“It’s a cutthroat world.” Such is the slogan that justifies the first murder of a woman in Alice Lowe’s slasher film Prevenge (2016). The victim is an entrepreneur and does not shy away from brutal personnel decisions. Before that, the expectant mother and widow Ruth only killed guys, starting with a greasy retailer who had all kinds of unpleasant crawling animals in stock and offered in obscene rhetoric to get his snake out. Ruth discusses what killing is all about with her unborn daughter, whose voice keeps laying down over her consciousness. Only later does the truth come to light: the little one demands revenge for the deceased father, who died in a climbing accident. Now let everyone who hung with him on the same rope go over the blade! They cut it off, it was a matter of life and death. Where does the baby’s murderous voice really come from? That remains the essential question of the film. And connected with this, the question arises about the madness of his protagonist, about the reference to reality of an absurd narrative.
Prevenge was shown in 2017 at the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, Austria, which enjoys an excellent reputation among cinephiles. Furthermore, the film was part of a section of the festival called Night Sight, launched in 2008 as a platform for European genre film and thus an important reaction to the latest boost of European genre film production in countries such as France, Spain and Scandinavia. A movement that has also undergone its first scientific review in recent years – for example in the anthology European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945 by Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick and David Huxley, which was published in 2012. In the first year of the Night Sight section, two films, Frontières by Xavier Gens and À l’intérieur by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, offered examples of the young French cinema of extremes, which often deals less with genre traditions than with radical body philosophy. And yet in such a constellation the overlapping of the two films with genre cinema becomes obvious. Also on show was [Rec] (2007) by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, which, alongside El orfanato (2007) by Juan Antonio Bayona, had enjoyed unimagined success at the Spanish box offices.
Program curator Markus Keuschnigg, who also directs the Slash Film Festival in Vienna, refers to [Rec] in his programmer’s note: “the spectator’s gaze = the camera eye. Supported by shock the real tips over into a mode of reality.” He further describes the film as “the apotheosis of a European genre cinema: a relapse into the birth channel, the avant-garde of horror film,”1 and thus comments on an ambitious concept of genre that cannot be imagined without a broader self-image of European cinema and its avant-garde traces. In 2014 even this genre term becomes too narrow for Keuschnigg, and he justifies a change in the focus of the Nightvision section:
Calling something genre cinema means drawing constraining limits: anything that cannot be unequivocally categorized already represents a threat to the fabric of the program. […] In releasing the Fantastic Film from the ghetto of genre cinema, there is of course a hope that the exasperating antagonism between artistic and commercial, between auteur cinema and entertainment may be at least slightly destabilized. 2
Thus, from this point on, he refuses to categorise his program according to genre film production routines, distancing himself equally from related film-historical standards and lines of tradition. Instead, he focuses on questions of perceptions and aesthetic strategies that place the films presented in a productive relationship to cinema as a whole and to contemporary socio-political discourses.
Indeed, the aforementioned film Prevenge surfs elegantly across categories and combines genre references with a formal anarchism, not least in the double role of the pregnant Alice Lowe as protagonist and director of the film. The Misandrists (2017) by Bruce LaBruce acted similarly ambiguously in the same year, as the characters in the crude-ironic play appear more as variants of the performers than as elaborate characters. As did the most recent film by the New Kids inventors and social satire stars Steffen Haars and Flip van der Kuil: in Ron Goossens, Low-Budget Stuntman (2017) the Dutch screen star Bo Maertens plays herself and appears at the side of the jerky protagonist, which positions both in an unmistakable half-truth. And so the program refers at its peaks to the doubtful ways of looking at the fantastic since its origins: to competing signals of realism and the supernatural, to the role of the audience in reacting to their colliding codes. Or, in the words of the scientist and writer Tzvetan Todorovs: “the possibility of a hesitation between the two creates the fantastic effect.”3
At the most recent – 15th – edition of the festival, Keuschnigg’s program featured specific condensations and exaggerations of codes associated with fantastic cinema. Revenge by Coralie Fargeat and Double Date by Benjamin Barfoot examined hyper-stages of gender and gaze constructions, while Housewife by Can Evrenol, in a Fulci-inspired vision of hell, attempted to ask fundamental questions about female psychology and dream logic. The Cured was also on show, David Freyne’s attempt at a real obsessive post-zombie film. Finally, Bertrand Mandico’s Les garçons sauvages uses handmade world designs inspired by B-Movies and trash cinema to turn gender realities into sculptures, ultimately dissolving them. Condensations of fantastic motifs appeared visibly through the constellation of the films and commented on each other productively, even if only Mandico’s film impressed in its cinematic merits and Double Date felt unbearably dull after just a few minutes.
