By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
A bedazzled, audacious dreamscape riddled with sex and violence and the ever-present spirit of high fashion…. we drift in and out of After Blue like something akin to a fever dream….”
If your first encounter with the film worlds of French art-weirdo auteur genius Bertrand Mandico doesn’t include awed, slightly bewildered, admiring swears of confusion, then you weren’t paying attention. My first encounter with Mandico’s work was the 2011 short Boro in the Box, a kind of abstracted, fantastic portrait (biography isn’t quite the word here) of fellow cinematic free spirit, the late, great and often gloriously smutty Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. Even then, Mandico cuts a striking figure with his bold, unapologetic visions where the sensory reigns supreme and narrative logic is a mild nuisance, and his sophomore feature After Blue shows no sign of this slowing down.
Recently making its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, After Blue finds Mandico again working closely with his primary collaborator, Romanian-American actor and polymath Elina Löwensohn. Gone are the warm representations of Euro-quirk her name was once so synonymous with thanks to movies like Hal Hartley’s Simple Men (1992) and Amateur (1994) or Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994). Although she has worked broadly elsewhere – Löwensohn’s filmography is breathtaking in its broadness – appearing in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), Basquait (Julian Schnabel, 1996), episodes of Seinfeld and the British cop show The Bill, the US remake of the J-Horror film Dark Water (Walter Salles, 2005) to, more recently, Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2017) – from Boro in the Box onwards, Löwensohn seems to hit her groove the most with her Mandico collaborations, two kindred spirits with a shared vision and the moxie to go about making them. Their post-Boro output together – largely shorts – is an impressive list, including Living Still Life (2012), Salammbô (2014), Souvenirs d’un montreur de seins (2014), Our Lady of Hormones (2015), Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? (2015), Depressive Cop (2017), Apocalypse After (2018), The Return of Tragedy (2020), and Féminisme, rafale et politique (2020). This, of course, is not simply an actor/director relationship; alongside Mandico, Löwensohn has not just appeared in numerous shorts but has regularly written or co-written them, and even co-directed with him the 2017 short Odile dans la vallée.
2017 was a big year for Löwensohn; not only was Let the Corpses Tan unleashed on an unsuspecting film festival circuit (Cattet and Forzani are as much cinematic free spirits and genre experimentalists as Mandico, if not more so), but alongside Odile dans la vallée, Löwensohn also starred in Mandico’s dazzling debut feature The Wild Boys.
An audacious whirlwind of a film whose five eponymous young men are, in fact, played by five young women builds gender fluidity into its very narrative in its tale of the punished young ‘men’ being sent to a mysterious island where the lines between good and evil, male and female, and reality and the fantastic collapse with gleeful abandon. A sexual, sensual film, The Wild Boys not only established that Mandico was a filmmaker who could smoothly make the transition from shorts to features, but that his ongoing collaborations with Löwensohn were very much a part of the manic Mandico magic.
Which all leads, of course, to After Blue. Although less outwardly erotic perhaps than The Wild Boys – although it is still undeniably horny – something of the wild, lurid landscapes of After Blue share echoes of the sensibility that dominated Mandico and Löwensohn’s 2014 short Prehistoric Cabaret, where the latter plays a burlesque performer who announces “I’ll be your intimate landscape” before inviting the camera into her literal insides via a colposcopy. Dominated by a color palette that sits on a spectrum somewhere between a polluted sunset and a large bruise, After Blue – like all Mandico’s films – feels that light emanates from the strange characters themselves, both literally and metaphorically. There’s something intrinsically bodily about the world of After Blue, not merely due to its focus on the strange bodies that populate it, but that the world itself has a distinctly corporeal vibe to it also.
The TIFF programme description of After Blue as a “erotic sci-fi acid western” in many ways does all the heavy lifting in terms of gesticulating towards the kind of film this is, but it is a brief plot synopsis (and this phrase is used in the loosest sense, as that is really all the film allows) that reveals more fully the kind of strange world Mandico and Löwensohn again invite us to inhabit. The film’s protagonist Roxy (Paula Luna) – somewhat cruelly nicknamed Toxic by those around her – lives with her mother Zora (Elina Löwensohn) on the planet After Blue, a place whose very name indicates the newfound post-Earth life of its human inhabitants. Here men cannot survive and have rapidly died off, the strange tendency of the planet to cause excessive hair growth manifesting internally in that gender, leading to their demise. Broken up into communities based on the nationalities of their home planet, Roxy and Zora live with other French women (dressed, enticingly yet somewhat randomly, as Meiko Kaji from Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner Scorpion films). When at the beginning of the film Roxy unknowingly frees a notorious criminal called Kate Bush (played by Agata Buzek, and yes, you read correctly) who has been buried to her neck in the ground, Roxy and Zora meet the ire of their community and are sent out beyond their village to find and kill her.
Like The Wild Boys and so many of Mandico and Löwensohn’s shorts, especially, the world of After Blue is a kind of organically queer one, where heterosexuality – so often the norm – is naturally defamiliarized simply by being so out of place and inherently illogical, even impossible. Mandico’s signature neo-baroque perversity flourishes here as fervently as the strange, surreal foliage that dominates so much of the worlds of both The Wild Boys and After Blue, and here again a sense of nature out of control and evolving in its own way towards something fundamentally and inherently queer (in all senses of the word) dominates both symbolically and literally. And there is humour here, too, which also plays a key role in Mandico’s world-building strategies; aside from the narrative dominance of the figure of Kate Bush (!), the creative approach to life on this planet can be both seductive and playful. Excess here is the name of the game; things here aren’t rotten, they are “ultra-rotten”, a similar spirit dominating the wording of insults (of particular note here is the accusation of one woman being an “octo-whore”).
After Blue is a bedazzled, audacious dreamscape riddled with sex and violence and the ever-present spirit of high fashion as women wield designer brand guns like Paul Smiths, Louis Vuittons, and Guccis. Coherence isn’t exactly at the forefront of After Blue – nor any of Mandico’s films, really – but on this point, he is unapologetic. Rather, we drift in and out of After Blue like something akin to a fever dream (a hardly original point of reference for experimental cinema, but in this instance, so apt is the descriptor it’s hard to avoid). As Toxic and her mother search for the elusive Kate Bush, Mandico and Löwensohn again prove that envelopes exist only for pushing, and they show no signs of slowing down.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.