WARNING: BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF A FILM CONCERNED WITH MATURE THEMES: SEXUALITY, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, HUMAN TRAFFICKING, BODY HORROR AND EXISTENTIAL HORROR. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND AT YOUR OWN RISK.
It is difficult to start any discussion of La Vie Nouvelle (2002, Dir. Philippe Grandieux), because it is difficult to even begin comprehending it. Often in writing for this site, I have earnestly sought to seek out cinema which reaches for the boundaries of artistic thought, but also cinema which is unique to its’ own medium, where my words about the work are the jumping off point into the film’s experience. Cinema is a unique visual language, which can be explained and partially translated through words, but I have found myself comfortable writing about films which I felt were at the limits of language and the powers of written explanations. In short, films which need to be seen to be believed but also seen to be understood.
In a way, La Vie Nouvelle is a manifestation of this ethos, and walks well beyond the boundary gates of even conventional visual language. It is a film so beyond the confines of normal experiences found in cinema that the experience of watching it fills you with a tremendous perception of the void or a void, of an internal abyss filled with answers we cannot understand the questions to. To bring your film to such a place, to allow it’s own internal mechanics to become so subterranean raises questions of perception which are mostly kept out of view of cinema’s conversations. To make a film so lost in an exploration of the unconscious elements of the human elemental experience; it splits open cracks in the psyche on how a film is watched, what a film gives to you, what interpretations to draw from its’ own source. To craft a journey through experiential means, especially one which could be interpreted as a hellish descent into the moral pools of evil, requires tools and a frame of understanding which we rarely have need to sharpen.
So consider this, for better and for worse, an attempt to sharpen those skills. Beyond that I just don’t think I’m qualified to say any more.
“My perception of the film was physical and intimate, like for a shaman. I just had to be a conductor for the flux, the music, the rhythms— the body exists to transmit all this.” – Philippe Grandieux, interview with Nicole Brenez.
It’s hard for me to remember La Vie Nouvelle, and yet it seems impossible to forget. The actual experience of watching the film presents you with a piercing and vivid clarity, and when I had finished my first watch I was left with a monstrous flood of impressions to try and seek some kind of meaning in. I wanted to write about it the moment I had finished it, desperate to capture and distill some of the feeling of the film’s immediate presence. There is a whole dedicated industry both academic and hobbyist dedicated to discussing what a film may mean, but it is a lot harder in a sense to convey what a film can make you feel. A film may have a separation from our world, but the real-time presence of watching a film is meant to evoke our senses, our empathy, connect us to an imagined world or representation of our own. Films activate our eyes, our ears, our minds, while the rest of the senses are taking up with the experience of what it is to watch a film in your living room/bedroom/cinema (these days?) etc.
Life flowed on unfortunately, and what most likely would have flowed would have been a torrential stream of thoughts purely trying to piece together any fragmentary sense of understanding about what I had just watched. For La Vie Nouvelle is often beyond the normal visual identifiers and signposts we use to help guide us through these emotive experiences. The dialogue is extremely minimal, the location is undisclosed, the characters are drawn in ways to allow precious little access to them or their internal states. Exposition, one of cinemas oldest allies in allowing audiences to understand what is happening, is all but abandoned. There is no frame of a written/spoken language boundary to help “make sense” of this cinema, you can read the visual language on display as both more abstracted and more primal.
So upon reading about the film, in a search for understanding, I came to access a clearer picture of what the film was made for. The viewing of the film was so overwhelming that I had lost any ability to “find” or locate myself in this world, I was lost in it without anchor. The guidance of the literature, of other far more intelligent writers offering perspectives and provoking ideas on what a cinema like this exists for, helped ground my understanding of the film and allowed me to reach a point where I was no longer reckoning with the chasm of confused darkness unguided. But in doing so, my experience of the film was expanded beyond those initial impressions, a profound sense of being lost. What is even more curious however, was that even though this information had helped me contextualise the film, understand some of its guiding motivations, exploring its’ relation to a film environment which has rarely ventured into this territory; none of that helped me remember what happened in the film.
To be present when faced with horror, our minds seem to take part in a curious trick. We must be more present than ever when faced with something dangerous, our natural ideal for our own preservation battles between fight and flight. But we cannot live in the space of horror, of fear, we would go mad. The impressions of horror carve deep lines into our minds, and in turn we repress some of that cognitive load; file it away under “Do Not Touch”. We cannot rid our minds of the potential of fear, of horror, but it seems we also cannot live with it either in it’s unbearable true presence. In the experience of the film, in this formless and near shapeless world, the psychological boundaries of cinema are stripped back even more so than usual. And the presence of these images is so shocking, so violently intense in comparison to the conventional current of film production and exhibition, that a confrontation with a sense of abject horror left me unable to even understand or remember what had happened.
