Stand By Your Man: High Tension (2003)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 2, 2010 10:08pm | Post a Comment

If you're promising "high tension," then you'd better deliver, which is where Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (director, art director and co-writers) come up short. Whereas a genre film like Martyrs attempts to push the mind somewhere it doesn't want to go, High Tension aims at nothing but pure generic comfort. There are some who never tire of having the same nerves stimulated, but mine just get desensitized. And it's pretty clear that the filmmakers have spent most of their time watching slasher films to the exclusion of most everything else. Incest is no better in art than in biology. Genre insularity produces dumbed down offspring, as can be seen in the work of the Image Comics creators, who never encountered art that wasn't produced by Marvel or DC.  Contrariwise, that's why the likes of Georges Franju and Alan Moore have made memorable art in well-worn genres, by adding fresh blood. But, on the plus side,  Aja and Levasseur's fanboyishness did at least lead them to the ravishing gore of horror make-up maestro, Giannetto De Rossi. The man knows how to apply a saw to the face.

spoiler alert.

The film begins with Marie (Cécile De France) psychotically repeating, "I won't let anyone come between us anymore," until she begins her story for the record. This pretty much telegraphs that what's to follow is a flashback, but many viewers felt either cheated or surprised by the "twist" at the end (see Roger Ebert's thumb down) -- the twist being that the protagonist is really the killer. Marie is a thewy girl with a Caesar cut, who harbors an obsessive attraction to her delicate, promiscuous, and long-haired friend, Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco). Clearly disgusted by Alex's boycraziness, Marie's barely repressed misandry manifests itself as a feminist caricature of the ultimate macho male, what Judith Levine has labeled "the Beast" (brute, pervert, killer, etc.). Played by Philippe Nahon (who's made the Beast role into leading man material), the Killer looks like the average of every movie serial killer. As a hysterical warning against pornography, he first appears masturbating with a woman's decapitated head. In this persona, Marie butchers Alex's family as a way of "rescuing" Alex from monstrous patriarchy. And because psychosis is involved, the story is being told by an unreliable narrator, who confuses herself not only with the Killer, but with Alex (Marie imagines, or dreams, that it was her asking for help from a passing driver, when it was really her friend).

Many of the plot holes and Ebert's "violation of physics" (e.g., in one scene, the killer is shown to be driving two vehicles at once) are accounted for by Marie's schizophrenic state. The real plot problems comes when the narrative shifts out of Marie's deranged perspective to reveal to any in the audience who've yet to catch on that she's the killer. For example, cops are shown watching a video tape of her murdering a gas station attendent (the big reveal). It comes across as derelict storytelling, not the likely fantasy of a girl who's still in denial about her condition. Another example, following that scene, is Marie's flipping back and forth between her own image and that of the killer as she's chasing Alex with a power saw. Given how she continues to repeat the mantra with which the film began, Marie believes herself the protector, not the villain, so why is she remembering Alex as the one who finally stabs her, instead of repressing it, and bringing it in line with her delusional love affair?

The problem in these examples isn't with an implausible diegetic reality (as Ebert thinks), but with a fantasy too weighed down by that reality.  Tension and solipsism don't mix unless you're trapped within the first-person. If objective reality enters, it should only be through the subjective filter of the ego being depicted. That's why Lost Highway maintains dread after repeated re-watchings; you can't get a sure footing. High Tension keeps deflating the fantasy by talking sensibly to its audience, which is the same crap Michael Haneke pulled with Funny Games Ultimately, the filmmakers don't trust themselves or the audience enough to get properly lost within Marie's fugue, so the twist (which should've never been treated as such to begin with, but the narrative core) feels like a cheat cobbled onto the last act of a fairly conventional body-count film.

Youth Is Revoltin': The Valley of the Bees (1968) & Logan's Run (1976)

Posted by Charles Reece, January 17, 2010 06:36pm | Post a Comment

Ondřej begins Frantisek Vlácil and Vladimír Körner's The Valley of the Bees as a teenager jealous of his ogrish father, Lord of Vlkov (Zdeněk Kryzánek), who's just married Lenora. She's Ondřej's age, and he clearly has a crush on her, expressing his anger by giving his stepmother a basket of flowers with a bunch of crippled bats at the bottom. She freaks out, to which the father responds by picking up his son and throwing him against a stone wall. Fearing that his son might die, and to assuage his guilt, the Lord promises his son to God if the Almighty will spare Ondřej. He survives, and is sent to the North to become a warrior monk under the tutelage of Armin (Czech heartthrob Jan Kačer) in the Order of St. Mary of Jerusalem, the local equivalent of the Knights Templar. 

