STRANGER BY THE LAKE
Saturday, November 16th, 10 p.m.
City Stage Theater • 21 N. Front St., #501
French film “Stranger by the Lake” compels through its minimalistic approach. A thriller that revolves around a murder at a lake known for gay cruising sounds about as sensationalistic as a film can get. But what happens when the film offers no thrills?
The distinct feeling of seeing something refreshing occurs.
With the abundance of larger-than-life-productions, which are churned out of Hollywood each year, one finds himself numb to shock of any kind. Consequently, a film that subverts any and all of its provocation becomes a pleasant work of innovation. “Stranger by the Lake” proves itself a not-to-be-missed selection for audience members hoping to experience something new.
The film takes place entirely at a lake and the surrounding woods where men go to seek out other men. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) finds himself infatuated with the elusive Michel (Christophe Paou). When Michel’s former partner, Pascal Ramiere (Franscious-Renaud Labarthe), is found dead and speculation regarding the circumstances of his death ensues.
Deladonchamps, Paou and d’Assumcao all convey their characters convincingly. Paou, in particular, manages to capture the hardened, unfeeling aspects of his character. The subtleties in their mannerisms and delivery underscore the elements of realism that characterize “Stranger by the Lake.”
Writer and director Alan Guiraudie employs natural lighting and subdued performances that culminate to obtain a minimalistic mise-en-scene that perfectly juxtaposes the film’s exploitative content. “Stranger by the Lake” also features long takes that rival the fast-paced cuts to which audiences have become accustomed. By effect, the film’s more sexually explicit scenes feel sedated and thus desexualized by their blunt portrayal.
Guiraudie expertly thwarts any chance of eliciting surprise throughout its entirety. Even the climactic moments of the film feel intentionally unsatisfying, which isn’t a critique—the lack of pay-off perfectly mirrors the emptiness found in the film’s characters. As well, the low-key production style leaves one with the impression they are watching a documentary rather than a work of fiction. The added sense of realism aids the film in making its voyeuristic nature even more unsettling.
Tonally a heartbreaking tale of damaged characters, falling victim to their own humanity, “Stranger by the Lake” feels reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. The men frequenting the spot act out of desperation, looking to fill some void that presumably exists in their outside lives. Their jaded nature becomes apparent through several scenes in the film that find the patrons of the cruising spot wandering aimlessly around the woods, looking for a sexual encounter. By using the woods as a backdrop for the film and refraining from providing any insight into the characters’ lives beyond this locale, Guiraude generates an air of dehumanization, which in effect makes them more vulnerable. They are stripped down to their animalistic qualities, and as the story progresses, viewers find Franck acting on these impulses and making all the wrong decisions. It propels the story into its final act.
Interestingly, “Stranger by the Lake” situates Franck between a friendship with Patrick d’Assumcao, which represents a genuine encounter, and an explicit love affair with the dangerous and mysterious Michel. The dichotomy facilitated by the two opposing forces parallels the desire humans have to be loved. It examines the disconnect found between logic and lust, and frames it with the basic human need to feel wanted.
THE OXBOW CURE
Saturday, November 16th, 7:15 p.m.
Thalian Black Box • 310 Chestnut St.
Situating itself in the same vein as Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” and films of the Cinema du Corps (cinema of the body) variety—a subject written extensively about by UNCW’s own Dr. Tim Palmer—“The Oxbow Cure” finds its niche in manifesting a psychological exploration through a de-familiarization of the ordinary.
Lena (Claudia Day), a woman battling an internal demon after receiving a debilitating diagnosis, seeks refuge at an isolated cabin. As she attempts to cope with her emotional turmoil, she begins to see a figure in the woods. At times the film’s adherence to the standards set forth by films like “Antichrist” leaves it feeling tired and a little “been-there, seen-that.” From scenes that show Lena tapping her nails, to clutching and contorting her body, to eerie images shining on the forest, it lacks real nuance to distinguish itself. However, the sound and production design elevate the film as a worthy installment, nonetheless.
Gorgeously executed cinematography offers visceral pleasure. Every frame feels immaculate and deliberate. The images range from wide shots of the landscape to intimate close-ups of spiders or the contorted body of Lena. It’s almost as though one were looking at a romantic painting. The film takes place during the winter and boasts a subtle color palette, which flows together beautifully. Camera movements are sinuous and understated, which adds to the portraiture vibe imparted by “The Oxbow Cure.”
