Belladonna of Sadness (1973), dir. Eiichi Yamamoto, is an unsettling hallucinatory Japanese animated film made up of Expressionistic and Symbolist moving paintings, with a variety of artistic influences. The captivating story of Jeanne unfolds through a succession of stunningly ethereal and luridly nightmarish tableaux featuring symbolic yet disturbing depictions of rape, violence, suffering, decomposition, and witch trials. The visceral, expressionistic paintings of sexual violence convey the emotions behind the unsettling experience of rape with transfixing intensity. Matching the trope of the witch, Jeanne is a formerly pure, now sexually awakened, corrupted young woman who acquires magical powers through a pact with the devil. She uses her powers to heal the village people infected with the plague, then hosts surreal orgy rituals in the wilderness and challenges the oppressive forces of the patriarchal state. Threatened by her influence, the rulers try to make a pact with her “to find a path to lead the people to happiness” in exchange for the secret of her cure for the plague, but Jeanne is unsatisfied with their offers, demanding instead to rule the entire world – a desire which is severely punished. This haunting cinematic tale represents a metaphoric portrayal of women’s liberation and universal liberation. Besides the Jeanne d’Arc historical reference, there is also a historical connection with the women’s liberation movement in Japan from 1970.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a memorable, experimental, surreal short film directed and written by Maya Deren. Referred to as poetic psychodrama, the film was ahead of its time with its focus on depicting fragments of the unconscious mind, externalising disjointed mental processes, dreams, and potential drama through poetic cinematic re-enactments brought to life by uncanny doppelganger figures. The enigmatic protagonist, played by Deren herself, enters a dream world in which she finds herself returning to the same spots and actions in and around her house, chasing a strange mirror-faced figure in a nightmarish, entangling, spiralling narrative. Whilst she ritualistically goes through nearly identical motions, with some slight changes, within a domestic space that is imbued with dread and a sense of doom, unreality, and foreignness – we also witness glimpses of multiple versions of herself, watching herself. The camera shifts from subjective to objective angles as the self-representation of the protagonist alternates between the dichotomous concepts of the self and the “other”. The domestic space revolves around certain recurrent symbolic objects. The film conjures up the uncanniness of dissociation or, more specifically, depersonalisation; self-obsession, a woman’s dual inner/outer life and subjective experience of the world, all congruous with Deren’s interest in self-transformation, interior states, surpassing the confines of personality and self-construct, as well as the self-transcending rituals of Haitian Vodou. The dream story, culminating in death, symbolically alludes to the -sometimes strange and terrifying- initial, non-rational stage of the Jungian process of the “transcendent function” (the symbolic confrontation with the unconscious) leading to the separation of awareness from unconscious thought patterns and the liberating reconciliation between the two opposites: ego and the unconscious, which also has the effect of integrating neurotic dissociations.
Continuity is absent in the disjointed dream narrative of the film. The woman goes up the stairs inside the house and unpredictably emerges from the window in a haunting shot, wrapped in and caressed by soft, semi-transparent curtains. After catching her distorted reflection in the polished knife, the camera follows her fluid bending movements as she is crawling on the staircase, whilst being strangely blown away by the wind in various directions within a claustrophobic space, levitating, trying to hang onto things, and eventually hanging in a crucified position against the wall. With her bat-like presence casting a larger-than-life shadow behind her, she gazes at her sleeping body on the couch through a point-of-view shot from the ceiling. This moment vividly evokes the concept of an out-of-body experience. She then watches a previous version of herself through the window, following the flower-holding, black cloaked figure outside. Unable to catch up, she enters the house, and the subjective camera movement switches to this version of her, whilst she catches a glimpse of the funereally dark, cloaked apparition walking up the stairs.
The elusive mirror-faced character is compelling and symbolically evocative. Nun, Grim Reaper, or mourner? The hooded black cloak and the ritual of bringing a flower to someone’s bed are immediately reminiscent of death, of mourning, and associations between bed/tomb and sleep/death. As the face of the obscure ghost-like manifestation is actually a mirror showing the reflection of the watcher, the scenario conjures up the idea of mourning one’s own death. After leaving the flower on the bed, the character disappears and the image of the woman also disappears and re-materialises several times, back and forth on the staircase. She then heads towards her own sleeping body whilst holding a knife, proceeding to try to stab herself before she awakens and sees a man holding a flower in front of her.
