Tonight, Evolution, the sci-fi/horror hybrid by French writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic will have its Florida premiere at the Second Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival (Our review: Evolution skips clear narrative to create waking nightmare of body horror — a Popcorn Frights film review). Earlier this week, The Miami New Times published an interview I conducted with the filmmaker (read it here), but so much had to be trimmed out, like why did it take Hadzihalilovic 10 years to follow-up Innocence? We also spoke about the film’s strange, surreal tone and why a straight narrative doesn’t always make for the best horror movie.

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Too often, mainstream American horror movies strain to explain circumstances to get to the bottom of a mystery, which often saps an important element of fear of the unknown from a picture. Sometimes the genre is better served by defying logic and rationale to play with fear on a more primal level. With her new film Evolution, French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic builds horror on atmosphere, absurdity and the dread of the unknown.

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embrace of the serpent posterLast week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).

It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.

With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:

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As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.

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It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.

Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.

Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?

Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.


What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?

Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.

Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?

It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.


The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?

It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.

For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?

Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.

But it wasn’t a direct influence?

No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.


The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?

It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.

This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?

It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.

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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:

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Hans Morgenstern

Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

room-poster-2Told from the perspective of a child, Room speaks to the strength of children faced with trauma so profound, more experienced adults might crack under its pressure. The sixth full-length from director Lenny Abrahamson is a film full of hope packaged in a grim plot based on the book by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the script. We meet Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson), as she treats him to his fifth birthday. But there are many odd things in the lead-up to the celebration. She only has a toaster oven in a tiny room to bake the cake. There are no friends or family coming over, and, most devastating to Jack, there are no candles for the cake. He throws a tantrum and refuses to partake of the cake knowing how incomplete it is. Ma suggests that possibly next year there will be candles. That’s wholly up to what groceries are brought to them by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).

It turns out Jack and his mother live in an 11 by 11 foot space, and they can’t get out, sealed in by a coded lock on the only door. It’s a space that Jack and Ma don’t call home but “room.” Though the scene is presented as blissful up to the tantrum, with big orchestral music, and Jack running around the room saying good morning to the sink and furniture, the film makes no pretense to maintain this artificial pleasantry. That’s only to be found in the inner world of Jack, who has acclimated to growing up in this room all his life because it’s all he knows. Seven years earlier, his Ma was kidnapped and imprisoned in this room by a sexual predator: Nick. You get the picture.


The film unfolds smartly, and is far less meandering than Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank. The child’s questions drive the film’s drama, and Jack has a lot of questions. His developing awareness serves as rather keen exposition, revealing the details of how he and his mother get on but also how they quietly suffer at the hands of Nick. But they are not just victims. They are a loving, single-parent household whose home happens to be a small space. Even with no one else to talk to, Ma finds a way to socialize her son and — most importantly — teach him empathy. Even if they aren’t alive, he expresses appreciation to inanimate objects in room. In one scene, he thanks the toilet “for making poo disappear.”

It’s all well and good that he learns to be polite, but these are objects. They can never respond. The loss of interaction with another living, breathing, thinking person besides his protective mother and hiding from the man who kidnapped her makes it hard when he is out. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the two are rescued. Even though the commercials and trailer reveal that they make it out, the escape is still a harrowing moment. Sounds and simple visuals, like power lines whizzing overhead from Jack’s POV capture his distress and over stimulation by an outside world he never knew existed until he makes it outside room via a frightening scheme devised by Ma.


But Jack will bounce back. The film is about suffering but also about people adjusting and growing accustomed to extreme circumstances. A child is especially interesting to watch cope. As a doctor tells his mother, “The best thing you could have done is get him out while he was still plastic.” The boy whispers to his mother, “I’m not made of plastic.” The defiance is charming in its naiveté. After all, the film’s concern is about empowering the child with his immaturity, and the filmmakers stay focused on Jack’s perspective, to the film’s benefit. The cinematography works great on the level of Jack. Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen capture the boy’s perspective maintaining the camera low and tight on the boy. A shallow focus that blurs out background captures Jack intimately, bringing the audience in to relate on his level. Stephen Rennicks’ heavy orchestral score stands in contrast to the little space and the intimate drama. What adults might consider banal, like existing in the moment when sun seeps through a skylight, are big moments for a child, and the music rightly reflects that.

