Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review (Cannes Film Festival 2023): ‘She Is Conann’ May Be A New Cult Classic

Director: Bertrand Mandico

Writer: Bertrand Mandico

Stars: Elina Löwensohn, Christa Théret, Julia Riedler

Synopsis: Conan’s life at different stages is shown with a different aesthetic and rhythm from the Sumerian era to the near future.

With his latest picture, She is Conann, French filmmaker Bertrand Mandico gender -flips Robert E. Howard’s creation, Conan the Barbarian, to create a gory and innovative take on the mythic tale. While it may be an endurance test for some, due to the iconoclast’s inclination toward provocation, the brutal film will be a delicious cinematic treat for those willing to embrace its chaotic nature. “I’ll show you barbarism. Let the show commence!”

French filmmaker Bertrand Mandico has such a distinct vision that his films often feel like they are not from this planet. “I capture the onirism and the magical realism”, he has quoted before. His projects’ dreamlike haze and campy nature have such a singular vision that the viewer is left in awe (and quite stunned) of what they have witnessed. As a result, every single frame gets a different reaction from you – confused, baffled, excited, intrigued, grossed out, and (primarily) staggered. Not even Gaspar Noé’s filmography gathers this range of reactions and emotions from the audience. And he tries more than Mandico to provide shock factor. Mandico mixes genres left and right, never sticking to a specific one. His breakout hit, The Wild Boys, is a coming-of-age adventure fantasy that uses surrealism to express its ideas about gender and sexuality. After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is a Dark Crystal-like sci-fi western. 

What else is he going to come up with for his next feature? Nobody can guess what route he is taking. For his next piece of work, Mandico takes inspiration from the mythic tale of Conan the Barbarian but with his usual flair and intrigue in telling queer (and eroticized) stories. If you thought we would see an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Momoa-type figure – an extremely buff man with a hairy chest waving his sword around like a beast – as seen in multi-million-dollar Hollywood films, you better think again. This interpretation, titled She is Conann, follows the journey of six female reincarnations of the titular character and her fight against the evil Sanja (Julia Riedler). If you don’t know anything about this French filmmaker, I think you will have difficulty getting into this movie filled with torture, sex, lust, cannibalism, and gore.

A hellhound photographer named Rainer (to be more specific, a dog/human hybrid played by the director’s muse, Elina Löwensohn) guides the audience through narration onto this journey of time and the human soul, seeing the different stages of the warrior’s life. Born at a dark time when people used to believe in demons and wonders, She is Conann begins with a flashback in a Hell-like setting. We see an old lady pondering about her past in the presence of Queen Conann (Françoise Brion playing the elder version of the character) and the aforementioned Rainer. The hellhound has always been by Conann’s side. She confirmed her prophecy of becoming the most “barbaric of barbarians” as a teenager. During that time, Conann (in this segment, played by Claire Duburcq) was enslaved by Sanja and her group of bloodthirsty goons that murdered her family. 

After finally escaping the torturous hands of the evil mistress, Conann’s journey begins… and ends… and begins once again because she’s killed by her older self time and time again. Her reincarnations have different paths, ranging from a stunt woman in 90s Brooklyn to falling in love with her enemy. However, all of them contain some amount of brutality, especially when damnation touches her on the shoulder and begins a non-stop massacre of everyone who crosses her path. This episodic structure divides the film into eclectic and visually tantalizing segments that serve little to no purpose in expanding its themes. However, each one truly demonstrates Mandico’s talents as both a provocateur, which deserves some form of props, and as a filmmaker. One aspect that the director has failed to capture since The Wild Boys is trying to blend the imagery with its themes and how one lifts the other. 

His last feature, After Blue, had some incredible cinematography and production. But what we saw on screen didn’t develop what he wanted to say. And, to this day, I still don’t know. In She is Conann, that same thing happens. However, since the film is so bonkers and wildly entertaining (on top of that, severely campy), you can forgive many of those problems. Even though there isn’t much to hold onto with the gender roles theme, the macabre romanticism presented is deliciously unique, and its provocation stirring, ending as an endurance for some and a cinematic pleasure for others. Another positive note on Mandico’s films is that they are very vivid and captivating, pulling the viewer into his world of misfit constructions. It feels as if you can reach onto the big screen and touch (and even smell) everything onscreen – feeling the sharpness of Conann’s sword, the fumes of the stunt woman’s car, the blood on everyone’s hands, severed body parts laying on the floor, amongst other things that pop into the film. 
This wistful underworld, viewed via Nicolas Eveilleau’s lens (often in black and white), is shot in a way that its dreamy haze casts a spell on the viewer. Whether or not you want to be a part of this story, upon entering, there’s no turning back. Mandico’s shock-filled gaze hypnotizes you, and its images will remain in your mind for a long time due to its imaginative madness. The unapologetic strangeness of everything happening will clearly ruffle many feathers, but you can’t take your eyes off it. This sort of effect is rarely found in today’s cinema; less than a handful of filmmakers cause this type of reaction in their audience. That’s a testament to Bertrand Mandico and his pursuit of constantly anomalous MacGuffins. All of his creations have a tactile and eerie feel to them. Some of them leave you in awe because of the beauty behind the madness; most of the time, Mandico gets this reaction when depicting the flora and fauna of his worlds. However, there are others that gross you out in the best way possible. In the case of She is Conann, the gore and sex.  Admiring his ambitions, determination for the bizarre, and curation of some of the most disturbing cinematic moments you will see this year (and probably in this decade), She is Conann has all the ingredients to become an arthouse cult classic; I hope this man continues to make films for an extended period of time.

Grade: B+

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