The Order functions for Armin like contemporary Gospel music does for its male performers, as a repressive sublimation of homosexual inclinations. He's a true believer who warns Ondřej (now played by Petr Čepek) to not give in to the materialist temptations of the Pagan world, telling him what became of some of their brothers not properly committed: "Some knights were mercenaries, and did not seek salvation. Instead they sought beautiful women and riches, only to drink their own urine in the desert, cursing God and their mothers." That is, "suffering is the way to God." Or, in a sort of Pascalian wager -- this being the Middle Ages -- you're going to suffer, so it might as well be for a higher purpose. The only joy allowed here is jouissance, taking pleasure in the pain of monastic denial. Ondřej has his doubt, feeling only his balls getting cold in the water in which he lies with Armin.

Ondřej's real crisis begins when he sees how the Order deals with an errant knight. Rotgier explains that he's had enough of the monastery and wants to return to his land where he can live as a civilian. Having been forced into this life, Ondřej understands and is willing to let him go. Instead, the Order recaptures Rotgier, breaks his sword and makes him walk out of a window to a canine death. Fearing ideological contamination, Ondřej is put into solitary to fast and ruminate. Too late, he goes on the lam, with Armin tailing him. The Soviets saw too much of a parallel with their own bureaucratic order in the film and banned it after taking over Czechoslovakia later in 1968. Vlácil doesn't leave much doubt where his sympathy lies and which side Ondřej's on:

An order of warriors who are as ruthless and unforgiving to their own brotherhood as they are to anyone else defying God's Law sounds a lot like Michael Anderson and David Goodman's Logan's Run, but with a central computer, Lifeclock, filling in for the deity. The 23rd century is a perverse mirror of Vlácil's medievalism, where "paganism" has won, but nothing much has changed in the operations of ideological power. After some major catastrophe that's reduced most of the former cities and landscapes to the proverbial middle ages, citizens live in vast metropolitan domes, fucking like rabbits and seeking nothing but pleasure (of the non-painful kind). "Do what thou wilt" is almost the whole of the Law, with one catch: they've gotta expire at age 30. The little lifeclocks on the palms of their hands go black to tell them when it's time. The hedonic ratiocination here is that any long-term moral repercussions to a society devoted purely to pleasure are taken care of by giving a time limit to the life of leisure. Should a citizen try to avoid the one commandment, Lifeclock sends its "Sandmen" to enforce the big sleep.

Coincidentally, The Valley of the Bees was released in May of 1968, the month of revolution, with its bellwether taking place in France. The youthful members of the New Left saw it as a time for a potential overthrow of totalizing ideologies of all stripes, including Stalinism, not just capitalism. It was not to be, however, with the majority of Western baby-boomers settling into their role as consumerist citizens. As Christopher Hitchens concluded two years ago:

At the time, I thought 1968 was the beginning of something. Later, I understood that I had instead been part of the end of something: the last gasp of red-flag socialism (which actually persisted until the murder of Salvador Allende in 1973 and the overthrow of Portuguese fascism in 1974). But the antitotalitarian ethos embraced by the best soixante-huitards [the "sixty-eighters"] remains an option, and I believe that it will have further opportunities to declare itself—in Cuba, to take one vivid and imminent example—long after the pseudo-revolutionary silliness has been forgotten.

Ondřej is more in the spirit of the youthful Hitchens, rejecting a totalitarian order, his Brotherhood, to live life as he sees fit, including returning home where he finally reunites with his stepmom, Lenora, who is now a widow. Vlkov is something of a ghost town, where its remaining inhabitants continue to act as if their repressive Lord were still alive. He cursed Lenora, so she spends her days flagellating the impurities from her soul. Ondřej's renunciation of the church begins to free her and the town of this spectral hold the former Lord has over them. At least, until Armin shows up on the couple's wedding day and violently restores the old order.

As one might expect of a futuristic hedonist society, the only people who seem to work are (not unlike Hollywood) in the service industry: cops, hookers and plastic surgeons. Logan 5 (Michael York) is the future's parallel to Ondřej, a Sandman who has a crisis in faith after being sent on an undercover mission by Lifeclock to infiltrate a rebellious group known according to their ideal destination, "Sanctuary." The group's pagan symbol is the ankh, standing for eternal life. The idea of Sanctuary is the reactionary inverse of Ondřej's rejection of his Brotherhood: ultimately, it stands against the continual youthful revolution, and for the reestablishment of a forgotten dead society. It wouldn't take long for the hedonist to figure out that dying at 30 isn't much fun, so faith is necessary (just as it's necessary to give Armin a reason to live his life in denial and suffering). What Lifeclock promises is much the same as Christianity: the potential for renewal, but in this world, not the next. It warns the people that they'll die anyway, but running guarantees a swifter and more permanent annihilation. Thus, the citizens follow the rules and show up for "Carousel" where they're obliterated with the hope of reincarnation.

