Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘The Hyperboreans’ is Filmmaking At Its Most Surreal


Directors: Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Writers: Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Stars: Antonia Giesen, Francisco Visceral Rivera, Natalia Medina

Synopsis: A woman’s storytelling and illusions bring to life the controversial figure of Miguel Serrano, a Chilean writer who propagated esoteric Neo-Nazi philosophies, prompting contemplation about his place in history.


The Quinzaine de Cineastes (Directors Fortnight) is the perfect space for the filmmakers of tomorrow, the new voices that will shape the future of cinema. Many established and influential directors have brought their films to the Cannes Film Festival’s side program, stamping their names in one of the most underrated selections in all big European festivals. The committee in charge of choosing which films to play in the Quinzaine always tends to offer a variety of pictures with fascinating and creative ideas. But they always leave a spot or two for some heavily experimental, bold, and quite weird pictures that provoke the audience while leaving them astonished by the creativity and vision of the directors attached to these projects. 

In the past couple of years, we have had films by Bertrand Mandico (his gender-flipped version of Conan the Barbarian, She is Conann), Alex Garland (the imagery-focused and folk horror-inspired MEN), and Panos Cosmatos (the surrealistic revenge-thriller starring Nicholas Cage, Mandy). There are many other notable examples of these types of films. But these examples alone should let you know of the artistry and boldness at play here. This year, this “sacred” spot belongs to what may feasibly be the most inventive and surrealistic feature to screen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, not only in the Quinzaine. That film is the sophomore outing by the Chilean directing duo Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, The Hyperboreans (Los Hiperbóreos). 

León and Cociña present a captivating and enigmatic exposition of modern imaginative filmmaking at its most surreal state. The directing duo, known for their excellent stop-motion nightmare, The Wolf House, now take us on a more mind-bending journey. In The Hyperboreans, you’ll find yourself questioning what is real and what is not in the story, but one thing is certain: it’s a cinematic experience unlike any other. This work solidifies them as two of the industry’s most original and innovative minds today. Explaining, or even doing a brief synopsis, The Hyperboreans is a very arduous task, as reality and imagination, dreams and nightmares, and narrative and documentary filmmaking begin to blend as the film runs its course. But I will try to make it seem cohesive so the ready can follow along. 

A hypnotherapy-like image introduces us to the film; it feels like a portal that makes the viewer travel from their seat at the cinema to León and Cociña’s mad minds, where everything is intertwined and impossible to separate. After the image dissipates, we advance to a film studio covered in muted-colored drapes with an array of period costumes and puppets hanging from them. An actress is wandering around the large yet equally cramped room; practicing her lines before presenting herself to us. She seems nervous about what will happen; she is dithering, indecisive about whether it is a good idea or not to go on with the show. But she holds her chin up and sets herself in front of the camera. 

This can be described as Alice’s first step into the rabbit hole, yet instead of finding wonders and beauty, you get concoctions from purgatory. “Welcome to the set of The Hyperboreans”, the actress says via one of the many fourth-wall breaks and self-referential antics León and Cociña pull in this project. In a brief introduction about her life, she reveals herself as, well… herself, Antonia Giesen. The Chilean actress says that she is recognized for her work on the big screen, like Pablo Larrain’s underrated Ema and Leo Medel’s La Veronica, but most people don’t know that she is a clinical psychiatrist. As she continues her introductory monologue, Giesen tells us the story of the stolen negative of a film she starred in. The project was shot on celluloid, and the print was stolen before the director could digitalize the negatives. 

The police couldn’t find any evidence of the robbery, so the case never was solved. But the film we are watching is an opportunity to bring the lost film to life through the memories left of it. As soon as she says that, another step is taken into the rabbit hole. Giesen continues the story while changing the scenery behind her, making it look like a therapy room. It is an odd concoction that draws immediate intrigue due to reality and fiction colliding to form another story running concurrently with the one she’s telling the viewer. Giesen recalls a time when she was meeting a patient, known throughout the film as “El Metalero” (the Metalhead), who was struggling with his psychiatric treatment. 

As a last possibility to help him, she recommends that he write his thoughts down each day in a journal. During his daily scribes, he wrote a screenplay about a police officer in a sci-fi fantasy version of Chile. Intrigued by his ideas, Giesen makes the script a feature film. She turns to her filmmaker friends Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the directors playing more frenetic versions of themselves, to direct it, with Giesen playing the lead role. They all smile and are full of excitement to start production. But this is the point of no return; nobody is safe, not even the audience watching. If this description were two steps into the rabbit hole, only covering the first ten minutes of The Hyperboreans, then what’s next is an uncontrolled freefall into the abyss. 

Everything changes drastically; the tone, structure, stylistic approach, and atmosphere, amongst other things, alternate to a more surrealistic and experimental design. Men are turned into stop-motion puppets; bodies are transformed into different figures; there are stories within stories, psychoanalytic exploration of the effects of cinema, and a pitch-black version of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. And that doesn’t cut it. León and Cociña create an array of weird, stirring machinations that feel tangible; you can grasp the scenery and everything around it with your fingertips, which shows the viewer how immersive this experience is on a technical side. They showed us their impressive talents in The Wolf House a few years ago. However, the expertise and attention to detail here, considering that they mix live-action with stop-motion animation and documentary filmmaking, is just an act of two cinematic magicians. There are many original films released year-round. But none of them manage to feel like this; those films don’t feel nearly as inspired as this. 

Unorthodox storytelling procedures being able to work out is always a thing that people should champion, especially in this manner. However, the immersiveness of the story also comes from an emotional side, which is a different ride on its own. While sometimes confusing and, in others, utmost inexplicable, the viewer senses a chill down their spine as the story progresses. The Hyperboreans is about one thing at first: the curious screenplay that “El Metalero” has written and how making it helps him mentally. Yet, it rapidly switches its gears and covers more ground than before; life, death, loss, and separation mix into a Molotov cocktail of pure gloom. This amalgamation takes a toll on you, feeling every inch of the atmosphere in your mind, body, and soul. 

The damnation clouds your head. And once it gets you, it never lets go. León and Cociña’s latest feels like the theater-play scene in Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid, which they helped create, mixed with David Lynch’s Rabbits online series (also seen in his film Inland Empire) if they were a metatextual documentary on a crazy occultist. All of this may seem like a huge red flag for many viewers. But I felt captivated by it in every way possible, even if it’s hard to follow occasionally. This is some of the most creative and bold direction I have seen in a long time. I know that nothing at the festival could stand up to this in terms of cinematic innovation and despondency.

Grade: A-

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