The sound department thrives in their attempts to bring the film to life. “The Oxbow Cure” offers a haunting score and some expertly implemented foley sounds that send chills down the spine and foster an unsettling atmosphere. It perfectly captures a tone of isolation.
“The Oxbow Cure” works through metaphor. The mysterious alien-like figure in the woods presumably represents Lena’s disease, and the interactions that follow mirror Lena coming to terms with her diagnosis. The creature’s disfigurement embodies alienation and monstrosity often associated with psychological implications of a debilitating illness. Though maybe a little cliché, the execution of this metaphor gets across the film’s point.
Claudia Day emotes as Lena. She takes on the challenge of essentially being a one-woman show, as she’s the primary character featured. She manages to succeed in fleshing out Lena even with few interactions. Still, “The Oxbow Cure” could contextualize her character a little more; there’s a lack of emotional depth which leaves the viewer feeling distant from Lena. This greatly hinders the film, as the audience is essentially in Lena’s inner psyche.
While the film often misses opportunities to fully immerse the audience in the story, the sonic and visceral execution more than make up for any shortcomings. Though the film is nothing new, it’s certainly worth a watch.—Christian Podgaysky
REVENGE OF THE MEKONS
Saturday, November 16th, 7:30 p.m.
City Stage Theater • 21 N. Front St., #501
There’s something beautiful about the artists that forge on in the face of adversity—the ones who exist in the periphery, getting lots of ink but never moving a lot of units. The Mekons were a band that were never a household name but were well known by the über hip. A product of both the punk-rock and art-rock scene of the late ‘70s, for years members of the band referred to themselves as “The Mekon Project,” as if the whole thing was a multi-decade live-action instillation. “Revenge of the Mekons” does an admirable job of telling the story of these wayward souls.
A lot of the film reminded me of the art-house hit documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” which seemed to have the same artistic pursuit: telling the story of a band who continued to play and continued to tour in spite of the world sending them a thousand cosmic signs to stop. There’s a beautiful sense of melancholy that exists with these bands who press on after so many setbacks. To see them persevere on the precipice of extinction is admirable. The passion they still exhibit for what they do, after so many others have come and gone, is at the heart of what makes the Mekons something to celebrate.
Formed in the late 1970s, The Mekons populated artists who weren’t necessarily great musicians—which could describe a lot of the punk bands of the era. Along with The Gang of Four, they became local favorites in Leeds, England, more so for their energy and unbridled enthusiasm than for their musical chops. They got some press for their single “Never Been in Riot,” a thematic retort to the Clash’s “White Riot.” It was an early indicator of the kind of reductive artistic reasoning the Mekons would come to represent. Calling them anti-establishment seems too easy. At the time, The Clash were the patron saints of the anti-establishment and the icons of the punk-rock scene. What do you call the guys who call The Clash a bunch of posers? I suppose you call them The Mekons.
They carried on this mentality throughout their careers, as they ventured into unexplored areas of punk rock, weaving in folk and country music to their work. They flirted with occasional success—critical darlings who were ushered in and out of the major record labels with remarkable speed. Yet, even constant daunting failures wouldn’t stop them from trying to find new inspiration for music.
“Revenge of the Mekons” is an entertaining documentary and really does an excellent job of introducing viewers to a band with a restless spirit. My only criticism comes from the structure, which feels like a boilerplate “Behind the Music” experience. I was hoping for something a little more out there and befitting of a band that has spent over 30 years skirting convention.
Maybe that’s the beauty of “Revenge of the Mekons”: Underneath all the artistry and left-of-center leanings is a very blue-collar group of artists, many of whom work day jobs to get by. The Mekons started off as an art project, and ended up as a lifetime pursuit of inspiration. They say “living well is the best revenge”; The Mekons seem to have achieved that in the most untraditional way.
THE ANIMAL PROJECT
Friday, November 15th, 7 p.m.
City Stage Theater • 21 N. Front St., #501
Actors are a melodramatic lot. “The Animal Project” is a quirky tale of a group of performers looking to expand their horizons. Their weekly acting class get-together has become stagnant. This is where they come to find fulfillment and inspiration.
