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Fantasia Review: Thanatomorphose

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The other week, Alec and I had a good discussion about extreme horror and disturbing cinema. Inevitably the best films that are disturbing, or at least the ones that don’t feel like pure sadism, are the ones with artistic value. This can be highly subjective, which is part of the reason that extreme films are divisive.

Thanatomorphose could fit somewhere in this discussion because the film’s final two-thirds are very disturbing. We watch as a woman agonizingly rots from the inside out and lives through the entire ordeal. It makes for nauseating body horror. There’s genuine inventiveness in its low-budget makeup effects, and I’d even argue there’s art in this vile slurry of blackened, slimy flesh given the film’s central metaphor.

What makes the movie problematic is the first 30 minutes.

[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival. Started in 1996 and based primarily in Montreal, Fantasia is widely regarded as one of the best genre film festivals in North America. To read all of our coverage, click here.]

Thanatomorphose
Director: Éric Falardeau
Rating: TBD
Country: Canada
Release Date: TBD

If Franz Kafka grew up on a steady diet of splatterpunk writers and melt movies (e.g., Street Trash, The Incredible Melting Man), he might have penned something like Thanatomorphose. The opening line would go something like this: “As Laura awoke one morning after a night of unfulfilling sex, she found herself transformed in her bed into a living rotting corpse.”

In a lot of ways, that’s all the set up that’s required for Thanatomorphose. There’s a sense of stasis in Laura’s life, and actress Kayden Rose gets that across in her vacant stares and slumped mannerisms. Laura’s got an emotionally detached boyfriend. She’s an artist who rarely works on her art. Her friends seem pretty empty. She’s been dying on the inside probably for years, and so her body finally catches up with her soul.

That’s a rich metaphor, and writer/director Éric Falardeau succeeds in presenting it once the rot sets in. His three-part structure takes cues from Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist; Laura’s disintegration makes overt nods to David Cronenberg, particularly his remake of The Fly. The process is revolting, and we get to see it all in wincing, cringing detail. The lighting and cinematography in the last two-thirds of Thanatomorphose is unnerving, with claustrophobic use of the depth of field. Kudos need to go to David Scherer and Rémy Couture, the two lead effects artists. Though the budget was limited, this is great-looking makeup. It’s so ugly and moist, real-looking enough to communicate not just the look of death but its stink as well.

But that first third of Thanatomorphose is a chore to get through for a couple of reasons. The performances aren’t all that great, and part of that is due to poor sound. The voices are muffled, distant, or barely audible, sometimes changing in volume and quality from shot to shot. In one scene, the background music overpowers the dialogue in the audio mix. Even if I couldn’t quite make out the words people were saying, I could still tell that the lines were delivered flatly. On top of that, some of the imagery in these early scenes is murky due to bad lighting. There’s lots of visual noise in some of these darker shots, which makes movements, positions, and facial expressions hard to see.

This is compounded by the fact that nothing really happens in those first 25 or 30 minutes of the film, or at least nothing that couldn’t be communicated in about half the time. It doesn’t help that the uneventful material follows a startling, nightmarish opening sequence that abstracts sex into a series of colors and blurs. (It’s like The Predator watching two people in bed.) That level of intensity isn’t pick up again until later in the film. Some of this inessential footage establishes where Laura is in life and what her daily routine is, but some judicious cuts could have been used that would have streamlined this preface to deterioration without affecting its deliberate slowness.

That Laura’s an artist has weight in the film, but there’s a more efficient way to introduce this information. Laura’s morning routine is similarly important given how bland it is and how the act of rotting changes her routine, but do we really need to see her making bacon and eggs for breakfast? Her small gathering with friends also feel extraneous even though there’s important material about her interpersonal relationships in there.

During those first 30 minutes, I began to wonder why Thanatomorphose was a 100-minute feature-length film. It’s Falardeau’s debut feature, and maybe that explains a lot of it. There are many apparent jitters and missed opportunities, both due to inexperience and the limited budgeted. And yet once I finished the film, I also noticed a kind of brilliance in the metaphor and how it’s brought to its conclusion. Maybe the bright, rotty spots can shine through the murky technical stuff. It sort of does, but just sort of.

By the end of Thanatomorphose, the question about the length changed. Instead I wondered what could have been with a little extra revision. If trimmed right, there’s a great short film version of Thanatomorphose, maybe clocking in at 30-40 minutes. I think there’s also a solid 85-minute film in here, though it would still suffer from technical glitches and some so-so acting. I also played a game of “What if.” If the performances were up to the level of the metaphor — big, expressive, unhinged, powerful — and the filmmaking in that first third was as good and focused as the filmmaking in the last two-thirds, Thanatomorphose would have been a legitimately great work of extreme body horror without caveat.

And so part of me is torn about the final score for Thanatomorphose. For the patient gorehound who also likes art films, there’s obvious promise even amid the faults. The weirdest thing: I was put off by the technical flaws of the first part of the movie while staggered by the technical proficiency of the last part of the movie. But I want to end on a high about Thanatomorphose because the film does end on a high note and sometimes I’m willing to make allowances for debuts. (Sometimes you evaluate the potential of what’s there rather than just what’s there, if that makes sense.) As Falardeau’s first film, maybe this can be viewed as a kind of throat clearing. Once the warm up was done, I could tell there was a strong voice in Thanatomorphose, and I’d like to hear from it again.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.