Dec 19, 2013

La vie nouvelle

As a filmmaker that got his start working in the now-dead artistic medium of ‘video art’, French aberrant-garde auteur Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, Un Lac aka A Lake) has a fairly singular visceral filmmaking style that, although can be compared to other so-called ‘New French Extremity’ auteur filmmakers like Gaspar Noé (I Stand Alone, Irréversible) and Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms, Hors Satan aka Outside Satan), is ultimately in a lethally lurid league of his own. It may be because I am a little bit wacked out but I thought Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998) starring Romanian-born Jewess Elina Löwensohn (Schindler's List, Nadja) was quite possibly the most darkly romantic and touching serial killer flick I have ever had the devilishly delectable pleasure of seeing. A filmmaker far too artsy fartsy for art-antagonistic gorehounds and jaded horror fanatics, but also too dark and visceral for the sort of pseudo-cultivated cinephiles who get hard-ons from the latest box-sets released by the Criterion Collection, Grandrieux is a virtual one-man celluloid army with an unwavering scorched earth policy whose films wallow in the deepest and darkest corners of the human psyche, thus his outstanding oeuvre is in innate contrast to what everything Hollywood (and most cinema in general) stands for as you will find nil ‘feel good’ escapism, soulless sentimentalism, calculating quirkiness, Viagra-fueled fratboy sex, nor anti-reality happy endings in his films. As frog psychoanalyst Jean-Claude Polack stated of Grandrieux’s work, “Unlike Pasolini who is really interested in the way that society is theatrically transforming the ceremony of predating into a show, there is here an experimental cinema; it is true; that is trying to register, thanks to the camera, what humans eyes would never be able to see in order to deconstruct and analyze reality. Grandrieux’s films are analytical films, like a microscope, that give the viewer the possibility to see more accurately what is movement, emotion, sensation, colour, darkness and the emergence of the image (either material or thought).” Indeed, watching Grandrieux’s A New Life (2002) aka La vie nouvelle aka Betrayed and Sold is like temporarily entering the irreparably debased mind of one of the female kidnapped sex slaves from Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and facing the absolutely grueling experience of her psychological transformation from passive beauty to voracious sexual she-beast, but that is just one of the many lost souls you will be savagely molested with by the film. An uniquely unhinged, ugly, and unhappy yet paradoxically ethereal reworking of the Orpheus myth that would have caused Cocteau to have a heart attack about a sexually confused young American soldier on leave who shows up to some sinister Slavic Sodom with his discernibly deranged buddy and absurdly falls in love with an Eastern European prostitute/sex slave and decides it is solely up to him to save her from her deranging dystopian life of lechery, A New Life is a film without redemption, without love, without hope, and—most importantly—without humanity (Of course, it depends on your definition of ‘humanity’). 