The interest in knowledge and program strategy seem to be derived from the creation of contrasts in Keuschnigg’s work. This premise is well suited to a critical examination of the fantastic, since individual films are sometimes suspected of escapism or even associated with neoliberal strategies. For example, Michael J. Blouin, who in his observation “Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism” interweaves fantastic cinema with a deformation and consumability of the political, which distracts from an essential understanding of real-world problems:
The spectator is urged to see “freely.” She is led to cultivate a personal sense of satisfaction through her visual comprehension of a given social problem. […] The optic prosthetic buttresses an economy based upon self-interest rather than collective responsibility. […] One might call this phenomenon entrepreneurial sight. It stresses flexible vantage points as well as the creative destruction of old ways of seeing: as if to “see better” always corresponds with substantive change. […] Fantasy serves a crucial purpose on this front. It propels the spectator through an unfamiliar set of circumstances, allowing her to build affiliations, form curiosities, and invest in (as well as profit from) unexpected aesthetic pleasures. Heightened unknown qualities within fantasy help to condition an entrepreneurial attitude. 4
In a better understanding of the real through its alienation in the cinema, Blouin sees a pleasure routine and imputes to the audience a tendency towards pragmatic self-optimisation, which stands in the way of collective responsibility. He even equates the attitude of the audience with entrepreneurial principles. Philip Mirowski perceives it the most severely and locates in neoliberalism the greatest truth narrative of the present, from whose rhetoric, no matter by what means, there is basically no escape: “[…] citizens must learn to forget about their ‘rights’ and instead be given the opportunity to express themselves through the greatest information conveyance device known to mankind, the market.”5 While Blouin seeks real consequences in the fantastic, Mirowski already understands reality narratives per se as part of a logic of systematic exploitation of the individual. And of course his book is not the only one which raises serious questions towards the premise of an unclouded reality expressed in Keuschnigg’s programming statements throughout the years.
Time and again Keuschnigg searches in his program commentaries for integrity outside the web of fantastic and realistic signs that emerge in and between the films presented. He presupposes an intact tension between the cinema as a whole and a functioning, stable reality and political present, which begins outside the cinema and is tangible and perceptible without simulations and manipulations – perceptible in the political sense both through the obvious stuffiness and predictability of bureaucracy and through the possibility of an individual social outburst. In the defense of clear oppositions, Keuschnigg’s program work appears to be both traditionalist and idealistic, against relativising positions such as Mirowski and Blouin, who in their writing deny cinema’s position as a counterpart to society by constituting an all-encompassing machinery of appropriation behind art, politics and the market.
Obviously neither Mirowski nor Blouin are interested in the avant-garde rhetoric and related artistic strategies of agitation identified by Keuschnigg in a film like [Rec] – strategies which sometimes also shape Mandico’s cinematic play with versatile genders: it is not only the relationship of a ethical logic of value to a capitalist one that needs to be discussed in relation to cinema, but the dissolution of perceptual structures per se through the freedom of the moving image, through montage, through disruption. Blouin doubts the potential of a radical perspective in his film-related negotiation of neo-liberalist questions, yet with Žižek he dreams of the essential alternatives: “People not only have to realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams; rather they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming.”6 Perhaps this new dream can unfold especially through means which Todorov surprisingly and explicitly excludes from the basic concepts of fantastic literature. For him it seems clear that anyone who wants to negotiate the supernatural must avoid the poetic and allegorical, in particular.
Surprisingly, Keuschnigg’s program also chooses an ambivalent relationship to the poetic and allegorical. Films with clear links to the avant-garde such as the aforementioned Les garçons sauvages, Amer (2009) and L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps (The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, 2013) by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) and Bronson (2008) or Yann Gonzalez’s Les Rencontres d’après minuit (You and the Night, 2013) do not unfold a concentrated effect in his program, neither then nor now, but are brought into encounters with a cinematic rhetoric of clamour, exploitation and banality, which Keuschnigg defends equally and without hierarchisation. For example, the previously problematised Double Date functions as a moment of irritation that raises doubts about the integrity of his program and yet makes it clear that a comprehensive concept of cinema is to be defended here that resists expectations of the festival crowd and festival market.
And so Keuschnigg’s fantastic-driven, genre-trained program work refers to the question of a synthesis beyond individual artistic modes, beyond familiar structures, beyond genres and their codes. His program circulates around the question of overcoming worldly discriminations in the unfamiliar feeling of a transformative cinema, but it also highlights cinema – and decidedly fantastic cinema – as a transformative space in itself. Keuschnigg’s programming is utopian in the sense that it often feels unbalanced and sometimes fails, but it still defends a ground. And while the realities of contemporary fantastic cinema often seem disappointing Keuschnigg embraces it to imagine a contemporary cinematic culture beyond fandom that does not want to fit into the neoliberal or art-worthy categories of a European quality cinema. A cinema culture which is not content with mere encounters of the real and the supernatural, but one able to negotiate vision itself in a drastic way through the supernatural means of film. It can be considered a major merit of the Crossing Europe festival to support such an imbalanced and unpredictable program section over a period of more then ten years, in a time when the fantastic side of cinema has mostly been colonised by redundant commercial productions or pushed back into niche events and hubs of fan culture.
Night Sight program, curated by Markus Keuschnigg
Crossing Europe Film Festival
Festival website: https://www.crossingeurope.at
- Markus Keuschnigg, “Rec”, Crossing Europe website, https://www.crossingeurope.at/de/archiv/filme-2008/film/rec.html ↩
- Markus Keuschnigg: “Beyond Taste”, Crossing Europe festival catalogue 2014, https://issuu.com/crossingeurope/docs/catalog_crossingeurope_2014. ↩
- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Da Capo Press, Ithaca, New York, 1975, p. 26. ↩
- Michael J. Blouin, Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016, pp. 11-12. ↩
- Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, Verso, London / New York, 2013, p. 84. ↩
- Blouin 2016, p. 2. ↩