In Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, a woman fast approaching 70—the age when the old are sent into the mountains to die—works to ensure her sons’ future well-being. Marrying fatalism and selflessness, the film measures the flow of life and death in a village that lives on the edge of starvation. Now Imamura’s son Daisuke Tendan imagines what may have happened to the old ladies dumped in the snowy wastes. Turns out that, decades ago, one crone refused to accept her fate, somehow managing to survive by eating bark and the like. Now she’s the 100-year-old matriarch of a rag-tag tribe of castoff grannies. Their sanctuary, consisting of several primitive shelters barely visible beneath snow, is called Dendera.
How strange and wonderful, especially for one accustomed to airbrushed American movies, to watch a film full of old women, their lined faces and arthritic bodies reflecting the many seasons of their lives, the idiosyncratic beauty and grotesquerie of age. But the striking cast and the scenic grandeur of the setting are not enough to distract from the fact that Dendera doesn’t really know why or where it’s going.
Just when the ancient “queen” has convinced the toothless, white-haired Amazons they should wreck vengeance on the village that exiled them, a ferocious bear and her cub raid their precious stores, slinging defenders left and right in great sprays of blood. Is the relentless assault of this desperate, monstrous mother a sign? Have the septuagenarians violated some law of nature by living beyond their time? The bloody and prolonged struggle against the marauders, meant to suggest primal eruptions of nature red in tooth and claw, loses dramatic punch because the action is so sloppily choreographed … and the bear too often resembles an ambulatory rug.
Dendera isn’t good enough to realize its grabby ideas. It falls short even in making you feel in your very flesh and bones the brutal “weather” of survival—heavy falling snow, avalanches, oases of warm campfires in dim shelters. Tendan tries to invoke the power of primal “feminism,” but though his crones are physically arresting, they don’t pack the emotional or spiritual power that would make us believe in them as world-changers.
A mostly affectless nymphet (Emily Browning) divides her time between office work, attending a college class, and picking up letches in bars. At home, her sister’s hostile boyfriend rides her for late rent; occasionally, she visits a gaunt fellow named Birdmann (Ewan Leslie), with whom she exchanges affectionate, ironic and artificially formal pleasantries. Then Lucy is hired on by Clara (Rachael Blake), a mysterious and exacting madam who grooms her for “silver service,” featuring a bevy of lovelies decked out in black bondage thongs and halters, with young Lucy providing contrast in virginal white lingerie and garters. These leftovers from The Story of O serve tuxedo’d geezers dinner and wine, and even pose as curvaceous andirons in front of the fireplace. After brandy, the ladies in black stay to pleasure the guests, while Lucy goes home untouched. In her stints as a sleeping beauty, the deeply drugged Lucy slumbers like some peach-hued Botticelli angel in a sumptuous bed at Clara’s home. For the aging rakes permitted everything but “penetration,” her unresponsive flesh is comfort, provocation to violence, measure of their bodies’ decay.
It must be taken on faith that Australian novelist-turned-director Julia Leigh is pursuing some kind of erotic and/or emotional truth in this endlessly opaque and elliptical tale. One is hard-pressed to penetrate how Lucy feels about much of anything; when she isn’t unconscious, she maintains a pose of ironic diffidence that doesn’t seem so much a lost soul’s armor against pain or humiliation as just the expression she wears. When she does break down—spooned in the arms of Birdmann while he Ods, and later, waking up in bed with an elderly client who’s also suicided—her tears possesses only face value. What has awakened her feelings of grief and terror? Not so much enigma as blank slate, Lucy remains impervious to intimacy, with us or anyone else. Her contacts with other human beings are so sketchy, literally skin deep, we can only guess at their significance.
The sight of anonymous bare breasts and buttocks and Lucy’s lovely, corpselike nudity will provide some with an automatic turn-on. But, like the sad, silly orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, erotic Sleeping Beauty is not. Clara assures her upscale clients that “no one can see you … there is no shame here.” Trouble is, there’s really nothing at all, shameful or otherwise, to see in Leigh’s pretentious and empty fairy tale.
A grave-faced 4-year-old (Kelyna Lecomte) watches the long, brutal process of slaughtering a huge pig, then sits with her father among a milling herd of adorable piglets, petting the fat little creatures she affectionately calls “roasts.” Locarno Fest winner for Best First Film, Valérie Massadian puts her gifts as an artist-photographer to good use in this almost wordless and contemplative look at life and nature from the POV of a nearly feral tot.
The film draws its considerable power from Massadian’s painterly compositions, which she frames and holds long enough for the ordinary to become iconographic. But Nana is carried by the miraculous Lecomte, an utterly unselfconscious performer not in the least distracted by the observing camera eye. So much inside her own skin and thoughts, this little girl might literally be a projection of Massadian’s imagination.
Sans backstory or explanation, Nana’s mother (Marie Delmas) heads for an outlying stone house where she and her 4-year-old set up housekeeping. Mother and child gather wood in the forest, make a comfy bed, sun-bathe together, enjoy a bedtime story. There’s an unsentimental enchantment to every action, as though the two were living a Grimm fairy tale far from the rest of the world. The adorable Nana talks to herself constantly, commenting on what she’s doing and seeing; she’s a wonder to watch, totally lost in some task or game or natural setting.
When her mother isn’t there anymore—she’s walked off toward the farm proper—the little girl hardly seems to notice her absence. Nana simply goes on, performing many of the actions we’ve already observed: when she collects wood, her trajectory within Massadian’s frame precisely retraces her mother’s path. She pretends to read the storybook to herself, reciting from memory. Discovering a burly rabbit dead in a wire trap, she lugs it back to the house, cuddles it for awhile, then wraps it in straw and hefts it into the fireplace—imitating her grandfather’s earlier treatment of the pig. Nana’s natural world, emptied of adults, is not so much Edenic as pre-Edenic, unromanticized reality.
A couple of enigmatic shots suggest the mother may have died—or at least Nana may have killed her off in her imagination—but this insertion of “story” into a meditative flow that’s close to wordless dream seems forced and unconvincing. Let’s hope American audiences can sit still long enough to let this affecting movie pull them into its mysterious rhythms, as mesmerizing as the beat of a wild animal’s heart.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Murphy