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LOS ANGELES, May 31, (RTRS): It may be filmed in the Academy ratio, but Steve Oram’s low-budget feature debut “Aaaaaaaah!” could hardly be considered a nod to classic Hollywood. Rather, the 4:3 frame indicates something more primal, evoking the so-called “video nasties” (a wave of mostly cheap horror films banned on VHS in the UK in the 1980s, following a wave of moral panic over the perceived degeneration in values these films would cause when made available for home viewing). “Aaaaaaaah!” is set in exactly the kind of world Mary Whitehouse feared, and functions as a kind of loving Swiftian satire on the more brutish aspects of modern life. Though it’s at once too subtle and too extreme to attract a broad audience, those who get something out of gross-out humor, silent film and British comedy will treasure “Aaaaaaaah!” as a rare cult gem.
“Aaaaaaaah!” opens as Smith (Oram, who wrote, directed, produced, starred and edited the film) and Keith (Tom Meeten) pause on a journey through an English wood. Keith grooms Smith a little, then a strange little ceremony mourning the passing of Smith’s presumed mate is enacted. The pair pass on to conquer new territory, somewhere in a vast suburban sprawl on the horizon. An intense score (from King Crimson ProjeKcts with contributions by Dave Westlake) lets the audience know, not for the last time, that there is trouble ahead.
Although most characters in the film are dressed roughly how we expect humans to dress, everybody behaves like human/simian hybrids. A la French cult classic “Themroc,” not one word of any recognizable language is spoken through the modest 79-minute runtime and there are no subtitles. The fact that viewers can nevertheless comprehend probably 95% of what is said from a mixture of context, body language and facial expression proves the uncomfortable point that Oram is making about our proximity to the rest of the primates.
Matthew Wicks’ camera thoroughly colludes in this idea, borrowing a visual grammar established by nature documentaries to shoot the extremely game cast (including singer Toyah Willcox) in the same way a David Attenborough show might present the great apes in their natural habitat. Closeups at moments of high tension within the social pecking order are particularly successful, as Oram and Julian Barratt’s gift for uninhibited non-verbal performance translates especially well onscreen.
Media within the world of “Aaaaaaaah!” is also subjected to a mischievous form of reductio ad absurdum, whereby the basic tropes of recognizable forms of popular entertainment are amplified until they are revealed in their true ridiculous light. A cooking program, for example, is hosted by a presenter whose bare breasts hang outside of her top as she cooks, the logical extreme of the seductive mode of culinary tuition purveyed by sexy chefs like the UK’s Nigella Lawson. “Aaaaaaaah!” shares cinematic DNA with Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”.
There’s something both terrifying and satisfying about seeing human contrivances and customs rendered so completely transparent in their endless artifice and essentially arbitrary nature. In other more cautiously intellectual modes of cinema, it could all end up coming off as unbearably pretentious, but there’s an earthiness here that cannot be ignored. Taking the same approach as Jonathan Swift in his legendary “A Modest Proposal,” Oram leavens his satire with liberal helpings of gross-out that threaten to mask the critical intent.
As will be clear from the preceding descriptions, “Aaaaaaaah!” is far from a multiplex proposition and indeed has a very specific audience in mind: those with an appetite for somewhat abstract and otherworldly art-house satire combined with midnight movie scatological humor and gore. In other words, if your DVD collection makes room for the work of both Luis Bunuel and Troma Entertainment, you’ll want to track it down (while its title offers obvious alphabetical advantages when it comes to VOD listings). Genre fests and home entertainment are this strange beast’s natural habitat.
Although in English it sounds like a type of sore, “Le Cancre” in French means “the dunce”; either way, it’s an unfortunate title for this most unfortunate feature from the 86-year-old veteran French independent filmmaker Paul Vecchiali, who stars as a wealthy dying man looking back on his life — and particularly on the many women he’s loved. Tedious, self-regarding and often quite amateurishly staged, “Le Cancre” might have earned its Cannes berth out of respect for its director (whose “Please Give Generously” played Directors’ Fortnight in 2004). That’s a valid sentiment, but not one that is going to help the movie travel.
The film gets going with a home invasion in which Rodolphe (Vecchiali) finds himself threatened by a man in a ski mask. This turns out to be his son Laurent (Pascal Cervo), who in a lame reveal is shown to be merely demonstrating why his father is unfit to live on his own. Laurent promptly moves in with him, and the rest of the movie spans from 2007 to the near-present as Rodolphe visits or is visited by the great women in his life, who mostly still regard him fondly and inspire him to reminisce about his former romantic prowess, which perhaps remains undulled. (“Women still like you, and you know it,” Laurent tells him at one point.)
The walk-ons, many played by famous faces, include Valentine (Francoise Lebrun, “The Mother and the …”), who plans to join a convent, and Sarah (Edith Scob, “Eyes Without a Face”), who is actually in one. She is the sister of a former lover of Rodolphe’s who committed suicide, an act that he insists was not his fault. Elsewhere, Mathieu Amalric (probably not yet old enough for this part) appears as the father of a young man rejected by Laurent, whose love life is contrasted with Rodolphe’s. In an unexpected musical number, Rodolphe’s niece (Catherine Estrade) and her daughter (Alberta Commaret) sing to the man of the hour: “Why all these women if you loved only one?” It may be part of the point that Rodolphe, an acknowledged cad, can’t see any of these women as more than mirrors for his own ego, but the apparent sexism leaves a bitter taste regardless.
In a scene that adds some texture to the overarching sentimentality, Noel Simsolo turns up as a son Rodolphe didn’t acknowledge. And finally, we meet Marguerite (Catherine Deneuve), Rodolphe’s first love and Laurent’s aunt, whom the protagonist has spent the bulk of the movie idealizing. Despite prominent billing, Deneuve appears in only one scene, shot in a single take, and a subsequent superimposition.
Vecchiali is known for making features outside of polish-friendly settings, but “Le Cancre” has some of clunkiest mixing and cheapest-sounding music this side of “The Room.” (Like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Rodolophe sometimes alternates between speaking aloud and in voiceover.) Accordionized riffs on “La Boheme” contribute to the atmosphere of unmerited gravitas.