Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Fantasia (and Adjacent) Movies in Theaters This Weekend: She Is Conann and Sometimes I Think About Dying

For a moment or three, I had a false memory of She Is Conann playing Fantasia last summer but it just not being something I could fit into my schedule. Surprisingly enough, none of Bertrand Mandico's features have played that festival, though perhaps the shorts have; they seemingly are always timed better for something else.

Anyway, I liked both of these odd movies quite a bit, and since I probably won't have a chance to see them during the next week as I intend to camp out at the Brattle for their Columbia/Jean Arthur series, I made sure I caught the preview show for Conann. Both are worth checking out if you're up for something different!

She Is Conann (or just Conann)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2024 in Alamo Drafthouse Seaport #1 (preview, DCP)

It's not saying a lot that She Is Conann is probably my favorite of Bertrand Mandico's three features - the others fall solidly into the "I'm glad someone's making this sort of weird movie" category more than "I really enjoyed that". This one, though, feels like something closer to a real movie, if a very weird one: It's got the same lo-fi, installation-art weirdness of the others, but there seems to be a point to its envelope pushing.

It opens, as such films do, in Limbo, or perhaps Hell, as a recently-deceased woman (Françoise Brion) is confronted by Rainer (Elina Löwensohn), a dog-faced demon who claims they have known each other for a long time, though the new arrival's memory is spotty. So, too, is that of Conann, who has apparently risen to be queen of Hell, though intrigued by Rainer's claim that this person is more fearsome and evil than her. And so, we hear the tales of Conann's life across six eras: When she was a sickly 15-year-old (Claire Duburcq) captured by Barbarian queen Sanja (Julia Riedler), a 25-year-old warrior (Christa Théret) seeking revenge, a 35-year-old amnesiac (Sandra Parfait) transported to the Bronx of 1998, a fearsome general of 45 (Agata Buzek), and, finally, a wealthy patron of the arts (Nathalie Richard). Rainer is a constant across all those lives, often placing Conann face-to-face with her future self to force her evolution.

This usually involves some sort of impalement, the sort that in a more obviously polished film would lead to squawking about causality, continuity, and paradoxes, but Mandico's high concepts and homemade aesthetic are built to keep one from taking things literally and looking for the metaphors underneath. You do not necessarily, have to look terribly deep, sure, as he more or less has his characters underline said metaphors: Conann's violent reinventions may initially be presented as a shortcut to becoming the person she needs to be, but they're only forward-looking for so long before she is seemingly trying to purge lingering guilt about how she has evolved. It's a nifty conceit, depicting a descent into evil not as a slow slide that offers hopes for redemption via a nagging conscience, but a series of affirmative choices that require repudiating one's previous standards, but keeps the viewer engaged with its shifting cast and settings compared to a steady, hopeless decline.

And the cannibalistic consumption that bookends the movie? In some ways even more clear - at first, a literal gaining of strength from one's parents, but, eventually, Conann is either misunderstanding the lesson or weaponizing it as she talks about making herself "a digestible barbarian", suggesting that decades of evil and violence can be laundered through the arts, and that the artists involved thing that there's a way to do so without tainting themselves. It's effective, especially because Mandico makes it so grotesque as to be impossible to dismiss. It ain't subtle, but, honestly, I kind of prefer this to previous films where what he was doing often seemed a bit out of reach, or cleverly-constructed satire that can be easily taken for the thing being ridiculed.

Those well-formed ideas are executed by a strong cast, as the six women to play Conann are sometimes connected by little more than the scars accumulated over the course of adventures seen and unseen, but there is some commonality to the character that one can feel. One can especially see the connection between Claire Duburcq's teenager and Christa Théret as the woman she hopes to become (or thinks she does); there's a similar strength but also a hardening that doesn't necessarily do her any favors; similarly, Nathalie Richard finds just enough of the unleashed monstrousness of Agata Buzek's version to serve as a disingenuous core to her rehabilitated version. Sandra Parfait is deliberately sort of an outlier, portraying a Conann seemingly freed by her amnesia and displacement but still, at heart, the same person. Or maybe that's from how the characters that persist across eras treat them as the same person, with Elina Löwensohn and Julia Riedler not quite adjusting themselves to the new actor or seeming off like their performances are calibrated to one or the other.

It also gives a sense of how a figure like Conan changes with times and contexts, but has something specific that resonates underneath. I suspect it's why Mandico used an established name, even if it requires some winking to get past copyright and trademark law - it's a bit of a meta-commentary on how one can make Conan female, black, or modern and still remain faithful to the core of the character. Indeed, being able to do this is vital, that even someone making movies that at least look amateurish and cheap can have access to these distilled ideas.

