If you’re a big cinema fan, no matter how big a fan you are, as with books, music, art, anything, you will hear about a piece of work that immediately prompts you to question your level of enthusiasm. Certain films, when you hear a little about their plot, specific scenes, if they arrive with a little notoriety, may goad you, the viewer, into testing your mettle and sitting through what has promised to be a potentially difficult undertaking.
The Human Centipede is such a film. It’s a couple of years old now, but, I confess, that’s the length of time it’s taken me to brave it. Not that I’ll be watching it again, which isn’t to suggest it is a bad film: it isn’t, and that fact only adds to the problematic nature of it.
Before watching this, I asked myself why I had demurred for so long. Well, who wants to watch a film containing savage humiliations of a hitherto unseen and deplorable nature? Plenty, judging from the drooling (and often – terrifyingly – underwhelmed) missives plonked on messageboards. There is absolutely no need to watch it. The compelling aspects are few. But, in the end, it was akin to being tormented: what could be so bad? Aren’t you up to it? I was and I wasn’t.
A crazed German surgeon has fixed on an idea: he will select three people to kidnap (unwitting tourists soon tied up on beds in a well kitted-out operating theatre in his basement, subject to the informative preamble of a sadistic. baroque slideshow detailing their soon-to-arrive fate) and stitch together as one whole being, rectum to mouth, to form a crawling mass that he will treat as a pet (one ‘memorable’ scene following – and it’s played for the uneasiest of uneasy laughs – the attempts of the debatable surgeon trying to coax the maddened front member of his project to ‘fetch’ his newspaper) and whose subsistence will be, well…the guy at the front gets the best meals, shall we say. All three will be in shameful, nightmarish bondage to this lunatic’s dominion and must get used to regurgitative diets and captive mortification.
That’s the nub of it. A horridly mesmerising, pitiful attempt at an escape is made. You get to see those not at the head of this unthinkable creation actually eating that which has moved through the person in front’s system. There is no shirking the unimaginable here. But nor is there any sense of glorifying in any of it either: the director, you can’t fail to notice, is very serious about all of this. He is not going to give you an easy ride; splayed hands are often useful.
Just at the point you might hope for some fantastical, ridiculous u-turn into easily-digestible splatter or meaningless torture porn, the nightmarish, sequential narrative fails to blink and moves on, slowly, determined to play it straight. Stare at this and it stares back: defiant and unflinching, gathering an assiduous, pervasive insanity.
Director Tom Six has produced a film possessing an unusually elegant, flat aesthetic for a horror film. Everything is shot crisply with no rigorous sub-genre sensibility. This, of course, makes everything that much more unbearable. The visuals are sophisticated family drama or thoughtful indie. This doesn’t chime with the material and creates an interesting dichotomy.
The Human Centipede: horrific, unswerving, at times virtually impossible to watch and deeply unsettling. But also weirdly moving at times and, I suggest, valuable (not so much torture-porn as torture-anorak): if you consider cinema mere entertainment, or if you prefer film that negotiates scarcely mapped terrain, either way, here’s something to pose you some uncomfortable questions. You don’t need the answers (there may not be any) but they’re worth mulling over. Although you’d be forgiven for looking away now and again. It’s the gaps between the watching and the failing to watch that pose serious ruminations and provide plenty to ponder.
A water buffalo slips free of its tether and wanders in lush gloom, seems stilled in recognition, and is then gently recaptured. It had sensed a ghostly presence; a black silhouette with one visible characteristic: effulgent, electric red eyes.
Amidst this intoxicating dreamscape we join a man, Boonmee, and his family: his sister-in law and cousin. Boonmee is dying and, as the end of his life quietly nears, he is visited by both the ghost of his dead wife and his son, who had vanished years previously, and who now appears as a man-monkey hybrid, having chased and attempted to capture the ‘Monkey God’ with his camera prior to his disappearance. The manifestation of these two characters is handled so beautifully and uncannily as to render you speechless and awed – the pacing and the unfussy introduction of both lends the scene a wondrous magic. The response of Boonmee, his sister and cousin is a delight and sets the tone: there is an almost immediate acceptance from Boonmee, a playful, amused consternation otherwise, but no horrified objections to these startling arrivals. Everyone and everything is equal and understood. It’s rapturous stuff, the likes of which has you reaching into the memory banks for similar moments: and there just aren’t any.
What follows is a sequence of ‘past lives remembered’ (I think), portrayed in divergent ways: surreally resplendent, colour-saturated lake scene; eerie voyage through cave innards; still photo reportage and so on. Although, this film being what it is, one can never be sure quite what is going on, to no particular loss.
Part of the reasoning behind the underlying aesthetic (which, to me, was so mysteriously, heart-stoppingly exotic) is referencing old Thai horror films, wherein malevolent characters (hidden in shadow and in long-shot as a means of hiding unconvincing costumes and make-up, apparently) can often be seen with red LCD points as ‘eyes’. It’s an incredibly effective conceit to the uninitiated; those with an exhaustive understanding and exposure to Thai cinema will obviously find other depths to this visual trope.
