern facade, Thomas only finds out about the crime through a photographic representation. Bill the painter’s comment is also closely related to both Thomas’ photograph analysis and to Blow Up– the film: “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” Similarly, Antonioni says “My films are documents, not a train of coherent ideas, but ideas which are born of the moment”, and then add up like pieces of puzzle, forming a beautiful, evocative final piece of art.
There are questions which are not or cannot be answered in Blow Up– for instance, regarding the identity of the characters and, most significantly, the nature of reality. There are blank spaces in the plot, which can be associated with the “elusive moment, the space between reality and myth” (Powell) of Sixties London. What is real and what is not still remains concealed, because of several moments in the film which amplify the uncanny ambiguity of the reality-fiction boundary. One such uncanny moment is the disappearance of the body from the crime scene. Thomas wants to step beyond his role and beyond the visual representation that he has caught on camera, just as the spectator should be aware that there is more beyond the surface presented by a media fantasy. He wants to find out the story, and tries to reconstruct it in a narrative form, using the pictures. He is finally engrossed in something: he escapes the state of distraction which is a way of living in Blow Up, not just a temporary bad habit. After seeing the body, he is only left with an enlargement of a picture to confirm what he has seen, since the body is removed and the rest of the pictures are stolen. The enlarged photograph looks like an abstract painting.
Another element which questions reality in the film is the imaginary tennis game from the end, namely, the moment when the camera moves away from the tennis court out into the fields, and we start hearing the diegetic sound of a tennis game, even though we had seen that the game was only mimed. And finally, as Thomas the photographer fades into the background consisting of the vast green space, the viewer is reminded that Blow Up is a film, not an objective reality, and that it is also not trying to convey an objective reality of Swinging London.
Blow Up is a film that can be seen as part of the cultural context of the 1960’s transition and its changes in mentality and way of living, in this sense revealing Antonioni’s take on the attitudes from behind the scenes of that time. It can be seen as a comment on the elusive aspect of language, as a critique on gender dynamics and on the artificiality of our world or as a philosophical investigation on identity and meaning. Through an unconventional editing style and dialogue and through self-reflexivity, Antonioni portrays a world of alienation, distraction, and meaninglessness, which leaves the viewer contemplating artistic truth, media-shaped truth, and the objectivity of reality.
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.
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.
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.
Based 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.
“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.
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…”