The fun thing about festivals is how apparently unrelated films suddenly strike up a connection that may not necessarily be the obvious one. I was thinking of bringing together two of the festival darlings of the 2015/2016 season, both screened by IndieLisboa 2016, by virtue of their country of origin - Brazil, going through an effervescent flowering of idiosyncratic, inventive filmmaking that could not have surfaced elsewhere.
But I'll leave Gabriel Mascaro's absolutely fascinating Neon Bull to a later column, since it makes a lot more sense to bring together fellow Brazilian Anita Rocha da Silveira's faux-slasher-of-the-mind Kill Me Please (screened in the main feature competition strand) with American first-timer Robert Eggers', ahem, bewitching The Witch (presented in the Boca do Inferno sidebar, designed for edgier, more challenging fare). It makes sense because both play within the boundaries of genre film but are not strictly speaking genre pieces: they actually belong together in the coming-of-age catalogue.
In The Witch, set in Puritan New England sometime in the late 17th century and inspired by local folk lore, a deeply religious family ostracized by their settlement by virtue of their purist, fundamentalist approach to worshipping, is forced to survive on its own at the edge of the woods. After the youngest of the five children, a mere baby, disappears mysteriously, the family begins to fray at the edges. If this wasn't a desolate New England winter, shot by Jarin Blaschke in pale, chilly natural light, and the cast wasn't speaking in polished, ancient English, the psychodrama developing within the homestead could very well be set in any modern family reeling from a major trauma.
Trapped in the conventions of her role as the dutiful, duty-bound eldest daughter, but the only one alert enough to fully understand the dynamics at play in her parents' troubled relationship, the teenage Thomasin (formidably played by Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes the lightning rod around which the family ebbs and flows. As the noose seems to close in on the family after the disappearance of baby Samuel, and her coming of age becomes the (ahem) scapegoat for all the evils befalling the farm, Thomasin starts boiling with a witches' brew (ahem) of repressed anger, disdain for hypocrisy and desire for freedom.
The Witch can (and probably will) be seen as a metaphor of the original sin of American dysfunction (the contrast between puritanism and abandon, mind and body) or as a genre film that refuses genre (its "scares" coming not from a pre-determined checklist of narrative tropes but from an expert deployment by its preternaturally talented director of cinematic means, both visual and aural). But what The Witch really is, in fact, is a slanted take on The Crucible redesigned as a chamber drama; the harrowing tale of one girl's bloody, tortuous path to finding herself and her truth in a society determined to decide what's best for her.
In that sense, Anya Taylor-Joy's Thomasin is a kindred spirit of Valentina Herszage's Bia in Anita Rocha da Silveira's debut feature. Kill Me Please is set in modern-day Rio de Janeiro, or more precisely in the relatively new Barra da Tijuca area, among gleaming high-rise condominiums inhabited by upper-class families, and Bia gets more of what is going than she lets on. A latch-key kid with pretty much the free run of the house while her mother is out cavorting with her new boyfriend and her older brother pines for the girlfriend who's broken up with him, she is "one of the girls" while standing apart from the others, first tentatively but, by the end of the film, defiantly.
Bia, along with her girlfriend clique, is morbidly fascinated by the news of a serial killer prowling the area and targeting young, beautiful women - it's one such attack that Kill Me Please stages in its pre-credit sequence, in a pretty obvious homage to the halcyon days of the giallo (Argento, Carpenter, De Palma, you name it). Yet the film is much closer, in practice and spirit and down to its bright, cleanly composed framings, to the 1980s high-school movies of John Hughes or Amy Heckerling (the recurrence of a strange, cultish evangelical pastor turns it into a sort of Footloose where dance is replaced by death).
Ms Rocha da Silveira is interested in the effect this proximity to death has on the kids' young, impressionable minds. In the heady cauldron of groupthink, emotional questioning and burgeoning sexuality that hits every teenager at the same time, the arrival of sudden, violent, bloody death introduces a strange element; a sort of collective hallucination under which Kill Me Please works for most of its length, its young heroes hypnotized by the closeness of the first orgasm's petite mort and the murdered women's grande mort.
The director does not hide her sympathy for the kids; unlike in The Witch, the family unit is entirely absent of Kill Me Please, with the teenagers left to their own devices (most of which, truthfully, are electronic). Bia has to learn to navigate the pitfalls of desire and doubt on her own, with no help from those around her, who are as confused as her if not more. But, while The Witch, grounded on a recognizable if distant reality, works both as genre and comment on genre, Kill Me Please engages more with the codes, approaches, tropes and comments than with its execution. In so doing, this formalist faux-slasher becomes a disappointingly arid viewing experience, its ideas spread too thin or too all over the place to sustain a feature running time. Still, it's a first feature and we tend to expect too much from first features these days; there's enough here to justify keeping an eye on Anita Rocha da Silveira.
(to be continued)
US, BR, GB, 2015, 92 minutes
CAST Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson; DIR/SCR, Robert Eggers; DP, Jarin Blaschke; MUS, Mark Korven; PROD DES, Craig Lathrop; COST, Linda Muir; ED, Louise Ford; PROD, Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman and Rodrigo Teixeira; Parts & Labor, RT Features, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Mott Street Pictures and Rooks Nest Entertainment in association with Code Red Productions, Scythia Films, Pulse Films and Special Projects.
MATE-ME POR FAVOR
BR, AR, 2015, 104 minutes
CAST Valentina Herszage, Mari Oliveira, Júlia Roliz, Dora Friend, Carol Baptista, Vítor Mayer, Lorena Comparato, Bernardo Marinho; DIR/SCR, Anita Rocha da Silveira; DP, João Atala; MUS, Bernardo Uzeda, Rodrigo Gorky and Pedro d'Eyrot; PROD DES, Dina Salem Levy; COST, Ana Carolina Lopes; ED, Marília Moraes; PROD, Vânia Catani; Bananeira Filmes in co-production with Imovision, Tele Cine Productions and Rei Cine