Larson brings great humanity to her performance, working off the boy’s plasticity as a hardened and traumatized woman who suffered through her teenage years as a captive. She responds to Jack’s pain but also his growth as aRm_D22-_GK_0113.NEF woman who finds it more difficult to let go of her trauma even as Jack grows nostalgic for their alone time together. Tremblay is also great, and there’s talk of making him the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar nomination. It’s a cute milestone, but I’m not on board because, as I explained in the paragraph above, there is a lot of cinematic direction that focuses on the child, inducing the viewer’s empathy and also creating the performance. He’s still a child acting as a child should, and credit is also due to the writer, director and even the editor for creating a performance specific to a drama that a child could not possibly understand without suffering some psychological trauma. That’s how child acting works.

And you have to hand it to Donoghue, who brings her prowess with words to the big screen brilliantly, from the honest words out of the mouth of a child, to the complicated feelings that come after trauma. Ma breaks down at one point in front of Jack, during their time adjusting to the real world, and confesses to her little boy, “I’m not a good enough ma.” The boy responds, “But you’re Ma.” It’s a simple exchange, and it’s one of several moments that will draw the tears from the audience (no wonder it won the People’s Choice award in Toronto).


The film has charm while still exploring disturbingly dark subject matter. The love between Ma and Jack is strong, and the film leaves no gaps to ever question that. When Jack meets his grandfather, Robert (William H. Macy), who can’t seem to bear touching the boy due to his lineage. There’s no question who the viewer will side with when Ma blows up at her dad when he can’t look the boy in the eye at dinner. But it works as this young mother adjusts to a lost childhood with her parents.

However, in the film’s only real flagrant misstep in melodrama, a reporter sits down with Ma to hurl loaded questions in a patronizing demeanor that would be far from ethical or even believable on TV (even Nancy Grace is protective of victims). Here Room falls off the deep end to present a cartoonish, flat character designed as plot device to reach an artificial climax for a story that is actually quite complex. There are still many years to cover as far as looming trauma and drama. It’s still a only a piece of a film and a forgivable dramatic miscalculation in what is otherwise a charming indie film sure to be remembered come awards season.

Hans Morgenstern

Room runs 118 minutes and is rated R (it has references to violence and harsh language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 30, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It then expands to other theaters on Nov. 6, including the independent art house O Cinema Wynwood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. A24 provided all images to illustrate this post and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

amy posterYou don’t need this movie to show you Amy Winehouse was an independent spirit at heart, but feature filmmaker turned documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia hits the respectable notes in his mostly chronological documentary, Amy. As she came to fame, Winehouse spoke frankly with the BBC’s Russell Harty about her refusal to be packaged as a commodity by the management company that gave us The Spice Girls. She also says she hates pop music and admires jazz above all, a music scene she made no apologies for as elitist and unfit for the massive open air shows she would ultimately headline. She did her best to be relatable, calling her breakout second album, Back to Black, an accessible record because it was not as jazzy as her first album, Frank.

Kapadia worked with a team of editors with access to home video footage provided by family members as well as footage from every source imaginable — from paparazzi shots to YouTube fan footage to broadcast TV appearances — to splice together an intimate story about Winehouse’s all-too-speedy rise to fame and acclaim, then into a period of brutal rejection by the pop culture media machine and her untimely death. It’s remarkable how grounded Amy feels from moment to moment. Early on, Winehouse comes across as a mischievous child, as we meet her singing “Happy Birthday” with a voice that spontaneously takes over the room and draws in the camera. What’s so painful to watch is how her personality gradually loses its luster over the course of the film. The more attention she received, the more she disappeared. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch, until she pulls that ultimate disappearing act. It was a tragic loss for the music world because that Back to Black album was too good and too human for the popular music scene she got trapped in, the chorus of the hit single “Rehab” co-opted into an ironic, frivolous joke when referencing her hard times.

amy 3

That song came from a sincere place, and there’s little room for its complexity and humanity in the often flippantly referential pop music world. While her public downfall was transmitted in 15 second updates on entertainment news shows, this documentary grips you with its near two-and-half-hour run time, inviting the viewer to contemplate the person behind the tunes. I would never posit any documentary transmits a true portrait of anyone. The story it wants to tell are in the choices the director makes when he cuts together his footage. With one splice in an image, a filmmaker will exert editorial vision.

