Demon (2015): Finding Beauty Within Fear

All the bridges that you burn come back one day to haunt you, sings Tracy Chapman, in a verse that explains in the simplest, shortest way possible, the premise of the Polish horror movie Demon (2015), a stunning work so unfortunately marked by the suicide of its young director, Marcin Wrona. The mainstream audiences, used to seeing Hollywood horror films packed with cheap tricks and predictable jump scares, may end up pretty disappointed after watching Demon, debating if it fits the genre at all. But this movie does exactly what a horror movie is supposed to, and more. For what is more terrifying than awaking the ghosts from the past, who were buried deep within the black soil, ignored and forgotten, since the mention of their names brings upon a feeling of collective shame.

Piotr (Itay Tiran) is a young Polish emigrant, returning to his home country to marry his love, Žaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Upon his arrival on Žaneta’s late grandfather’s rural estate, divided by a river, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the lack of a bridge and promises his father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski) he will build a new one after the wedding. But his presence is anything but welcome on that land, which was evident from the beginning, when he was greeted by a demonical scream of a mad woman in the river. With both of bride’s parents not being happy about the marriage and essentially not giving the lovers their blessing, the constant dreadful weather was also a sure sign for Piotr to get the hell out of there. After digging out a pile of human bones in the backyard, his body becomes a host to an old Jewish demonic spirit, dybbuk, in a form of a deceased young bride Hana.

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I have to stress out that Demon is a movie which needs more than just one viewing. It most certainly is not your average horror flick. The point that it wishes to get across is built up in such an intelligent and intriguing way, and its horrific dimension lies in exposing the dirt in one nation’s history and its consequences in the present time. The old professor (Wlodzimierz Press), mocked and ignored by everyone, is the only voice of reason here. He points out that once there was a synagogue in the town, where people of all religions used to gather, but now it’s a butcher’s shop, and he believes that the rain falling down on an unblessed wedding is a symbol of tears of despair, tears that were more common on that land than tears of joy. Piotr’s unwanted “outsider” presence has magnified the fact that the divide and bigotry still exists, so awaking the ghosts of the past – spirits that don’t want to be disturbed, but also not to be forgotten.

Historical and social significance aside, it’s the way Wrona constructed the film and the mood within it that amazes me. The movie, from beginning to its very end, is marked by witty yet dark, cringe worthy humour, which blindfolds the protagonists from what’s really going on. Demon will make you laugh, but leaving you with that bitter aftertaste in your mouth at the same time. The director opposes the happiness and festiveness of a wedding with the sadness of not one but two funerals happening at the same time. What stands out the most is the complete normalisation of the supernatural and the way characters are confronting the occurring problem. The groom is possessed by a female spirit – that’s actually the official doctor’s diagnose. And while Piotr is cramping up and distorting his body in a contortionist manner, screaming and vomiting, the party has no intention to end. People are wobbling around drunk, singing karaoke, having sex in front of everyone (the usual wedding stuff), acting as if demonic possessions happen every day. The way the old professor is acceptant of the appearance of Hana in Piotr’s body is simply brilliant. The same goes for the drunken doctor (Adam Woronowicz), who’s only concern is why Hana chose Piotr, when she could have taken his body.

But the most mesmerising thing about this movie has to be Itay Tiran’s superb performance. He embodies in such a phenomenal way the awkwardness Piotr has to face, and the progress of his possession. But where he really shines is in his embodiment of the female spirit. His performance is so amazingly convincing: he manages to capture the innocence, grief, pain and fright of a dead young girl, making the supernatural look so natural and effortless. Long has it been since I last saw such immaculate acting.

Giving us also the drunkest search party ever to be seen on the silver screen, Marcin Wrona, for his third and final work, managed to create a strikingly beautiful, atmospheric horror movie, with a vibe which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand, and the uncertain, open end will leave viewers with so many questions, thereby haunting them long, long after the movie ends.

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NEON DEMON – THE FINAL BATTLE

Almost five months have passed since Nicolas Winding Refn introduced his latest movie, The Neon Demon (2016), and yet the discussion on whether this was a “good” movie or not, still hasn’t settled. With a score of 6.3 on IMDB, 57% on Rotten Tomatoes and 51 on Metacritic, the critics have never been this divided over a single movie. The writers at Indie Wire have put this movie on the worst movie/ biggest disappointment lists and, at the same time, on the best/potential future cult movie lists. While I can argue how any movie that would cause this big of a fuss between the audiences and the critics is, in a way, an indisputably good movie, since it does have a lasting effect (just try bringing it up in a company of a few aspiring cinephiles, and you will have yourself a show), I doubt it has the potential of ever gaining the cult status, for all the same reasons. I have already written a review on The Neon Demon months ago, but I still feel like I’ve left a few crucial things unsaid, so these are my final thoughts on Winding Refn’s extravagant flick, and why it was a cause of a biggest movie dilemma in the recent years.

                The Neon Demon, as we all know, tells a tale of the shallowness of our society fueled by narcissism, with a very aesthetical, artistic approach and a pleasing imagery.  The most common critique is that the film’s story is told in that exact same way, without any depth, and yet the part of the crowd that enjoyed this movie argues that the brilliance of it lies specifically in this fact, and that the whole movie, not just the plot within it, stands as some sort of a statement against our oh so selfie oriented culture. If that would be the case, then Winding Refn is a bloody genius. And right here is the point of the divide, a point where it all comes down to the spectator’s personal taste, or the things that animate a certain viewer. A series of beautiful photographs, perfectly symmetrical, perfectly balanced. Colours that scream at you and seduce you at the same time. And a movie that is a satire of itself.

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                Well, after watching a movie which moves me in this or that way, I always like to do a little research on the director and his intentions. So I watched a few interviews with Winding Refn, and he went on about his motivation for making the movie. And it was simple – his wife wanted him to make a movie for her, so he did, and he wanted to make it all pretty and girly, but with a lot of blood. And that’s it. That is literally all he said. He just wanted to make a movie to please his wife’s aesthetic movie aspirations, after making a few “manly” films. Sigh.

                The point I wish to make is somewhat within the borders of that which Roland Barthes discussed in his book Camera Lucida (1980), where he talks about what moves people when they look at a photograph. And since this is a very photographical movie, it seems appropriate to approach it in the same manner. Barthes specified a distinction between a pornographic and an erotic image, where pornography leaves little to the mind and imagination, but an erotic image makes us think, makes us wonder and imagine what lies beyond that which is seen, and the unseen is what triggers our fetishes, our deepest emotions and desires. The Neon Demon is by these standards a pornographic movie, one which leaves little to nothing to the imagination. It is very self-explanatory, leaving the viewer no blank space for the interpretation. Barthes explained this while talking about a photograph of a nun and some drag queens, a photo which imposes its meaning on the viewer, with an obvious intention to merely shock us. To paraphrase him, to be shocked is not to be traumatized by that which was seen. The real shock lies within the realization of the unseen, within the dynamics of the blind spot.the-neon-demon-elle-fanning-1000x520

And precisely that is the dimension which The Neon Demon lacks. For “the screen is not a frame, but a hideout”.

                And just to finish off this little rambling of mine, I hope, at the end, the director’s wife was pleased with a pretty, pretty movie with some of the most impotent female characters in recent movie history, who completely lack in depth and are all simply reduced to their own vanity and bruised ego, with no tools or motivations to break out from that vicious, culturally imposed cycle.

But kudos for breaking some of the crucial movie rules, such as eliminating the lead character in the middle of the plot.