When the group begins to lose its luster, their erratic instructor comes up with a unique exercise: Have everybody dress up like animals, and venture into the cold and unforgiving world around them.
The idea comes from the instructor’s son who did the same thing in his youth. He put on a bunny costume and paraded around the city to inspire people with his innocence and positive outlook—the kind that seems cute when it’s a kid. It’s less cute when it’s a bunch of narcissistic actors desperate for validation. Behind a mask, without inhibitions, they discover a certain kind of freedom. However, the group begins to learn that masking problems only hides them. It’s a temporary respite on a road to self-discovery.
“The Animal Project” has a very simple message but layers of complexity thanks to a talented cast of performers who, for the most part, manage to give these stereotypical roles some dimension. It’s the kind of film that feels tailor made for a festival audience. It takes a basic character drama and adds a heaping helping of quirk. There’s some added depth to the film as it progresses, which is good. I was half-convinced when it started that it was going to devolve into furry porn. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your kink level), it finds a much less obvious route to explore a fractured father-and-son relationship. The entire experiment is as much a father attempting to understand and open up to his son as it is an exercise for his acting class.
Writer and director Ingrid Veninger makes a very accessible and very human film. While some of the plot threads feel a little conveniently wrapped up, the overall message gets delivered with both style and substance. “The Animal Project” is an engaging drama well worth lining up for.
THE KILL TEAM (pictured)
Thursday, November 14th, 1:45 p.m.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th Street
“Fucking heartbreaking!” Those words kept echoing through my head as I watched the documentary “The Kill Team.” It’s an utterly tragic look into a group of soldiers who participated in the murder of an innocent civilian; it touches on so many ugly realities of war. That we take young men, strip them of their identities, teach them how to kill and put them on a field of battle remains a sadistic groupthink that permeates some corners of the armed forces. This dark, unfortunate side of humanity reared its ugly head when kids barely out of high school decided that, in the field of battle, the idea of innocence or guilt was less important than ratcheting up their kill count.
The film is directed by Dan Kraus—not the Dan Krauss most are familiar with. Funny story. When I saw the name “Dan Krauss,” I immediately requested a screener. Former Wilmingtonian and encore film critic Daniel Kraus (one “s”) happens to be a noted documentarion, author and filmmaker. As it turns out, “The Kill Team” is orchestrated by a different Dan Krauss. I don’t know if I would have picked up “The Kill Team” had I realized it, but I’m glad for the error. It gave me an opportunity to discover this brutal, gut-wrenching documentary.
There’s a line toward the end that sums up the whole cinematic experience. The soldier who eventually came forward reminisced about his decision, ultimately admitting if he had another chance, he would not have turned in his fellow soldiers. He looks to the camera and says, “Your job is to kill everything that gets in your way, so why are you pissed off when we do it?”
It brings to the surface the sad truth that young men trained to kill may not always be perfect. More so, the military sometimes attracts those not only looking to help end conflict but are eager to start one. This story came and quickly sank beneath the surface of the constant media onslaught during our collective indignation with the infinite and endless War on Terror.
The thought that American soldiers would prey on innocent civilians during a time of war is hardly something new, but it’s a topic we’re uncomfortable with. We’re supposed to be the good guys. No one wants to consider the idea these young men and women cause more problems than they’re solving, but in the case of “The Kill Team,” they were very much the enemy indulging in violence, hazing, rampant drug abuse, and carrying out the murder of innocents. This went on until an almost comical chain of events brought the murders to light.
The most disturbing element is just how human these murderers are. One day they are little more than kids being sent off to war. Within a frighteningly short period, they become capable of such horrors. The line that separates a young man from soldier to murderer seems regrettably thin.
Krauss does a fantastic job of never overselling the tragedy. It’s all there in the faces of these young men who, even after the events, seem depressingly detached from their actions. The most emotional moments come from Adam Winfield who seems to have been bullied into doing some terrible things. The real impact of his actions are worn on the faces of his family who try to remain strong in the face of an uncertain future.
An excellent documentary, the film will challenge every assumption you have about war. Having seen a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan documentaries over the years, I was surprised at how much impact “The Kill Team” had. It’s a modern parable about the dangers of turning young men into killing machines, and the consequences of a generation weaned on a war they truly don’t understand. —Anghus Houvouras