From the start, Amy seeks to make the audience aware of Winehouse’s penchant for drinking and partying as well her attraction to drugs and toxic relationships. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, is vilified as an absent parent who jumped back into her life with her success. He has famously protested the director’s alleged decision to cut short a certain statement in the film where he declares his daughter didn’t need rehab. He told “The Guardian” his soundbite was edited to remove context: “What I said was: ‘She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time.’ … They’ve edited me out saying ‘at that time’.”

Let that serve to prove that there is no such thing as a genuinely objective documentary, and let’s be honest, this film was built in the editing room. However, the big picture of Winehouse’s stratospheric rise to fame where she flamed out is sharply presented. amy 2There’s no denying the cruelty of ill-informed soundbites on late night TV and gossip shows would hurt a person such as Winehouse, who never made fame the priority over her craft. She prided herself in writing her own lyrics, based on her own experiences (she titled her first album Frank for a reason). During her rise as a pop culture icon, she appeared on “The Tonight Show” to sing “Rehab.” Jay Leno is seen complimenting her at the end of her performance. Later in the film, during her downfall, Kapadia edits in footage of another episode of “The Tonight Show,” months later. During his opening monologue, Leno cracks a joke about her drug abuse and the camera sweeps over the massive audience breaking out in laughter.

The movie is long, and if there was one section that felt like it dragged it was during the presentation of the entire footage –with the camera focused on Winehouse — as all the Grammy nominees for Record of the Year are read. It’s interesting to watch Winehouse’s blasé attitude to the nominees, which included Carrie Underwood and Rihanna. Then, when her name is announced, we get to see her surprise, a moment captured in all the trailers for this movie. At this point in the movie, one should feel a keen ambivalence to the pop music machine, as well, so it becomes a bitter-sweet moment.

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Amy is a craftily constructed experience, but it never reduces Winehouse to a victim of her circumstance or her addictions. As much as I like to single out the terrors of the mass media machine, Winehouse’s story is a complicated one. An array of characters in her life, some poisonous some supportive, provide voice-over narration over all the archival footage (there are no talking heads, beyond Kapadia’s found footage). She came from a home that was both broken but also tolerant. There are moments in the studio or her composing in her notebooks that reveal Winehouse in zones that show an artist focused but relaxed in her craft. She seems incredibly distinct in how she approached the guitar and her voice. It’s also nice to know a lot of that happened in Miami, away from the tensions of London.

With Amy, Kapadia has assembled an utterly tragic story about a truly talented young woman who went down the wrong slide of the music industrial complex. A sense of tragedy looms over the entire thing. Success is many things, but beware popularity. There hasn’t been a film that depicts the idea of “the build you up to tear you down” as vividly as Amy, which is an ultimately heartbreaking film.

Hans Morgenstern

One more screening update: Amy continues to be a hit in South Florida. It makes another visit to another O Cinema theater, now coming to Miami Shores: details here.

Amy runs 128 minutes and is rated R (lots of “common” talk and drug use). The film has been playing in our Miami area for awhile, and is scheduled to continue its run through Aug. 6 (Update: Amy‘s run has been extended again at our local theaters, until Aug. 13 at O Cinema Wynwood and Aug. 14 at Tower Theater). Tower Theater invited me to a screening for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations and is already a bonafide indie hit (check out its box office) for A24 Films. If you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy A24.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

duke 1sheetIt’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.

The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.


Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.

As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.


Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).

One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.


Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.

The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”

As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.

Hans Morgenstern

The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

Once you’ve seen the movie, you may want to return to the soundtrack. Stream it here for the time being, or you might want to just go ahead an pre-order the vinyl version here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

linconnu-du-lacStranger by the Lake, the first U.S.-distributed film by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie stands out as a strikingly confident work. His little-known filmography dates back to 1990 and includes six other feature films, so he has had experience to build on. But watching his latest film with only knowledge of his surreal earlier work, which includes a world featuring unseen creatures called ounayes, it becomes easy to see why Stranger By the Lake stands out as his breakthrough movie.

Though grounded in a recognizable, real world, the specter of the unknowable still hangs heavy over the film’s action, which is shaped by primal sexual desire and a rather kinky flirtation with mystery. It focuses on a motley crew of gay men cruising for sex along the bank of a lake over the course of a few days during summer vacation in some part of France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is new to the lake. He strikes up a conversational relationship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a pudgy older man, who sits on the rocks with his arms crossed but never seems to partake in any of the sexual activity. Then there’s Michel (Christophe Paou), an athletic swimmer with a bushy Magnum P.I. mustache, who Franck passionately falls for.

