Film reviews: The Untamed | Final Portrait | The Odyssey | Dark Night

In his surreal new film The Untamed, Mexican director Amat Escalante brings together wild sci-fi, bizarre sex and down-and-dirty social realism
Strange sci-fi: The UntamedStrange sci-fi: The Untamed
Strange sci-fi: The Untamed

Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante is one of the more uncompromising directors to have emerged in recent years. Favouring a form of brutal realism that’s found plenty of admirers on the festival circuit – particularly with the Cannes-winning Heli – he tends to focus on desperate characters whose marginal lives are marked by terrible violence, the latter often filmed in the unflinching, dispassionate style that’s become something of a default aesthetic thanks to Michael Haneke. With The Untamed, though, Escalante pushes the boundaries in a more intriguing way with a movie that could be pitched as a Mexican take on Under the Skin, were that not such an inadequate encapsulation of the film’s more outré elements.

Still, the comparison is a useful starting point given its mix of wild sci-fi, bizarre sex and down-and-dirty social realism. An opening shot of an asteroid hints at some cosmic alien activity and a young woman emerging from some mist-shrouded woods with a gaping wound in her side compounds the freaky tone. Thenceforth Escalante briefly settles things down by homing in on the dysfunctional family life of his protagonist, Alejandra (Ruth Ramos). She’s a young mother of two little boys whose macho husband, Ángel (Jesús Meza), is cheating on her with her own brother, Fabien (Eden Villavicencio). Ángel and Fabián’s affair is not a loving, pleasurable one. Instead, Ángel subjects Fabián, who works as a nurse, to some pretty degrading and violent sex as he works through his own sexual hang-ups in a community where homophobia is rife. Indeed, life on the whole seems pretty bleak, but when Fabián befriends the aforementioned injured woman, Verónica (Simone Bucio), their lives take a very strange turn when they’re introduced to the real cause of Veronica’s wounds.

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It’s here that the film starts to get really odd, transforming into a sort of high-art shlocker about a tentacled alien sex fiend that lives in a shack in the woods. The creature functions as a wide-ranging metaphor for love, lust and all the characters’ baser instincts and their interactions with it run the gamut from transcendent to fatal. The creature’s presence also has quite the effect on the local wildlife, something that gives rise to one of the film’s most provocative sequences: a full-on animal orgy that plays like an x-rated version of those forest creature scenes you often get in classic Disney animation films. Indeed, the whole thing makes you wonder whether or not Escalante might not be having a little fun at our expense, playfully skewering expectations the way Paul Verhoeven did much more skillfully in Elle, another film that, coincidentally, featured a fair amount of tentacled sexual imagery. For all the fringe weirdness on display, though, The Untamed sadly doesn’t add up to a whole lot more than its freaky parts. But what freaky parts.

Coinciding with Tate Modern’s current Alberto Giacometti retrospective, Stanley Tucci’s biopic of the Swiss sculptor and painter offers a close-up look at the artist over the two-week period in which he tormented his friend, the writer James Lord, as he sat for a portrait he couldn’t seem to finish. Based on Lord’s 1965 book about the experience, Final Portrait presents Giacometti (played here by Geoffrey Rush) as a curmudgeonly, irascible superstar of the Paris art scene of the 1960s, one who’s fully aware of his value as a brand, but uninterested – the way that only really successful artists can be – in the material value of their work. What he is obsessed with – at least according to the film – is the agonising process of its creation, which Lord (played by Armie Hammer) soon discovers extends to those who sit for him as well. Promised that his latest painting will only take an afternoon, Lord finds the days piling up as Giacometti – toiling away in his shabby studio – repeatedly restarts the process, adding layer upon layer of paint to the canvas without getting any closer to the truth of its subject. The film functions in much the same way: Rush’s exuberant, ostentatious performance doesn’t leave much room for introspection, but it does tap into the way art, for good or ill, is sometimes an exercise in abandonment, making the film an exploration of the trauma involved in making peace with that fact.

The life of the French filmmaker and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau gets the clunky biopic treatment courtesy of the The Odyssey. Beautiful production values not withstanding, what should make for a fascinating biopic is rendered dull by a conventionally plotted father-son storyline that takes Cousteau (played by Lambert Wilson) to task for sacrificing his relationship with his son in his own quest for adventure.

Deliberately echoing the title of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Dark Night is a strange and unsettling exploration of alienation inspired by the mass shooting that took place in a Colorado multiplex during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. News reports of the actual shooting play in background of scenes, which are presented partly as a documentary about America’s disconnected youth, partly as a deliberately banal, Elephant-style dramatisation of a day in the life of several ordinary people whose fates are destined to be intertwined by a loner with too little empathy and too much access to high-powered firearms. More video installation than narrative feature, Tim Sutton’s film is chilling in some respects, but its too abstract in its approach to really nail the pathology that makes these tragedies such a regular occurrence in American life. ■