 Set in some unmentioned post-industrial/post-communist Eastern European hellhole (it was actually filmed in Sofia, Bulgaria), A New Life begins with nightmarish unfocused shots of a group of male and female human cattle huddled together like they are about to be sent to Gulag as they await their ‘new lives’ as mafia-owned sex slaves. After having their hair cut viciously with a large knife by a real-life boogeyman named Boyan (Zsolt Nagy) who has a sinister and seemingly supernatural form of charisma, the slav(e)s are beaten and raped so they can be ‘broken in’ for sexual servitude. Focusing mainly on pretty yet psychosis-ridden prostitute-slave named Melania (French actress Anna Mouglalis), the viewer is thrown into a bottomless abyss of her physical, but especially metaphysical, slavery. When not entertaining prospective ‘customers’ by doing some exotic dancing in a seemingly possessed state at a dimly lit bar, Melania is brutally beaten and smacked around by a completely crazed and equally craven French client who, due to his sexual impotence, can only get off by brutalizing broads not only with hands, but also by singing loony lovey-dovey lyrics like, “happy is the man who dies of love…until you lose your mind” (translated from the French song “Aimer À Perdre La Raison”). When young American dork soldier Seymour (American actor Zachary Knighton, who is probably best known for his role on the ABC comedy series Happy Endings) shows up to the seemingly post-apocalyptic Eastern European warzone-without-war with his discernibly mentally damaged buddy Roscoe (played by French actor Marc Barbé as a character that the viewer never really knows if he is Seymour’s lover, father, or brother, but he seems like a composite of all three), he soon purchases Melania’s pussy for a pretty penny. Like virtually all the men that buy ‘love’ from Melania, Seymour is too impotent to get an erection when in the company of the Slavic streetwalker’s sexy unclad body, though he eventually manages to bust a load in her from behind in what is literally less than a second long sex session of the patently pathetic sort (the scene hints that Seymour is a closet-homosexual, hence his need to screw from behind, not to mention his dubious relationship with Roscue). Despite his failure to fuck her properly, would-be-semen-demon Seymour becomes totally obsessed with Melania in a postmodern Orphic manner and somehow inexplicably believes he can save her from both physical and sensual slavery, even though the damage has always been done and there is no salvation for a waywardly wanton woman like her. Ultimately, Melania is a sub-pricey material commodity traded between all the men featured in A New Life, with malevolent Mafioso mad men Boyan being her pimp puppet master who perniciously pulls all the strings, which he does with the sadistic glee of a NKVD hangman hooked on heroin and Euro-Trash trance music. In the end, pseudo-savior Seymour unwittingly becomes the pansy protégé of Svengali-like barbarian Boyan. Brought into a stinking Slavic inferno of sexual savagery and sadism after paying Boyan for an entire night with Melania, Seymour ultimately leaves as a soulless hate-driven sexual savage who beats and rapes women with Luciferian gusto. In losing himself, Seymour also loses his best friend Roscoe to a starving pack of ‘man’s best friend.’ In the sardonically titled A New Life, man becomes beast and beast literally and figuratively swallows man in a film where vicious circles are as prevalent as dainty dance moves and sexual impotence. 

 A sort of cinematic warm-up for what the Americanized Occident can expect after the world finally collapses in a coming convergence of catastrophes and we enter a new dark age where man has an atavistic awakening and reverts back to primalism, A New Life is cinema at its most viciously visceral and devastatingly disillusioned directed by a filmmaker who has dared to gaze into the abyss and has created films that gaze into the viewer in a manner that might be described as ‘aesthetic terrorism’ were it not for the fact that the filmmaker is clearly not trying to simply shock the viewer (otherwise, he would not make terrifyingly transcendental works with sparse dialogue for a mostly marginal audience). A true ‘cinema of cruelty’ for a nihilistically numbed and dumbed down age where most viewers get an almost pornographic thrill from seeing explosions and terrorist attacks in movies, A New Life is a grandly gut-wrenching and soul-stabbing cinematic work that allows no sense of detachment from the filmgoer and the character’s in film. Adapted from a script written in a sort of prose poem form by auteur Grandrieux and French writer Eric Vuillard, A New Life is celluloid poetry of purity about impurity, as if the director wanted to update Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) directed by F.W. Murnau (who Grandrieux has cited as a major influence) in the setting of World War III. In attempting to describe his artistic and philosophical intent with A New Life to interviewer Nichole Brenez, Grandrieux offered the following insights: “My dream is to create a completely ‘Spinoza-ist’ film, built upon ethical categories: rage, joy, pride … and essentially each of these categories would be a pure block of sensations, passing from one to the other with enormous suddenness. So the film would be a constant vibration of emotions and affects, and all that would reunite us, reinscribe us into the material in which we’re formed: the perceptual material of our first years, our first moments, our childhood. Before speech. That’s the impulse – the desire – which led to the film.” Featuring a raging synth-driven score by French poets/performers Etant Donnés and a somber Blue Velvet-esque lounge singing solo by prostitute Melania, A New Life is a film where singing, song, and dance are the only escape for characters who live in a very real hell-on-earth and have reached a point of no return and thus completely bask in the very few real archaic sensations they can still feel. Suggested by co-screenwriter Eric Vuillard as being “a documentary on the living,” A New Life is ultimately is an abstract of the bestially living who have—for various reasons—discarded civilization for sensation and spirituality for mortal sin in a world where brutal impotency, hatred, and remorselessness reigns with a post-Stalinist iron-fist. A potent poetic piece of anti-pornography in an era where every male seems addicted to pornography yet cannot satisfy his girlfriend, A New Life is a corrosive collision of brutalized bodies and brains that makes Auschwitz seem like Disneyworld and Cocteau's phantasmagorical masterpiece Orphée (1950) aka Orpheus seem like a juvenile celluloid heaven-on-earth. 

-Ty E

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