The phantom steps of the hooded dream character are traced and re-traced by the man and the woman in what appears to be reality but turns out to be a dream within a dream. The man carries the flower upstairs, leaving it on the bed, a gesture that echoes the dream act but is seen in a different context- of intimacy rather than a religious or funereal act. The flower, a symbol of femininity, is therefore connected with death and sexuality, respectively. After a shot of the reflection of the man in the mirror next to the bed, we watch her lying down through the male gaze. The camera switches to the predatory look on his face, and, as he is about to touch her, she grabs the knife and tries to stab his face. At this point, the knife breaks a mirror instead, and the face of the man disintegrates into shards (another connection between the man and the dream figure), revealing an image -perhaps a memory- of waves and the beach. The man comes inside the house again to find the dead body of the woman on the couch- she committed suicide by cutting herself with a mirror.
Deren poetically described the moment of the intertwining worlds as “a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.” [Deren, “A Letter”, in Essential Deren]
The uncanny dimension of the film lies in the transformation of the familiar environment into something mystifying, the dream-reality ambiguity, the repetition compulsion, the doubling (tripling and quadrupling), the distortions in spatial and temporal awareness, as well as the repetitive use of familiar images such as household objects that seemingly gain unknown symbolic connotations, whilst functioning as mnemonic devices. The juxtaposition of objects also contributes to the sense of dread and paranoia- the off-the-hook phone, the silent record player, the flower left behind by the enigmatic figure, the knife, the falling key. We can associate the off-the-hook phone with loss of communication, the knife -phallic form, therefore masculinity, besides the surface level connection with danger and death, the flower, as mentioned, having a contrasting effect-femininity, but also, death in this context; the key represents confinement, repression, and feeling entrapped, but also the possibility to escape. When the woman pulls out the key from her mouth, perhaps she had “the key” to find the way out all along, and then, as the regurgitated key turns into a knife, there is a connection between escape and (psychic) suicide. The mirror stands for introspection, and the death by mirror cut might allegorically refer to the disintegration of the identity construct, linked to liberation. When a version of the woman picks up the knife, she is re-claiming her agency, wielding phallic power.
It is worth mentioning that the director strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytic interpretations of her film and of the symbolic significance of the objects the film revolves around, instead encouraging the viewer to only interpret them in the context of the film narrative as a whole to avoid going beyond conscious intent in art. This brings me back to an inner debate on the topic of film analysis, its limitations and the question whether there is such a thing as going “too deep” into conscious and unconscious meaning behind film. The “risk” of going too deep is ingrained in the nature of the work of any film scholar or critic, especially when it comes to cine-psychoanalysis. However, when it comes to surreal films in particular, the intentions are blurred and open to interpretation, and clearly Deren’s art is lyrical in its symbolic nature, created by association of poetic images, and influenced by her interest in psychology. Before turning to cinematography, Maya Deren expressed herself through poetry, but she found it too limiting to convey the images in her mind through words.
To respect the wishes of the creator, let’s also look at her own statements related to the film, as well as her general preoccupations and beliefs, which are transparently relevant to the film.
“This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” —Maya Deren on Meshes of the Afternoon, from DVD release Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58.
The multiplying of the character is connected to dissociation, alienation, emotional fragmentation, and potentially reintegration towards the end. The multiple incarnations of the woman evoke an internal schizoid narrative breathing life into alternative versions of herself- challenging her self-construct. Some of her personas are passively observing her more powerful, key-holding, knife-wielding persona. The suicide is symbolic, despite the fact that, in the final scene, it appears as if the layers of the dream world are peeled off and we have access to the real world. I believe the death symbolism is derived from Jungian psychology- i.e. the death and resurrection of consciousness. In light of this thought, the film can represent a visual representation of Jung’s Transcendent Function. What unfolds on screen is the process through which a person gains awareness of and confronts unconscious material driving their life in order to unite and re-channel the opposing energies of the ego and the unconscious into a third state of being, of wholeness. This would also have an integral effect that will merge the embodiments of the character’s dissociations. According to Jung, the process involves a challenging, unnerving unleashing of fantasies, dreams, and instincts. The sense of dread and panic evoked by the film matches this idea. The process is also associated with the notion of ego death in Eastern philosophies.