Uncle Boonmee, then, is simply astounding. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a magician, nothing less. The switch throughout from tranquil, fluid otherness, still photos, 16mm backward-glances, meditative scene lengths with little movement within the frame, hyper-real encounters with fish, eerie encounters met with equanimity, blank inscrutability and pervasions of benevolent possibility all lend an implacable sense to the film, which is quietly impactful and resonant, and is as much a wondrous place to visit as much as it is a memorable, often staggering, boundless experience in which worlds real, imagined and supposed coalesce. I’m still, after reading myriad reports and reviews of the film, far from wise as to what it is (political allegory? Homage? Purposefully elusive parallel world?). I still haven’t found my way back from it, to be perfectly honest, but it’s the kind of time-collapsing experience that should be mandatory for anyone with a remotely serious interest in what a truly great film can do to your head and heart, long beyond the running time.
Duncan Jones’ Moon was easily one of the films of 2009, so expectations for this were very high. Then Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian gives it the ‘five star’ treatment amidst giddy exclamations as to it being ‘brainy’. What a critic seems to suggest in using words such as (but particularly ‘brainy’ – even more than ‘thinking persons’) ‘brainy’ in relation to a film is that a) they are brainy for understanding it, b) it’s philosophical in some way, c) it’s impenetrable and they can’t be bothered unpicking it or d) they possibly didn’t even watch it due to perceptions of b) or c) and are unwilling to leave themselves open to concessions of failure.
Source Code concerns depressively kiddie-faced Jake Gyllenhaal as porn-monikered hero Colter Stevens, who awakes on a train opposite Michelle Monaghan, disorientated and bereft as to what on earth he’s doing there, what she’s talking about and why she seems to be intimately acquainted with him. By the time he’s grumpily interrogated her and noticed he’s definitely not who he thinks he is in a toilet mirror, his first ‘sequence’ on the train is interrupted by an explosion and he snaps back to more familiar war-torn environs and a state of injured repose. A flickering TV screen plays a card sequence which soon makes way for Vera Farmiga in military get-up. Farmiga seems initially disquieted by his state of mind, calms a bit when he blurts the card sequence chronologically and we’re soon hurled back into the initial train scenario with a directive (‘find the bomb’) but no real sense of order or understanding as to why him, to what end and under what circumstances. We’re lost and the only means of comprehension lie in blank instruction, which he follows.
He finds it, is fireball-flung back to ruptured colloquy with Farmiga and is soon armed with further clues as to what’s going on. Stevens is eventually led to understand: he exists in a perpetually barely-alive state and is being recurrently ‘dropped in’ to the last eight minute patches of a physically similar passenger’s life – in this case, a character named Sean Fentress – in order to avert linked disasters by sleuthing for crucial information before the ‘Source Code’ expires and a rewind is necessitated. The preposterously overblown Jeffrey Wright reluctantly fills him in on the mechanics of it as Farmiga visibly wilts as to its ethics, and Gylenhaal faces some not-as-interesting-as-they-might-be-race-against-time dilemmas. He engages in a spot of extra-curricular investigative work of his own and discovers his desperate fate before a relatively apt, fairly stirring finale.
The film is not particularly ‘brainy’, it has to be said, on an even provocatively speculative level. It offers an interesting premise, but doesn’t really ask any interesting questions of the audience, either technically or philosophically, and is not one of the more interesting films to meddle with concepts of time or mortality. Unless, ‘Don’t you wish you’d patched it up with Dad?’ strikes you as visionary. It is emotive when you expect it to throw you a scientific curveball and low-dimensionally scientific when you imagine something of curious, knotty import is imminent. In other words, it gets the mix slightly wrong; it over-establishes the human element and doesn’t throw you enough boffinry to mull over. Heck, it just isn’t compulsive or mindbending enough. There’s at least one launch back onto the train that elicits a bit of a ‘Pfffft’ response. Only once matters draw to a resolution (which, happily, isn’t quite as pat as you might be expecting) can you allow retrospective slack for some of the lag within the film. There are moments here that should, at the time, be pulsating and white-knuckle and somehow manage not to be. And you won’t be losing sleep over imminent carnage, as it’s already happened: and then happens again.
Source Code, then, has some momentum and is engaging enough, though, as mentioned, does seem to drag, particularly in the middle third when, I suggest, the scriptwriter was figuring out how to fuse his rather good opening and finale. Gyllenhaal, Farmiga and particularly Monaghan cleverly switch between grave and humoured, though I’d suggest ‘they’ send Colter back to the Source Code set and terminate Jeffrey Wright’s involvement, derailing as he does every single scene he gets near with his spectacularly misjudged turn. Director Jones, interviewed in Empire recently, suggested that, ‘…if you have a good cast then I believe you should let them get on with it.’ I think, for anyone witnessing Wright’s Orson-Welles-impersonator-on-crack escapades here, you’d have to take issue with what’s either weak direction or poor casting. Intervention was needed, in any case. Wright’s amateur-hour-cartoon-baddie delivery should’ve been neutered with extreme prejudice, as it nearly ruins the entire film. But not quite: this is still good fun – just quell hopeful thoughts of Philip K Dick meets John Woo beforehand.