Logan 5 sees the same ankh symbol on Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), an employee of the Circuit (which is the 23rd century's brothel), that he and his partner, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), recovered from a runner earlier in the picture. Unlike Ondřej, who was never completely sold on the Order to begin with, Logan 5 doesn't begin to question the system until being placed among the heretics. Once on the outside of the city, he discovers an inhabitable nature, the remnants of an ancient democracy (the U.S.), and an elderly man (Peter Ustinov) with a knowledge of historical tradition -- all of which puts the big lie to the Lifeclock's ageist suicide doctrine and myth-spinning. And he finds old-fashioned "true love," rather than the transitory "hooking up" with Jessica 6. More concretely, Logan 5's palm lifeclock goes clear -- he's "renewed" as Francis 7 puts it -- on the outside, while beginning to sympathize with the rebellion. 

Leisure instead of suffering, sex-on-demand instead of asceticism, torture for beauty instead of bodily abjection, mandated suicide instead of a mandated lasting as long as God sees fit, and a worship of the pagan material world instead of the Christian's afterworld -- yet faith in ideology functions the same in the future as it does in the past: living for the Other, rather than taking responsibility for oneself. Both The Valley of Bees and Logan's Run seem to be getting at Jean-Paul Sartre's libertarian ethic: "you can always make something out of what you've been made into." (It's been too long since I've read any Sartre, so I took a crash course.) We're free, because as consciousness ("being for-itself") we can negate/transcend the mere facticity of our bodies ("being in-itself") and the internal constraints placed upon us through the interaction with ideology, society, etc. ("being for-others"). Whether we go with the ontological flow or resist it, we are ultimately responsible for that individual choice. (Both films make for a good contrast with the very anti-Sartrean Knowing.)


spoilers ahead!

With that in mind, both Francis 7 and Armin make for psychologically interesting cases of the faithful, or in Sartre's term, bad faith. During a fight to the death where he comes up losing, Francis 7 goes out believing that Logan 5's clear lifeclock got that way because that's what Sandmen are promised, renewal for their service. All that he experiences on his path (similar to Logan 5 and Jessica 6's) doesn't make him waver in his service to the Lifeclock. As such, he abdicates any responsibility for his choices, simply assuming the course that's been programmed. Armin, on the other hand, is a man searching for questions to fit his answers. He resists the way he is -- i.e., homosexual -- by suppressing life around him that doesn't conform to the ideology that keeps his latent desires in check. His only bodily contact with another that he initiates is the aforementioned arm-locking with Ondřej in erection-defying, icy cold water. When a blind Bohemian girl he meets asks to touch him in order to "see" his face, he threatens to cut off her arm. This has nothing to do with his being potentially tempted, but rather a disgust for femininity signifying the pagan contamination of his friend (and repressed love object). That he wants Ondřej to share in his repression (as close to sex as Armin will allow himself) is made clear when his solution to his friend's wedding is to slit the bride's throat. Since Ondřej won't conform to his worldview, Armin remakes his friend's world so that he'll have no choice ... or, at least, feel as if he has no choice.

Armin is thrown to the dogs for the murder, but accomplishes his mission: Ondřej is seen returning to the flock in the end, giving into the inauthentic existence he had attempted to escape, while making Armin a martyr to the cause. The antitotalitarian ethos to which Hitchens refers is crushed. Bringing the old man along as evidence, Logan 5 returns to his brotherhood, too, but with the intention to destroy the ideology he no longer believes in. When the Lifeclock scans his mind, it discovers that there never was any physical place called Sanctuary and self-destructs, blowing holes in the city's dome, and releasing the citizens. Whether or not they're freed is another matter. 

As a priest says at Ondřej's wedding banquet: "Bees are like people. They fear and sense disaster. You can destroy their homes, but they begin building a new one right away." As pure ideology or belief, the Lifeclock can't compute Sanctuary as an opposing ideational construct, so it terminates itself. Logan 5 has caused the revolution, but what the citizenry does with it is up to each individual. The ending is made to seem triumphant, but is it? Such freedom requires responsibility. It seems more likely that an irresponsible people, accustomed to living for the Other won't find freedom any more computable than Lifeclock did Sanctuary. That is, much like Ondřej's returning to the Order, they'll opt for another totalizing ideology "right away" to fill in the hole, perhaps that of the old man's tradition.


Posted by Charles Reece, December 22, 2009 01:01pm | Post a Comment


Posted by Charles Reece, December 6, 2009 10:50pm | Post a Comment
As I recall, dreams of hats are supposed to signify genitalia. Obviously, psychoanalytic interpretation can go overboard.

Here a cowboy is merely grabbing his hat to leave.

Forty Guns is a available on dvd.


Posted by Charles Reece, November 29, 2009 08:31am | Post a Comment

Chico (Robert Dix) gets measured for a rifle: She (Sandra Wirth) might be a talented gunsmith, but his soon-to-be girlfriend feels something is missing in her life.

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