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FilmWatch Weekly: More pushed envelopes in ‘Men,’ ‘Lux Aeterna,’ and ‘Pleasure’

Some like it hot, or just out on the edge. Here comes a handful of boundary-pushing flicks. Enter at your own risk.

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Jessie Buckley in “Men.”

Another week, another set of envelope-pushing movies ready to divide, confuse, and/or enthrall audiences brave enough to tackle them. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

The most high-profile of them is the latest from writer-director Alex Garland, whose previous mindbenders have included Ex Machina and the TV series Devs. This one is titled simply Men, and it’s his most perplexing yet.

Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter) stars as Harper, who, in the film’s jarring opening scene, watches in horror as her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), plummets past their apartment window to his death. Some time later, Harper arrives at a country house she has rented as a place of refuge while she processes her grief. The owner (Rory Kinnear) is an eccentric sort, but seems harmless enough.

The sublimated eeriness of the superficially bucolic countryside soon takes on the disturbingly concrete form of a wounded, naked man who Harper encounters on a walk in the nearby woods. As she explores the village, she meets the local vicar, an oddly hostile young boy, a pub owner, and others, all played by Rory Kinnear through a masterful combination of makeup, prosthetics, and what seems to be some subtle deepfake technology.

Whether this polymorphous, surreal phenomenon is in Harper’s mind, or a real-world reflection of her guilt and sorrow, it becomes increasingly oppressive. There are elements of folk horror at work, including references to the ancient female icon known as the sheela-na-gig and the equally venerable legend of The Green Man. Through flashbacks, we gradually learn more about the circumstances that led to James’ death and to Harper’s emotional state.

After slowly coming to a low boil for an hour and a half, Men erupts into a full-on horror show in its final act, which features one of the most inventive gore sequences in recent memory, again relying almost exclusively on practical effects and a twisted imagination.

Garland asks more questions than he answers, and Men leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. It’s a fascinating parable that has something to say about gender relations, but it’s up to the viewer to try to suss out what that is. Anyone looking for easy answers will be frustrated, but if you focus on the journey instead of the destination, then this is one worth taking. Just don’t see it alone—you’ll want to have someone to argue with afterward. (Opens Friday, May 20, at multiple theaters)

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Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Lux Aeterna.”

VORTEX, THE LATEST FILM from director Gaspar Noe, opened only two weeks ago, and now here comes Lux Aeterna, another one from the same guy. What gives? Well, Lux Aeterna was actually shot before Vortex, but wasn’t picked up for American distribution, perhaps because it’s only 52 minutes long. But here it is, screening on Saturday, May 21, as part of the Clinton Street Theater’s “Pagan May.”

It’s a psychedelic, strobe-lit grenade that’s more typical of Noe’s provocations than the somber Vortex. (In between the two films’ productions, Noe suffered a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage that seems to have altered his perspective on things.) In this mostly improvised poison pen letter to cinema, actors Beatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg play versions of themselves.

Dalle is directing a film in which Gainsbourg is to appear as one of three women being burned at the stake, and Noe’s film follows the preparation for that scene. We don’t really learn anything else about the movie within the movie, and we don’t need to—Lux Aeterna is content to depict the power struggles, petty grievances, and chaotic ineptitude of a film set, and to serve as a valentine to its two stars, both of whom have a reputation as adventurous, talented, and “difficult” women. It’s no coincidence that things culminate in a modern-day witch burning.

Noe plays with split screen in Lux Aeterna in a way that presages its constant use in Vortex, and the film does contain a warning that it could be triggering for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Indeed, even for folks without that concern, the final few minutes are a disorienting barrage of light, sound, and color. In a good way. (Screens on Saturday, May 21, at the Clinton Street Theater)

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Sofia Kappel in “Pleasure.”

LAST, AND TO BE HONEST, LEAST of this week’s subversive cinematic offerings is the misleadingly titled Pleasure, the debut feature from Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, who must have the coolest parents ever, because as far as I can tell that’s her given name. It’s about a fresh-faced 19-year-old woman who moves from Sweden to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming the next big porn star.

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Under the nom de porn Bella Cherry, she gets a room in a “model house” and, soon enough, an agent and a debut role. Bella starts off performing in standard girl-guy scenarios, but quickly learns that the path toward stardom runs smoothest for those who are willing to engage in more taboo activities: bondage, “rough stuff,” and the most shocking of all (at least in the world of hardcore porn), interracial.

Pleasure, based on Thyberg’s 2013 short film of the same name, takes a nonjudgmental view towards the industry, taking pains to show the businesslike attitude of most productions: recorded consent agreements and age verifications, the use of safe words, and the same sort of clinical posing that makes mainstream sex scenes generally more arousing to watch than they are to shoot. This is also a rare example of a female perspective on porn, sometimes literally so when the camera sees what Bella sees, one that emphasizes its main character’s agency as opposite to her victimhood. And Sofia Kappel gives a convincing, (needless to say) uninhibited performance as Bella.

But it’s still intensely difficult to watch. The degradation that Bella, and to at least some degree Kappel, endures, whether willingly or not, is disturbing at best and revolting at worst. Different strokes for different folks, of course, hence the market for this sort of explicit product. But unless you have a taste for sadism, prepare for physical discomfort at several points. And I was watching at home—not sure I could handle this in a theater. As I said, you were warned. (Opens Friday, May 20, at Cinema 21)    

Also this week:

I feel bad for anyone having to choose between Lux Aeterna at the Clinton Street or Stunt Rock at the Hollywood on Saturday night. The latter is a perfect example of what’s been dubbed Ozploitation, the Australian genre films made during the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps a plot synopsis can capture its insanity: A stuntman (actual stuntman Grant Page) from Down Under moves to L.A. and gets a gig staging pyrotechnics for an American band called Sorcery (complete with wizard costumes). There’s some nonsense about his relationships with a local reporter, but mostly there are stunts and there is rock. Just watch the trailer. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith, always a engaging raconteur, will be in attendance for this screening of a new 4k restoration. Fortunately for me, I’ve seen the Gaspar Noe film, so I know where I’ll be. (Screens Saturday, May 21, at the Hollywood Theatre)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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