To further delve into Deren’s psyche and establish other links, let’s remember that she was fascinated by the rituals of Haitian Vodou and religious possession. She later participated in Vodou ceremonies and documented the rituals. Together with her love of dance (and later, her experience with recreational drugs) her immersion in and fascination with rituals were also a result of seeking to drift away from self-centredness, to go beyond self-construct and personality, and merge with something greater. This is again related to the Buddhist concept of ego death – a transcendent, life-turning mental state with self-revelatory consequences. We know that Deren has a preoccupation with the transformation of the self and reaching higher spiritual states of awareness. In this excerpt from An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), she makes insightful comments about ritual:
“The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specialisations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”
I am glad she mentions depersonalisation and associates it with a form of spiritual awakening, as this coincides with my beliefs on depersonalisation and derealisation, which are also relevant to the film. The two often go hand in hand. Both experiences (note I’m not referring to them as ‘disorders’) involve a feeling of detachment – from one’s thoughts and from reality, as well as an awareness of this detachment (which distinguishes it from psychosis: there are no delusions or psychotic elements involved). Derealisation involves experiencing the world as if you are living in a dream or a film, and depersonalisation is the feeling of unreality of the self, which has been introduced as a psychiatric disorder of the dissociative type in 1930 and has been updated and re-interpreted several times in various psychiatric diagnosis manuals. Other common features mentioned in the DSM-IV are an uncanny distortion in visual and temporal perception, a feeling that other people, places, or events appear unfamiliar, unreal, or mechanical and lacking emotional depth. An individual experiencing this might feel like an outside observer of his or her own mental processes. All of this also applies to Meshes of the Afternoon where the protagonist is in a perpetual, adrift state of trance as she navigates the dream web and observes herself from an external perspective, whilst familiar objects appear foreign, strange, or ‘tainted’.
Here is an excerpt from Feeling Unreal, one of the few books tackling the elusive topic of DPD- written by Daphne Simeon, MD and Jeffrey Abugel. The description matches the insight and feeling revealed by Deren regarding the state of depersonalisation in ritual:
“No longer grounded by familiar sensations or surroundings, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality. But unlike people with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, they are not going insane at all. They are, if anything, suddenly overly aware of reality and existence and of the ways in which their own experience is a distortion of a ‘normal’ sense of a real self. Depersonalisation, in fact, resembles a sort of altered ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’ that in some cultures is thought to be a level of spiritual growth.”
It is worth watching both existing versions of the film: Your viewing experience might change depending on whether you watch the early silent version or the 1959 version accompanied by the official sombre, atmospheric soundtrack created by Teiji Ito, Maya’s second husband. You will also not be surprised to find out that the dreamlike atmosphere and narrative of Meshes was a source of inspiration for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001).
High Life (2018) is a hypnotising, mostly slow-paced, eerie sci-fi film directed by Claire Denis, French director associated with art-house films & known for transcending cinematic conventions. The film evokes a dreamlike, uncanny mood with some sinister, twisted aspects, sexual experiments, and violence, all wrapped up in a greater sense of despair and despondency attributed to the hopelessness of the space voyage. The plot of High Life reveals a group of people whose common denominator is their capital crime history, setting off on a peculiar expedition into space with the purpose of harnessing energy from a black hole and bringing it back on Earth. Having been deceived into thinking that the mission is the key to their freedom, as an alternative to their earthly punishment, they soon become aware that it appears to be more like a suicide mission.
Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, the mysterious, long-haired, witchy mad scientist figure on the spaceship, who conducts unwanted sexual experiments on the captives, collecting their bodily fluids for artificial insemination purposes. Her bewitching performance is harmoniously intertwined with Robert Pattinson’s intensity and stoic composure in his role as Monte. His character is protective of the women on the spaceship, going from beating another spaceship inhabitant who tries to rape one of the girls, to rushing to save the doctor’s life, and eventually going into fatherhood. We already figure that Monte and his daughter might be the last ones standing, as he discards the corpses of the other interstellar voyagers into nothingness.
The atmosphere throughout the whole film is somewhat alienating and surreal, with uncanny undertones. After years spent adrift in the vastness of the universe, the spaceship has become their home, whilst at the same time being their prison. Monte’s brief musings are poetic at times, and the dialogue is minimal, amplifying the tension and intensity on board. A major aspect of that tension is sexual, and some of it is released within “The Fuckbox” (initially called the “love machine”, before the French director was persuaded to Americanise it), a particularly strange kinky dark chamber designed for individual fantasy-unleashing, which, however, doesn’t prevent the cosmic drifters from sexually assaulting other members on-board or being repressed. “Fuckbox” seems to be a more appropriate term for its nature, unless “love machine” was intended to create a satirical contrast.
Dr. Dibs’ self-satisfying scene in the box is mesmerising and primal, her movements are feral. This impression is further emphasised by the inclusion of animal fur within the decor and by the bizarre mystical soundtrack building up, incorporating sounds reminiscent of a wild animal’s lament. The sound could be mistaken for a distorted human moan for a split second, before turning wolf-like, which enhances the sense of eeriness and ritualistic transcendence. Her frenzy doesn’t culminate as she desired, it turns out the process was all too mechanical. When she gets out, she meets Monte’s reprimanding gaze, who questions her ways and her disturbing reproductive mission.
