Inspired by Beau is Afraid — the surrealist and divisive new film by new-horror hero Ari Aster — this week’s selection features three very trippy, not always easy to watch or digest films from cinema history that ask much from their audience but offer plenty of reward for those who stay for the duration of their very different but memorably head-scratching rides. It’s not so much the story that they tell but the way they tell it that finally stays with you, in often nightmarish but always unforgettable fashion.
The art house essential: Persona — YouTube
Swedish master Ingmar Bergman made many films during his prolific and hugely influential career that delved into the most difficult philosophical questions of human existence but none perhaps quite so complex and intriguing as this 1966 classic. Starring regular Bergman collaborators Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson it’s the story of the emotionally claustrophobic relationship between an actress recovering from a psychological breakdown and the nurse who’s hired to look after her.
Bergman uses a series of visually striking images and techniques to try to communicate the anxieties of his favourite themes — the impossibility of real communication between people and his own self-flagellating awareness of artmaking as a highly narcissistic process that serves its creator above those who it is ostensibly created for.
Though it’s only 81 minutes long, the intensity with which it is performed and the slow but forceful method of its execution, make it a film that’s not easy to watch but ultimately well worth the reward. The central battle between the actress’s own feelings of inadequacy and the petty inanities and pressures of the modern world, fuel a psychological minefield that the dourly pessimistic Bergman still manages to navigate through to an unforgettable resolution that offers something akin to hope for the breaking down of barriers to understanding between, not only its two female protagonists, but humans at large.
Its existential dread and anomie may have been heavily influenced by the unspoken terrors of the nuclear age but its central concerns and philosophical preoccupations remain constantly relevant and it’s approach to unpacking them, remains something quite unlike anything else on screen before or since.
The stone cold classic: Alice — YouTube
Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer found a perfect match for his particular brand of absurdist humour and dark nightmarish visual style in this 1988 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. Alice is the only human participant in a definitely not for children and nightmarishly psychological focused interpretation that still finds plenty of space for imaginative stop-motion invention and bleak, black humour.
While the director certainly strips the story of its cutesy Disneyfied populist elements, the narrative remains true to the source material and the distinctively smart animated elements help to expand Carrol’s original by bringing more of the on-the-page fantasy to screen.
Hailed by some as the definitive version and reviled by others for its determined dedication to the dark corners of the story, it’s certainly not the Alice in Wonderland your parents read to you as a child but definitely one that you won’t soon forget in a hurry.
It’s also one that, once you fall under its suitably uncanny and sometimes terrifying spell, reminds you of a time when the movies had the power to not only conjure up awe-inspiring visions of our dreams but fearful renderings of our nightmares.
Santa Sangre — YouTube
No filmmaker has been as dedicatedly committed to the surreal potential of cinema than Mexican maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose career is notable for its plethora of visually disturbing and esoteric images that forego narrative niceties in favour of spectacular image poems that reference a wide range of off-the-beaten-path religious, spiritual and occult influences.
In this 1989 fever dream, Jodorowsky plays a former child magician, so traumatised by a witnessing a childhood violent fight between his father — a knife thrower — and his mother — a trapeze artist, that he’s now imprisoned in an asylum. When he escapes and returns to the outside world he’s reunited with his decidedly creepy and unhealthily obsessive mother, who has no arms and enlists her son to lend her his for a very uncomfortable mime performance in the circus where she still works.
This suitably cringey narrative premise becomes the armature on which Jodorowsky moulds a succession of increasingly hallucinatory images that reference everything from the Venus de Milo to Liberace and George A Romero’s horror zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, into a messy sculpture that’s decidedly strange, violent but ultimately still hopeful. You might not always know what the hell is going on but you’ll certainly not forget what you’ve seen. Like his more famous and celebrated surreal freak-outs — El Topo and Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre serves as a demonstration of Jodorowsky’s demand that for him a film should do the same as “North Americans demand from hallucinogenic drugs.”