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- Reviewed from the 2021 Locarno film festival.
Bertrand Mandico’s two 2021 films, which played in separate competitive strands of the Locarno film festival, make a fine case study for how useful the different classifications of ‘short film’ and ‘feature’ can be, not just in signalling duration (his short Dead Flash being, at 37 minutes, not particularly short) but in managing viewer expectation – and in the case of Mandico’s very particular bag of aesthetic and thematic tricks, tolerance. After Blue, his sci-fi-inflected feature film which played in the main international competition, has from its very opening moments the weight and heft of its subsequent 130 minutes dragging intolerably at its garishly surrealist, amateurishly acted, undeniably striking imagery, necessitating a frustratingly futile search for narrative guardrails to pull one’s wavering attention through the quagmire.
By contrast, we can approach Dead Flash – by virtue of its shorter length which in turn affects the film in subtler, subconscious ways – in a more skittishly playful, participatory frame of mind, such as one might apply to an essay or a video installation. This is a significant boon for a work that moves seemingly unmotivated and without warning from one pungently strange scene to the next.
Initially, there’s a stunning, semi-abstract sequence, that nods to Mandico’s animation origins, in which, accompanied by unearthly sound design and Pierre Desprats’s apocalyptic score, volcanic, extra-terrestrial planetary landscapes are rendered on blistering, buckling celluloid. Cut to an absurdist crowning ceremony for a young woman dressed – as are most of Mandico’s characters, images of whom often seem culled from exploitation cinema – in vaguely fetishy gear. This part includes an unexpected, apparently spontaneous gender transformation, which is another Mandico peccadillo, imported straight from The Wild Boys, his first feature, in which the roles of the stranded boys turning feral and murderous on a desert island are played by female actors all along. Finally, there’s a long, oddly touching sequence in which a model insecure about her appearance is reassured by her photographer as they chit-chat (in non-sync dialogue, as is used throughout) through a swimming-pool photoshoot. They both, it should probably be mentioned, are monkeys: actors wearing rubber masks like in the original Planet of the Apes.
In 2012, along with Katrín Ólafsdóttir, Mandico – with the arch pomposity of the self-declared rebel outsider which has made him the darling of certain arcanely cultist cinephile circles – drew up a 12-point ‘Manifesto for Incoherence’, to which all his subsequent films including Dead Flash have adhered. But as intermittently diverting as Dead Flash can be, one cannot avoid the suspicion that a credo that was designed as a liberation is in danger of becoming its own prison, as restrictive in its way as the realist filmmaking traditions it so forcefully rejects.
Mandico’s exile from the arthouse mainstream may be proudly self-imposed, but it still consigns him to picking over the debris on the extreme margins, sometimes turning up treasure, but more often finding trash, and as evidenced by this Locarno twofer, milking rather diminishing returns from the forcible declaration that such a distinction does not exist.