What follows is Monte’s confession that he had frequented the box, but decided to live a life of abstinence, hence why the others refer to him as the monk. He muses: “Chastity was a way of making myself stronger”. To provide contrast to the kinky box which is the symbol of Dibs’ queendom, the next scene shows Monte in his natural habitat, literally. He prefers hanging out in the little garden because it reminds him of life on Earth. His gardening pal admits that the garden anchors him in the present moment, perhaps making him feel connected to his family back on Earth, yet Monte gives him a painful reality check: that his family is either old or dead. We also find out that Monte’s name belongs to his dog, whom he was raised by, and who also had a more significant impact on his life.
At times, Juliette Binoche’s acting is both trance-inducing and trance-like. Not as if in a daze, but in a controlling, maniacal way. An example of this is the scene following Mia Goth’s character revealing of Dibs’ secret gruesome criminal past. With her ghostly vampiric presence, Dibs steps quietly and secretively through the empty corridor after sedating everyone. Right before the unsettling scene featuring Monte’s sleeping body, she stops in front of the female pilot whom she urges to go to sleep in a weirdly hypnotising manner. The whole sequence is disturbing and uncanny partly because there is a deranged maternal aura about her, her gestures, and the ritual of covering up and putting a baby to sleep (in this case, both Boyse and Nansen). This is particularly disturbing considering what we’ve learnt about her past in the previous scene, even though her dedication to her reproductive mission is derived from that event.
The enthralling aesthetic of the film features a colour palette oscillating from icy tones to colourful, red and purple lights. Within the clinical-looking hallways and inside their separate rooms the characters are drowning in blue lights. The end scene is significantly golden in tone, as the film ends on an enigmatic, positive, vaguely hopeful note. Reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in different ways, High Life is an arthouse sci-fi film documenting the unfolding of human nature with both its ghastly destructive side and its hopeful nurturing side in the context of a fascinating, dreamlike, ominous space journey.
“The sensation: moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer, sometimes I just can’t stand it.”
Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold, 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. A haunting, alluringly grim atmosphere is ever present throughout the film. 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 her tumultuous character 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.
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, as it depicts 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 socio-political 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 unique connection is depicted through intertwining physical bodies floating in a dark virtual space. However, there is an element of subjectivity which makes us reluctant to take Paul’s symbolic descriptions as well as the consistency of Osmosis for granted. 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 with the same intensity. It could be that certain issues regarding scientific predictability and the controlling aspects of Osmosis represent a strong incentive for her actions, overriding the augmented Osmosis euphoria, as 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? Another aspect that is aligned with the view of subjectivity and inconsistency is the moment Paul starts saying Osmosis didn’t seem as strong/ intense at particular times. Not to mention Lucas, whose abnormal Osmosis experience was dismissed as the inevitable error of and exception to the test. Is Osmosis as reliable as Paul hopes?
Osmosis is a complex show in its dystopian-utopian ambiguity, especially when it comes to 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, whilst others exhibit outright pessimism or 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. AI sentience may also make a short-lived appearance.
The show is mostly slow-paced, exuding arthouse vibes, and the characters, as well as the actors’ performances, 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 definitely have a negative impact, that will be Ana, due to 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 popular 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.
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.
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.
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 uttered by the psychologist in a crucial intense scene towards the end: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”, quoting Samuel Beckett.
There are many alluring elements contributing to the immersive nature of the film and its fascinating uncanniness: The alien presence of an ambiguous nature, strange, nightmarish mutations, a symbiotic connection and the fear of being assimilated into something terrifying, blurred lines between self and other, the process of doubling, the tension, the eerie, magnetic atmosphere, gripping narrative, philosophical, introspective discourse, and compelling body horror imagery consisting in familiar elements depicted in a sinister, macabre way.
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, as well as how the uncanny encountered outwards echoes the uncanny within each of them.
Here are a few haunting excerpts from the eponymous book by Jeff VanderMeer. Among other thematic concerns, the book is also focused on environmental themes and metaphors for the conflict between nature and culture. VanderMeer alludes to the relationship between human beings and planet Earth, which can also be viewed through a lens of contamination. He emphasises the idea that nature should be treated as a part of us, just as we are part of nature; for if we dismiss it, we become alienated from a part of ourselves, of our humanness.
The following excerpts are amazingly reflective of the concept of the uncanny:
“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonise you.”
“I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.“
“A day that had the clarity of dream, of something strange yet familiar – familiar routine but strange calmness.”
“And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested? Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic. Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words, which powers the engine of transformation. Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is “merely” a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our own. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters.”
“[…] Imagine these expeditions, and then recognise that they all still exist in Area X in some form, even the ones that came back, especially the ones that came back: layered over one another, communicating in whatever way is left to them. Imagine that this communication sometimes lends a sense of the uncanny to the landscape because of the narcissism of our human gaze, but that it is just part of the natural world here. I may never know what triggered the creation of the doppelgangers, but it may not matter.”
“The strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of it all, the sense of waiting, brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy.”
― Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”