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David Turpin – “Disquieting Dreams: A Year in the Sinister”

See David’s Top 10: Friends Of Spooool share their Best Films of 2014

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 Sinister - Under the Skin

2014 was a good year for sinister cinema.  When I say sinister, I don’t mean horror films.  After all, with the dire likes of the Horns and The Pyramid doing the rounds, 2014 was actually a pretty rubbish year for horror films – which is presumably why Jennifer Kent’s histrionic and obvious The Babadook was so mystifyingly over-praised.  True sinister cinema doesn’t have to traffic in the sanguine or the supernatural – though it can, of course, involve either or both of those things.  It just has to feel skewed, foreboding, “wrong”.  There was much that was “wrong” to be savoured at the pictures this year.

Film of the year for me – and, I expect – for many others, was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.  Not so much an adaptation of Michel Faber’s terrific novel as a distillation of it, Glazer’s film did away with Faber’s explicit commentary on the meat industry and the class system, and allowed the absences left behind to stare back at the viewer.  While Glazer admitted in a Sight & Sound interview to some initial reservations about the economic necessity of star casting, Under the Skin was also the year’s most arresting exploration of the essentially sinister condition of stardom.  Stars fascinate us because, on some subterranean level, they frighten us – and no amount of earnest interviews in which they trumpet their cultivated normalcy can ever dispel the whiff of the alien about them.  There’s no denying that Scarlett Johansson gives a tremendous performance in Under the Skin – switching between personae without so much as a blink – but the film works because it draws on an inexplicable, but deep rooted, suspicion that what we are watching may not be a performance at all.  For all its sound and fury, Interstellar never stood a chance – Johansson’s inky stare was the most compelling black hole on screen this year.

Two of the most respected figures of European cinema – Roman Polanski and Claire Denis – turned out small-scale masterclasses in the sinister this year.  Polanski’s Venus in Fur adapted (and improved) David Ives’ New York-set 2010 play into a Paris-set, French-language vehicle for Mathieu Almaric and Emmanuelle Seigner.  Piquantly pervy, but always on the right side of the obscene, Venus in Fur was also strangely affecting – a master filmmaker crafting a token of respect and admiration for his wife of two-and-a-half decades.  There was little warm feeling to be had from Denis’ Bastards, though.  An eye-wateringly sordid contemporary noir offering the full menu of suicide, murder, sex abuse and human trafficking, Bastards was a shade darker again than Trouble Every Day (2001) Denis’ previous outing to the more macabre extremes of genre cinema.  Some commentators found the film’s perceived sensationalism beneath Denis, but the unwavering bleakness of her worldview was riveting.

Maleficent

Maleficent

North America’s elder statesman of the sinister, David Cronenberg, hit a rich seam with Maps to the Stars.  The Bruce Wagner-scripted Hollywood nightmare felt disconnected from the reality of present day commercial cinema – why, for instance, does its fictitious Bad Babysitter franchise seem like something from the early 1990s? – but its main attraction was a pair of intertwined oedipal horror shows and a barn-burning turn from Julianne Moore.  Images such as Olivia Williams’ neurotic “momager” spontaneously combusting by her swimming pool and Moore’s delusional has-been battered to death by her assistant (with a Genie award, no less) were among the year’s most potent.

In experimental cinema, the rituals and recitations of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s numinous semi-documentary A Spell to Ward off the Darkness had a touch of the occult, though the ultimate effect was perhaps less sinister than transcendent.  Ritual and fetishism also were the watchwords of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s follow-up to Amer (2009), The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.  One of the most arresting visual experiences of the year, the film juxtaposed the lurid aesthetic of Italian giallo horror films with the sinuous lines of Belgian art nouveau.  The result wasn’t for everybody, but those with a taste for Freud and Eurotrash exoticism with a gallery-ready sheen were never better served.

At the other end of the spectrum, even children’s films got in on the act, with Nicole Kidman’s relishably monstrous villainess bringing some welcome frissons to the delightful Paddington.  Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, glowered and vamped and single-handedly made Maleficent unmissable.  For all the film’s ersatz attempts to humanise its central character (whose name does, after all, mean “diabolical”), Jolie’s implacable gaze is the image that lingers – peering out from a cornfield, or burning bright green behind a peachy chiffon curtain.  As with Johansson in Under the Skin, Jolie has an eerie ability to look at her co-stars as if she’s never seen a human being before – and is unsure of whether she should pity or eat them.  Besides everything else, Maleficent is certain to become an urtext for the drag performers of tomorrow.

Gay-themed cinema underwent something of a sinister renaissance this year, with Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm looking back to Hitchcock while offering a welcome reminder of the early 1990s, when films like Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) were queer in several senses of the term.  Tom at the Farm also featured a swoonsome, near-continuous score by Gabriel Yared that immeasurably heightened the atmosphere, as did Tinderstick’s music for Bastards, and Mica Levi’s for Under the Skin.  Stranger by the Lake’s “slow cinema” credentials ruled out a musical score, but it exerted a powerful pull regardless.

Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake

As well as the year’s most explicit sex scenes, Stranger by the Lake also featured the year’s most striking murder scene – although connoisseurs of the Eros/Thanatos crossover were also well served by Gone Girl.  The extraordinarily bloody combined murder-sex scene in David Fincher’s gothic soap opera positively throbbed with malevolent glee, trumping the opening scene of Basic Instinct (1991) and leaving me wondering why Rosamund Pike hasn’t received an O.B.E. for it yet.

It’s a precondition of the sinister that it hints at something even more unnerving, creeping just outside the window, or lurking in the dark at the bottom of the stairs.  With that in mind, we can only speculate anxiously on what 2015 will bring.  Hopefully some of its highlights will be just as warped and wonderful as this year’s.

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David Turpin is a screenwriter and occasional academic, and a musician under the name The Late David Turpin.  His web-site is www.thelatedavidturpin.com.

See David’s Top 10: Friends Of Spooool share their Best Films of 2014