On Basset’s Horsehead and the Fantastique

I saw a film called Horsehead by Romain Basset, about a young woman whose nightmares may hold the key to a family secret. The content and style of the film are of a certain kind, taking their cue from canonical films of European fantastique of the 1970s and 1980s -particularly the supernatural horror films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Like those films, Horsehead is episodic, and based more on imagery and mood than on what a viewer might find in a more conventional genre film -scenes that develop characters or further the plot. What happens in Horsehead is no more or less explicable than what happens in Argento’s Inferno. I enjoyed it primarily because I enjoy fantastique cinema from that time and place.

Because of this, however, the film frustrates many viewers. Films like Inferno or City of the Living Dead aren’t going to be for everyone. Whenever I get excited after having seen a new film that resonates with me, I’m often compelled to go online and read others’ thoughts. It’s always a little disheartening to read so many negative ‘reviews.’ I’ll read these reviews -usually a paragraph or two long- mostly on Mubi and Letterboxd (IMDb reviews and message boards are a wasteland), both overpopulated ecosystems of ‘cinephiles,’ so I’m probably looking in the wrong place. Converse to my compulsion to read them, I get a sense of a compulsion among the people writing them not to offer an honest opinion or critical thinking as much as to simply voice hate. It’s baffling that so many people would waste their time articulating how much they hate a film. These films don’t hate you, they aren’t obligated to be all things to all people, and you aren’t obligated to watch them.

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A foreboding red light in Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
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A foreboding red light in Horsehead (Romain Basset, 2014)

It’s fine if you dislike a film like this. I personally dislike the distinctly Anglophone criteria of ‘the characters must be sympathetic and relatable; the storyline must be realistic, plausible, and make perfect sense  (despite being about vampires or zombies or ghosts or whathaveyou); and there can be no ambiguity or confusion regarding what happens -otherwise it’s bad fiction.’ I’d argue that this criteria exists given the popularity in the Anglophone world of supposedly more ‘realistic’ genres, such the procedural/serial killer film throughout the 1990s and of the ‘found-footage’ film throughout the 2000s. I think it’s a very conservative and boring way of consuming fiction -and a blueprint for disaster if you want to watch a work of fantastique or supernatural horror- but do what you like.

To me, criteria of this kind indicates a divide between the Anglophone world and continental Europe in their aesthetic choices. The reception of contemporary European filmmakers who emulate mid-century European genre such as Basset, Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury, Julien Carbon, Laurent Courtiaud, Helene Cattet, Bruno Frozani, and Peter Strickland is often negative to mixed among Anglophone audiences and critics -typically emphasizing poor writing or poor acting, as if any artistry to be found in a film of any kind begins and ends with a ‘good’ screenplay and ‘convincing’ performances. Again, it’s a conservative way of thinking about cinema.

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The sanguine eyes of Catriona MacColl in City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
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The sanguine eyes of Catriona MacColl in Horsehead (Romain Basset, 2014)

I’ll suggest an analogy: If Argento, Bava, Borowczyk, Franco, Fulci, Martino, Rollin, et al are Belgian ales, than Basset, Bustillo/Maury, Carbon/Courtiaud, Cattet/Forzani, Strickland, et al are Belgian-style ales, recycling the ‘taste’ of a previous generation. The Ti West/Joe Swanberg/Adam Wingard/torture porn/”but it wasn’t even scary”/”it’s an homage to the 80s slasher” crowd are PBR or Natty Bo, recycling the ‘taste’ established by Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, Miner, et al. The problem, I think, is that most Anglophone ‘horror fans’ are too accustomed to drinking PBR or Natty Bo (or in the case of audiences consuming only North American studio products in the last twenty years, Red Bull). They sample a Belgian or Belgian-style ale and it doesn’t register as ‘good’ to them. If you grew up being told by your parents and critics that The ExorcistCarrie, and The Shining are brilliant, of course you’re going to think Horsehead is stupid (one could argue that The ExorcistCarrie, and The Shining are analogous to nonalcoholic beers for people who don’t ‘drink’ genre films at all). That’s not to say that that’s good or bad or that one film is better than another, that’s just the way it is. Up to a point, who you are (and what kind of films, music, etc. you enjoy) is largely contingent on where you are.

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Submerged bodies in Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)
besson in horsehead
Submerged bodies in Horsehead (Romain Basset, 2014)

Granted, I don’t think Horsehead is perfect. Naturally, it is put together from bits and pieces of other films (particularly Blood and Black Lace,  Lizard in a Woman’s SkinSuspiria, and Inferno) and there is noticeable and obvious imitation on Basset’s part of those films, the editing is kind of silly and ‘late 90s music video’ in parts, and the music is unremarkable, going back and forth between rote ‘horror movie’ techno and dark ambient electronica. The film was still much more enjoyable to watch than another tiresome studio product from the U.S., however. That’s just my opinion, I only speak for myself, that’s just my ‘glass of beer.’ It’s not going to be everyone’s glass of beer. I liked how ‘the story doesn’t make any sense,’ how stagy and artificial the dreamscapes were, and so on -essentially all the things that many European fantastique films tend to be and many Anglophone products are not allowed to be. To quote Peter Strickland: “It’s never about watching a perfect film; it’s about finding moments.”

Another analogy: European fantastique cinema is a gymnast or acrobat performing all kinds of seemingly impossible stunts. American horror cinema is a paraplegic sitting off to the side, watching, bitter and envious, because he’s been crippled by an artistically-bankrupt marketplace of studio executives, critics, and teenagers.

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2 thoughts on “On Basset’s Horsehead and the Fantastique”

  1. Pingback: Films in 2015 |

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