I do not want to tell you reader, “what happens” in the film. There are plenty of places and plenty of ways to spoil/prepare yourself for the unknown of a filmic world. If I give form, the boundaries of words to what I saw, you will engage with it through a lens of information that the film is uninterested in providing to you. It is a world filled with deathly, guttural reflections of the human condition. Images here are of an almost physical nature, reflecting a language which speaks from body to turbulent minds. Bodies and characters and events climb and writhe all over your experience, emeshing you in a web which burns through your moral frames of reckoning with the world. Judgement has fled from the confines of the screen, turned its back on a world which seeks only to pull you down and through its’ own darkness. Time is stretched beyond our recognition, and such violent pressure is applied to it when encountering dread, encountering horror. Moments of eternity seem to almost become actualised here, as the witnessing of the film makes you unable to turn away from it’s seemingly malovent power.
The malovence of the film’s intent darkly cuts through the experience, but that is also a testament to our current use and understanding of film. A book asks you to imagine events, but a film often represents them; has the power to show them back to us. Perhaps it is only my fatigue with current cultural practices, but the sanitisation and infantilisation of violence on-screen has been one of my long-standing upsets. Sex and violence have sold so well for so long, that it is easier than ever to create a psychological distance and numbing between violence we permit on screen and violence we perpetrate in real life. To normalise the effects of violence creates a numbing to it, even if done to make stories more palatable.
There is something profoundly devastating then, in creating an experience where violence is not only brutally depicted in a form closer to a real understanding of its’ actions and consequences, but also in having that film’s morality cut and torn away from the cloth of conventional piety. Maybe the good guys fight, but they do it to defend our honour, protect and serve. Humble servants of slaughter. But in La Vie Nouvelle, we are not protected because the characters are not protected. The moral shield of “good” is limp, pathetic in the face of its’ own hypocrisy regarding this world. Here violence is not just heroic goodies and nameless, near- faceless baddies designed for the cultural grinder. Here violence parades nakedly across the faces of its’ victims, its’ perpetrators, its’ witnesses and intermediaries. If films have commonly existed and been seen as cultural escapism, are we escaping the real evil we can’t bear to look at in the world? Do we take flight into our films, our private reveries where the vanquishing of evil is not only easy but cheap?
As a culture, as human beings what does it mean for us to be continually running from the glare of evil’s dark presence, because as awful and degrading and horrifying the events are in La Vie Nouvelle, they can only be so because of their relation to the real world we live in. How could they scare us if we did not think there was a chance they could happen to us? Or worse, because we know somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, that they are already happening, continue to happen, and have already happened in the world we live in? To philosophically investigate evil through film, creates an inversion of its’ common effects. To be validated by lies feels fulfilling in the moment, and that might only come from us feeling unfulfilled, discontented by the truth. If that gap, that disconnect is not addressed, it can only grow larger and more looming, a void to become lost in without end; without a light at the end of the tunnel.
Perhaps reader, this has done nothing to reveal much concerning the film. If that is true, then it speaks to the astounding depths of our unconscious lives and minds, as well as my own failure to communicate. Who knows what might have been if I had written this at a different time, in a different place, in a different state. If what is said regarding the film’s nature is forever unknown, forever lost among it’s blurred shadows and distorted figures, then I would not be surprised; especially due to its’ highly experiential features this is precisely what I was trying to communicate about it. It is a film which lives in its own moment, own momentum. To even begin to grip it’s amorphous edges, requires looking with eyes beyond language, beyond any words I could string together here to make sense of them.
Our perceptions of the world can be so fragile, and to spin them out of control only takes just a few turns of the dancer centred on stage in front of us. With the right combination of sensory impressions, a film can crash and whip against your knowledge of the world, its’ tide dragging you under whatever inky waters it may contain. It may even sweep it away entirely, leaving only the shattered debris of your understandings in its wake. Maybe that is good. Maybe that is bad. Maybe that is beyond good and evil, in a colossal realm of conscious and unconscious experience, reverberating throughout our own lives and something we can, maybe even should reckon with.
At the very least, it might darkly liberate us from the confines of our own collective demons. Maybe that is a good place to begin anew.
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