Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2024): ‘The Visitor’ Provokes Repeatedly

Director: Bruce La Bruce
Writers: Alex Babboni, Victor Fraga, Bruce La Bruce
Stars: Bishop Black, Macklin Kowal, Amy Kingsmill

Synopsis: A refugee is among multiple identical men appearing around London. Masked as a homeless man, he visits the home of an upper class family and befriended by their maid. He intimately interacts with each catalyzing their spiritual awakenings.

Provocateur Bruce La Bruce reimagines Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 masterpiece to tackle sexual liberation and the immigrant life with the very explicit The Visitor, a pornographic picture that is as carnal as it is politically charged. And while the stylish, valiant swings of the Canadian filmmaker can be appreciated, the film grows a bit tiresome upon its 100-minute runtime. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. One of the most prominent and unparalleled figures in European cinema and literature after the Second World War, he managed to contrast socio-political arguments with graphic yet expository examinations of sexual taboos. Pasolini was more than brave; he was dauntlessly adventurous. Pasolini never held back in his critiques – whether it was the church, government, right, or left – because of his versatility and subversiveness. All of his features are great examples of how he deconstructs and exposes the norms of the time. The film most people attach to Pasolini’s name is his last one, the intentionally shocking and provocative Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. But the one that filmmakers worldwide have tended to return to in recent memory is his 1968 masterpiece, Theorem

In Theorem, a nameless man infiltrates the home of a bourgeois family, changing their lives for good through sex and agony. Lately, we have seen the likes of Christian Petzold (Afire), Emerald Fennell (Saltburn), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and Alex van Warmerdam (Borgman) making their interpretations of the aforementioned film, all having their unique sway in the narrative as it develops – for better or worse in some cases.  It is fascinating to see how this story that Pasolini created a couple of decades ago has been revisited and reconceived in different ways. These directors who are inspired by it seek out various elements from the film to implement in their narratives. They clearly have found ways to separate themselves from the film and create something fresh out of the notions cemented by the Italian filmmaker. 

Nevertheless, Canadian filmmaker and provocateur Bruce La Bruce has decided that he will be the one to cross the lines of what we could think of when reimagining Pasolini’s film. If you thought you had seen everything regarding provocation and explicitness based on Theorem and were shocked by the bathtub and graveyard scenes in Saltburn, then you aren’t ready for what La Bruce has in store. As we are accustomed to seeing in his filmography, La Bruce takes a more explicit and provocative, yet jocular, route to take jabs at the socio-political issues of today. Instead of making a dramatic feature, he makes a pornographic one. Titled after the unnamed man who will change the lives of a conservative family, The Visitor bathes and basks in the blood, sweat, and semen interspersed throughout the film’s full-frontal sequences. 

In La Bruce’s reimagining, the visitor in question is a refugee (Bishop Black) who washes up in the River Thames inside of a suitcase. His introduction is backed by Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech from 1968 (coincidentally, in the same years as Theorem was released to the public), in which he spoke about his opposition to mass immigration into Britain. As the speech continues, we see plenty of other men emerging from suitcases, all emerging naked and with a sense of liberation. This intertwining between the arrivals and the speech makes the viewer immediately identify the themes The Visitor will tackle: xenophobia, sexual liberation, and immigration. And just like that, we know this is Bruce La Bruce’s picture, where religion and politics collide with sex and his usual strange, yet compelling mythos on the horizon. 

Everything feels highly distanced, from the campy dialogue to the scene-by-scene provocations. Yet, as the film runs its course, you begin to feel entranced by it all, even if it is rather disturbing. The wandering refugee comes across an upper-class family – the bourgeois personified who separate themselves from the world’s hardships in the confines of their mansion. At first, the visitor is invited to stay in their household as an employee. But sooner rather than later, the stranger ends up seducing each member of the family – The Father (Macklin Kowal), The Mother (Amy Kingsmill), The Daughter (Ray Filar), and The Son (Kurtis Lincoln) – in different means, each one more explicit, radical, and indulgent than the other. 

For this family to redefine themselves in their true natures, they must embrace him in all means possible. But when he says it is time for him to go, they are left shells of themselves. Each family member finds different ways to fill the void of his disappearance. Some approach it through art, others via adultery. But it results in a sexual and incorporeal metamorphosis. Sensibility and temerity combine to let the gestures and physicality of each performance speak more than the select words in the screenplay. The Visitor is concocted in the same vein as a pornographic film, purposefully clunky campy dialogue and all. However, La Bruce’s addition of a political angle to each sequence makes the film worth more than the basic label it would be defined with when it is released formally. 

The provocateur has been doing projects like this since the 90s with Hustle White and No Skin Off My Ass. But it is inevitable to think about Gaspar Noé and his 2015 feature Love throughout The Visitor. There seems to be a resemblance between the two outside of the unsimulated sex scenes and the strobing neon lights that both filmmakers are excessively accustomed to using. Both use the appearance and embrace of a stranger to amplify their narrative. However, the difference is that Love is self-indulgent to such a degree that you can’t feel the passion or devotion inside the crumbling world of the characters; meanwhile, The Visitor’s indulgence comes with a sense of purpose. That doesn’t mean that every single scene has a complete pass; there are plenty of moments that feel added just for the sake of the shock factor rather than adding to the dramatic backbone covered by its eroticism. 

In contrast, there are overly thought-out societal critiques that feel too ridiculous to take seriously, like climaxing in a gigantic shopping bag that serves as a dig at consumerists. La Bruce adds the elements that make his films interesting as well as equally muddled – mainly the slogans that pop up from time to time in the sex scenes (for example: “Open Borders, Open Legs”, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”). Nevertheless, his vision is quite revolutionary and utterly valiant. His latest work is unlike most films we see in the vast cinematic landscape of today. Bruce La Bruce’s latest is one that I appreciate more than I like, as I believe it goes down a repetitive path between each scene-to-scene transition. But the consistent effort and importance are felt entirely.

Grade: C+

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