On the weird side

Every film festival needs at least one bonkers film, and you’d go a long way to find a better example than Cook F**k Kill (Žáby bez jazyka).

 Jaroslav K, a puzzled and slightly paranoid everyman, needs to open a gate to enter a property where his children are hiding. To get inside, he undergoes a series of tests and trials that become weirder as time goes on. And that’s about as close as the film gets to a normal story. Otherwise, scenes recur, lines of dialogue are repeated, relationships are upturned and the style veers between a kind of kitchen-sink Slovak realism, revolving around the ownership of a flat, and something far more eccentric.

In amongst the Eastern European black humour, as dark as anything in Franz Kafka (Jaroslav K’s name evokes Josef K), a serious point is being made about the abuse of women. Along the way, all manner of absurdist, psychoanalytical and experimental techniques and ideas are thrown into the mix. Jaroslav is followed by a chorus of chanting middle-aged women and the whole thing is sometimes as puzzling as the children’s rhymes and riddles that fill the dialogue. The film is also quite violent and there is a scene in a slaughterhouse that will disturb some viewers.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of film that will appeal to those, like myself, who enjoy the cinema of Luis Buñuel and Yorgos Lanthimos, where naturalistic acting and plot are thrown aside in favour of something much more strange that is also deeply rooted in the fears and fantasies of our subconscious minds.

To take Buñuel first. His career started with Un Chien Andalou, from 1929, a 16-minute silent short that he created with Salvador Dali. A montage of alarming images, scripted but without logical connections, it starts with one of the most famous shots in cinema, that of a woman’s eye being slit open with a razor blade. He went on to make a string of films in Europe, Mexico and the US, working with some of the foremost artists of the 20th century, and ending his career with That Obscure Object of Desire, from 1977, which tells of a romance between a middle-aged Frenchman and a flamenco dancer, played by two different actresses with no attempt to make them look or behave similarly.

Buñuel’s work was usually deeply concerned with sexuality, although it is played down somewhat in his most commercially successful film Belle de Jour, from 1967. This starred a young Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a middle-class housewife who spends her afternoons as a high-class prostitute. Although there is little in the way of graphic sex, the film still has the capacity to shock and alarm. Séverine has sadomasochistic fantasies. She has sex with a stranger in a brothel. She becomes involved with a gangster. Around this nominally realistic plot, Buñuel weaves some truly startling imagery.                      

Those who only know Yorgis Lanthimos through The Favourite (2018), his successful and mostly conventional costume drama, might be surprised if they looked at his earlier work. Dogtooth, nominated for the best foreign language prize in the 2010 Oscars, is an anarchic, surrealist mix of sex and violence, based around a couple who keep their adult children in a a fenced-in compound.

Better known is The Lobster, from 2015, set in a dystopian world in which single people are corralled into a hotel and given 45 days to find a partner before they are turned into an animal. The premise is wildly original, but that isn’t really the shocking part for the usual cinema audience: that’s the performances, which are so deliberately flat and affectless that it appears as if the cast, including Colin Farrell and Olivia Colman, are working from a script they have never seen before. It is alienating, in the Brechtian sense, but also somehow traditional, reflecting Greek drama or stylised non-Western performance styles. It is also a very funny film, if you are prepared to go with the flow.

His next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer(2017), was based on a Greek myth about a sacrifice necessary to appease the gods for a murder. In this version, a surgeon loses a patient in the operating theatre, only for the patient’s son to inveigle himself into the surgeon’s family’s perfect life. Some feel Lanthimos overdid the alienation in this film, making it hard to empathise with anybody, even Colin Farrell as the surgeon, Nicole Kidman as his wife and Barry Keoghan as the revenging boy. On the other hand, it is a truly creepy thriller.

The continentals are not the only people to try their hand at weird. In this context, I would recommend Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, from 2018, the story of a strange department store and a murderous red dress that passes through the cast. Sex, violence, mannequins, brittle saleswomen. What more could you want?

Cook F**K Kill is available from Tuesday 9 June at 9pm until Tuesday June 16 at 9pm. Find it here:  https://ciff.shift72.com/film/cook-f-k-kill-zaby-bez-jazyka/


©  |  Cheltenham International Film Festival  |  2023