Franck’s interest in Michel comes across in glances, and Michel’s lover does not like the look of it, so he presses Michel to leave for a romp in the nearby woods. Franck pairs off with another man in a Batman T-shirt. After Franck and “Batman” have their fling, which includes vivid ejaculation (ramming home a reference to le petit mort), lake_promo1Franck spies Michel drowning his clingy lover. Though Franck had told Henri he had not planned to visit the lake the following day, he shows up anyway. When Henri asks Franck what changed his mind, Franck eludes the question. However, the implication is clear:  His desire for Michel has only been enhanced.

The film features plenty of nudity and sex, including, as noted, stuff some might only see in hardcore pornography (body doubles are used for these scenes). The casual nakedness and dangerous love recalls the darkly comic 1971 Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, about a French settler who is practically adopted by a tribe of barely-clothed cannibals, given a wife, only to be eaten. The all-consuming and visceral desire of Franck for a man who he has spied drowning his lover gives Stranger By the Lake a similar ominous, primal vibe.

Sex for these men may be casual, but it is never without its complications. It serves a purpose in loading glances and adding a certain heft to the dialogue. linconnu_du_lac2Though these men seem to be able to talk intimately about sex, they exchange many questions never entirely answered. Conversations become taboo. When a masturbating voyeur stands near a naked Franck and Michel as they talk in the bushes, Michel tells him to go away. “Can’t you see we’re talking? Come back when we’re fucking.”

Stranger By the Lake is not about the plain-sighted but what lies beneath it. These men may seem to bare all (even Michel’s psychosis is put on plain display). However, there is always the unknown psychological that informs unspoken motivations: the unconscious. Guiraudie presents the fatal drowning and Michel rising from the lake afterward to put on his clothes and walk away in one long take, all from the perspective of the trees, where Franck has hidden. It’s a brilliant metaphor for that inert but essential place in the mind inexplicably linked to the death drive. It’s Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos, rising up from the pool of the unconscious incarnate.

The unknowable is further enhanced by witty dialogue that heightens the notion of a narrative based on questions. When Franck and Michel have their first sexual tryst, Michel asks Franck about his lover. Franck denies having one but then asks Michel, “And what did you do with yours?” The men exchange questions that remain unanswered as often as they reveal intimate thoughts of desire or self-worth, yet there is knowledge loaded in the questions that goes beyond dramatic irony and speaks to a dark, unmentionable drive below the surface. It’s perfectly represented in an earlier, casual chat between Franck and Henri when Henri warns Franck of the alleged presence of a 15-foot long silurus (or catfish) in the lake that is never seen in the movie.


Guiraudie maintains his focus brilliantly by staying devoted to the setting. The film never moves to any other location beyond the lake, the woods and a make-shift parking lot by a dirt road. He uses little stylization. The pacing is well controlled, never fast enough to call attention to itself or languorous enough to bore. Though the film has no extra-diegetic score, one of the first standout cinematic characteristics of Stranger By the Lake is its sound. The rustle of leaves from a wind that sends tree branches waving, the lapping of the water on the shoreline, the sound of gravel crunching below the feet of the men: this is the film’s score. It’s natural, but also heightened in its central position without any distracting music. In its own bizarre way, it adds to the film’s sinister, surreal and psychological quality. The sound of the water during Franck’s first swim in the lake adds a heft to the quality of what will be the murder weapon.

Guiraudie harnesses the power of his minimalist style to produce quality cinema— if you are not distracted by explicit gay sex. His sensibility is typically French, a country that has produced some of the most efficiently focused films in the world. The film’s biggest strength against this neat backdrop is its tightly packed dialogue, which is at once revealing and full of mystery. It only gets better as the film moves on when a police inspector intrudes on the men with more questions and climax with a scene of perfect, intriguing mystery. Guiraudie, who won the directing Prize of Un Certain Regard at 2013’s Cannes Film Festival, will certainly become a filmmaker to watch.

Hans Morgenstern

Stranger By the Lake runs 97 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (it’s adult, psychologically and viscerally). It opens in South Florida area this Friday, Feb. 7, in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood and at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s Facebook page.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)