Of course, there's also plenty of straight Bertrand Mandico weirdness, from the dog-people to the horned nipples. More than a few bits apart to be half-formed ideas that got away from him. Some artists can sift through the ideas that arrive together to find the jewels among the mud, but Mandico probably feels that the rough material enhances what he's doing elsewhere. The bare, cheap-looking stuff is still general great design, and the grainy black-and-white is a great aesthetic, especially as it periodically shifts to color where the bloody red can be emphasized.

The movie works, more or less, at least in ways his previous films don't work for me in any sort of reliable fashion. It's rough, but I don't necessarily want Mandico to refine his technique, even if his films continue to be hit or miss or individually-acquired tastes.

Sometimes I Think About Dying

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I am, I must admit, nervous about seeing other reviews for Sometimes I Think About Dying; my first reaction to the feature was something along the lines of "I feel seen and not disrespected!" while others seemed to run along the lines of "look how sad a case Fran is". Interestingly, I don't seem to have felt quite the same connection when I saw the original short from 2019, so I'm not sure whether the feature version does better or has a different focus. Or, perhaps, I'm just more able to recognize myself in this story than I was before, for good or ill, because it winds up focusing less on the death imagery and more on life of the person imagining it.

That would be Fran (Daisy Ridley), a nondescript woman who works on spreadsheets for what appears to be a small shipping concern in a Northwestern port city. She's polite and capable, precisely but not fashionably attired, but is not the type to hang around the water cooler or spend time with her co-workers outside of office hours, and she doesn't seem to have much of a life outside work, either, as one glimpse of her weekend seems to be her working her way through a book of sudoku puzzles. She does, in fact, occasionally think not so much about dying but of her body decaying afterward, although it's not necessarily clear that she's pleased or disturbed by the idea. Meanwhile, one of her co-workers (Megan Stalter) is retiring, with her replacement Robert (Dave Merheje) told to go to Fran for any help with office supplies, procedures, and the like. He seems to take a shine to her, and to her surprise, she finds herself thinking of him during her off-hours, and she is really not good at things like talking to people, sharing interests, or anything like that. At all.

Typing that out, I wonder a bit if the filmmakers were specifically intending to draw a line between Fran's fantasies focusing on her tissues breaking down and returning to nature and a change in her life coming from someone new at the workplace, fresh off a divorce. In both cases, the end of something is potentially an infusion of necessary nutrients that will cause something else to grow. Isobel's last appearance in the film hints at this, a bit; for all that her send-off was presented as a happy embrace of the next phase of her life, the reality isn't quite that, and as Fran leaves her, it at least seems possible that we may be about to see her truly blossom.

Of course, the moment when Fran just feels stumped trying to write something personal on Isobel's retirement card is probably the most I've related to a movie character in a long time. Director Rachel Lambert, the various writers, star Daisy Ridley, and editor Ryan Kendrick (among others) let the scene linger as Fran stares at an empty space and her eyes flick from one friendly note to another and her face says writing something like that feels beyond her. It fully communicates not feeling like there's just not as much to you as people expect from each other. It's not entirely despairing - there's some earnest confusion in there - even if it's often portrayed that way, or as a pathology.

It makes for a quiet film, admittedly, one frequently punctuated by observations of the small northwestern city where Fan lives and works in quiet moments , or the macabre imagery of her not yet rotting corpse, though seldom as a direct response to what else is going on as a scene, but more an idle musing. The moments when it stops being quiet are often more wrenching because they show how thoroughly the characters don't understand each other at all. It's also, at times, very funny, whether that be from the discomfort of being around people who are gregarious in all the ways Fran is not or her deadpan responses to straightforward situations.

For much of the film, it's easy to wonder if this is a terribly difficult performance on Ridley's part - gaze downward, move with precision but not necessarily purpose, think a couple seconds before doing anything but get annoyed when people act like you're some sort of weirdo. It is, at least, not just an assembly of off-putting tics, and she makes it a base for more, especially in the moments where she finds she likes something and isn't necessarily used to that experience. The rest of the cast often plays maybe a notch more energetic than the situation necessarily calls for in contrast, although Dave Merheje adds a note of earnest self-deprecation and Megan Stalter a bit more empathy, as if she respects Fran's quietness without needing to make her uncomfortable by commenting on it.

All this together makes Sometimes a charming, well-made movie that still makes me wonder if I'm supposed to feel the level of affection for Fran that I do even if I don't always identify with her (she doesn't particularly like movies!), or if others will lose patience with the film for the things that seemed well-observed to me. It's a nice look at folks who don't fit in, but in a way that's less abrasive than films usually go for.

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