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.
Midsommar (2019) is a dark-themed cinematic fairytale described by its director and writer Ari Aster as a “horror movie about codependency”. The film encompasses a portrayal of mental illness- bipolar disorder, anxiety, and mood disorders, the pattern and dynamics of a dysfunctional codependent relationship, the exploitation of trauma and vulnerability that is part of the cult indoctrination process, the disillusionment with reality, cognitive dissonance, the uplifting power and importance of empathy and reciprocity, and the psychological susceptibility of a fragmented psyche.
The overall atmosphere created and the feelings evoked in Midsommar are quite different compared to other horror films. Everything happens during daytime, which facilitates the beautiful contrast between the macabre aspect and the idyllic, nostalgic setting filled with enchanted fun, laughter, and dance- all wrapped in a shroud of dreamlike ambiguity (and tinged with a perpetual sense of ominousness). The bizarre light-heartedness of the inhabitants in the face of sinister macabre events adds another layer of ominousness as the spectator is held spellbound by the diaphanous fabric of reality within this strange peaceful community, whilst perpetually feeling like something horrifying could take place at any moment.
Initially shocked by the horrific, gruesome ritualistic events she witnesses within the cult, Dani is gradually lured into the peculiar, nightmarish world because of all its promises of bliss and belonging. The place she finds herself in is like a strange crystal ball, an escapist fantasy gone wrong, sheltering her from a reality that failed her expectations. The process of recruitment within cults often involves an exploitation of trauma, as they prey upon the vulnerable aspects of the human psyche, on powerlessness and feelings of isolation, of being misunderstood, disappointed or mistreated by fate or the external world, in order to sell an alternative, superior, rescuing narrative. For cult members, reality is either too much or not enough. Dani is the archetypal vulnerable person with a psychological susceptibility to being brainwashed and sucked into the ghastly, yet rewarding cult because of the suffering she has experienced in the “real world”. After the tragic demise of her family, she feels alienated from the world and can’t find comfort in her unsatisfying relationship with her boyfriend, Christian, who has emotionally checked out and is unable to fulfil or share her emotional needs.
Taking into account Dani’s backstory is essential in order to understand her gradual conversion to the religion and strange ways of the cult. The relationship dynamic between Christian and Dani is a typical codependent-avoidant dynamic. There is a particular scene in which this dynamic is emphasised very clearly: the more she pushes, both physically and emotionally, the more he withdraws and feels suffocated, and she feels even more rejected and pushes further- this type of dynamic is a vicious cycle. Early on, we find out Dani’s sister is bipolar, and Dani takes anxiety medication, whilst Christian and his friends see her mental struggles as a burden. Although his male friends encourage him to part ways with her in an insensitive conversation at the bar, he feels guilty for his thoughts after the tragedy that has struck, hence inviting her to the Swedish summer solstice festival. Throughout the film, Dani constantly condemns his attitude and perceived uncaring nature, sometimes in a controlling way, other times in a passive-aggressive way. Christian’s friends display no empathy towards her and, whilst he does not have enough energy to deal with her emotionally demanding nature and to reciprocate her emotional investment in the way she wants, he is also not inconsiderate. His friends put up a flimsy facade of niceness around her, which collapses whenever she walks out of the picture. The tension can be felt, and her instinct can tell something is wrong. Her good instinct is constantly denied by those around her, hence the dangerous gaslighting effect leading to a mistrust of her own instinct.
It is generally impossible to pinpoint the one to blame in such relational settings, as both the codependent and the avoidant contribute to a toxic relational pattern, sometimes as a result of emotional trauma or mental disorders, even if they have no bad intentions. It fluctuates. In his discussions with his friends, they sound selfish and unfair towards her and we pity or empathise with her and condemn him, especially after the lack of respect shown towards her in absentia. However, there are moments when Dani is the one seemingly unreasonable and overly pushy and controlling, with a needy attitude, and we almost empathise with his response of feeling cornered. The film manages to make the spectator understand both points of view, but ultimately condemns Christian. Their attachment styles render the relationship doomed to unhappiness due to incompatibilities on the levels of emotional needs and support.
Dani is not seen, her feelings are not acknowledged or validated, and there is an element of gaslighting. This is important because it is why she is attracted to and ensnared by the sinister world of the cult. It feels like the cult community fully accepts her, with her intense emotional makeup. In a bizarre and particularly powerful and cathartic key scene, her emotional reactions are validated and encouraged by the community- it is like she transfers her emotions onto them, and they directly empathise with her by sharing her energy and screaming with her. Crowned as the May Queen, Dani feels embraced, understood, more than seen: she feels celebrated as she is held up in the air and worshipped, she escapes from being sucked into a vortex of mental despair and unhappiness following the tragic events. The May Queen is the personification of spring, and spring is a time of rebirth, symbolically marking Dani’s personal spiritual rebirth and new, happier life. After the shocking imagery and events at the end, at first she is sad and distressed, but then, we can see how her sadness and despair are loudly echoed by the community, whilst Dani’s sorrow is superseded by a strong, gratifying feeling of belonging, of being part of a whole. Remember when her boyfriend’s friend, Pelle, significantly asks her “Does he feel like home to you?”. Her boyfriend never felt like home, nothing felt like home to her in the external world post-tragedy, since her actual family situation was so abnormal. A healthy approach would have been finding home within herself through self-love. However, after the surreal events, Dani’s mind is too unstable to represent the safe concept of home for herself and she needs external support, so the cult-like community becomes her home. After that realisation of unity, gradually, her facial expression transitions and she starts smiling. Her smile suggests a new beginning. The ending is quite powerful and touching: As she smiles, we smile with her and we feel happy for her because she has found happiness, even if her solace was found within such a grim environment and despite the human sacrifices and prior grotesque events unfolding on screen.
Florence Pugh manages to convey the fragmentation and transition of her character’s psyche admirably. Dani experiences a state of cognitive dissonance when her emotional cravings for being loved and understood override her ability to reason and to process the gravity of the horror and the evil side of the cult. Her profound disillusionment with reality makes her idealise the cult community because it offers her what she lacks and craves the most. The disappointing, misery-inducing events in her life contribute to her future shift towards what feels good- namely empathy, regardless of the the fact that it is provided in an unpredictable, deadly environment. The director, Ari Aster, mentions that she transitions from one codependent relationship to another, so, from her unsatisfying codependent relationship with her boyfriend to a more satisfying one with the loving, empathetic, murderously dark community.
As a spectator, you might find Midsommar to be a strange dream you are deeply immersed in and captivated by, leaving you in a state of blissful confusion even after you walk out of the cinema. The celestial beauty and holy aura of the film setting masking the disturbingly dark characteristics of the cult contribute to a state of confusion, which is amplified by hallucinogenic moments. Aside from Dani’s inner turmoil and emotional metamorphosis compellingly conveyed externally, another ingredient to this cocktail of emotions is a general tinge of existential dread. Ultimately, though, you might empathise with Dani and feel happy and confused by your own happiness in such a gruesome context.
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.”
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.
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, and has also been cited as the inspiration behind Darren Arronofsky’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.
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.