(For more, read Chris' review here)
My daughter's at an age where her imagination is starting to take shape as she interacts and learns about the world around her. When she's not parroting an inappropriate phrase she's overheard in our living room she's hosting tea parties for her T-Rex figures or telling us about the “Silly Gobble Gobbles” that live outside her window while whispering to her at night. Often times it feels like my time to have great adventures has passed, and everything I do is so she may one day have hers, yet it's an idea I've made an odd sort of peace with. The world is open for her to explore and take any path she wishes to choose, and I can simply hope to offer gentle guidance towards any number of them.
Yet there's the flip side that I hate thinking about. What happens when the everyday banalities press down from above and snuff out all hope and ambition? What if the endless roads of dreams from childhood converge into a brick wall, leaving one worn down and spiritless from the grind? What happens when you just give up? That's the subject Montreal filmmaker Eric Falardeau explores with his stunning feature Thanatomorphose.
Kayden Rose stars as a young artist at the end of her frayed rope. She suffers through a loveless relationship with an abusive boyfriend. She's suffered professional rejection and her latest sculpture sits covered and locked away, untouched by her hands for long spells of time. She's given up, and admits as much lying next to her boyfriend one night after a passionless bout of lovemaking that serves as a means for him to dump his seed into her. She's done with life, with dreaming, and with having false hopes and ambitions. She shuffles through nondescript days as an emotionless husk.
Then Rose begins rotting away.
Thanatomorphose takes its name from the act of the flash rotting off the body in death and serves as the fate for Rose's character from the moment she gives in. It starts small with simple bruising (the boyfriend makes offhand jokes about him striking her being the cause). It's not long before she can no longer hide the blemishes with makeup and a change in hairstyle as her organ putrefy. It's not long before her skin is blackens, leaving it rotten and tacky. In one of an unending string of humiliations she loses control of her faculties, streaming shit and piss down the back of her legs. At the hour mark her appendages begin to slough off, leaving rose to either duck tape them back on, or store the bits in mason jars, while maggots devour her from the inside out. Despite her deteriorating and alarming condition Rose (and by extension Falardeau) approaches the early stages of her condition with the same detachment and acceptance The practical effects Falardeau employs are both stunning and stomach turning in their brilliance.
While the mainstream regurgitates the same roles for women, dividing parts between survivor girls and whores, the independent circuit has crafted nuanced and complex characters ripe for exploration. Kayden Rose takes her place alongside Gretchen Lodge (Lovely Molly) and Katherine Isabelle (American Mary) atop the best performances of the year. The role calls for Rose to suffer through graphic debasement throughout as her character is torn down to shreds before she's allowed to build her up ever so slightly towards the end. She spends the majority of the film naked, she's used as a sexual afterthought by two partners and has no one to turn to as her condition worsens. In one of the toughest scenes to sit through she feliates her boy-on-the-side. The camera locks on his expression that is locked in a duel between euphoria and disgust. It's not long before he gives in to the former, gripping rose by the back of her head (digging a finger in to a hole in her skull) and finishing his business before bolting out the door.
Watching Thanatomorphose, I couldn't help but think of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, specifically the line “Ivan Ilych's life had been most ordinary and therefore most terrible”. Rose's fate is set the moment her first bruise shows. Yet the woman that emerges out of the shit hand she's dealt is more formidable than the emotionless husk we first meet. As her body deteriorates Rose takes command of her anger, her sexuality and her art in ways she was unable to before. The most telling sign is the reemergence of her cast of sculpting project. While her worsening condition leaves Rose unable to ply the clay, the image of her fingernails embedded in the lump represent a victory of sorts.
Thanatomorphose may be the best independent work I've reviewed this year. Equal parts horrific, challenging and calculating, it's unlike any other film that's come my way. The obvious comparison when it comes to body horror is Falardeau's fellow Canadian David Cronenberg. Like the master, Falardeau punishes the physical form in order to explore deeper seated neurosis.