The Exterminating Angels
2006Director: Jean-Claude Brisseau
Cast: Lise Bellynck, Frédéric van den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil
ean-Claude Brisseau’s The Exterminating Angels (Les Anges exterminateurs) begins in much the way an average American spectator would believe a surrealist French film might. Two dark figures linger ominously over a couple sleeping in bed; soon the figures, presumably the “exterminating angels” of the title, evaporate with a flash of light. The male figure, François, awakes to his dead grandmother’s apparition, who warns him about his ceaseless curiosity. Dismissing the vision as a dream, Francois falls asleep again. Meanwhile, the grandmother materializes in the hallway begging the two re-appearing angels to be gentle with her grandson: he “is an odd mixture of intelligence and foolishness,” she pleads. Thus the film’s first frames imply that the ensuing plot will consist of a series of events leading to François’s eventual demise. Or does it? For the next hour and a half, Brisseau will relish tracing how his main character travels from point A to a presumed point B.
A famous filmmaker himself, François takes private meetings with a number of actresses up for his latest film, a piece of erotica attempting to capture womens’ “female pleasure and transgressing taboos.” After a lengthy and discouraging process, he finally snaps up two amateur actresses, and later a third, willing to screen test for him, which in this case means bringing themselves to orgasm while he films them. François ignites their sensualities, for instance, by insisting they rub one another underneath the table in a busy restaurant, but he will not participate in any sexual acts with them. Nor does he bother directing them much when filming these tests; he simply stands behind the camera, like an adolescent boy staring at his lady neighbor’s open window, and waits for some intangible movie magic to unfold before him.
Needless to say, François’s experiment will not end well. François unleashes more in the women than their desires for sexual gratification, as their lack of inhibition provides floodgates into their personal psychologies and shattered emotional pasts. All the women fall either for one another or for father-figure François as the initiator of their newfound orgasmic pleasures, François’s marriage begins to unravel, and policemen start monitoring the protracted pre-production activities.
Unfortunately, none of this adds up to very much. The taut pot-boiler thriller elements fail, and the excursion into private recesses of damaged minds proves superficial. François endeavors to make a film containing real sex with, as he says, “only the most important dialogue” so as to avoid veering into the realm of pornography. Of course, in Brisseau’s rather overt meta-cinematic wink, The Exterminating Angels itself amounts to exactly the type of film François attempts to make. Most of the larger film is a slow-poke exercise, presumably about the consequences of fetishism and erotic excavation.
Unlike, say, Tom Cruise’s protagonist doctor in Stanley Kubrick’s wildly underrated Eyes Wide Shut, the sexuality fails to spiral any of the actress characters into a paradoxical black hole of self-enlightenment; rather, it gives them all permission to act like petty fourteen-year olds, throwing hissy fits and bickering with one another. François, meanwhile, becomes a randy devil, arriving home after a rehearsal to initiate aggressive sex with his wife who, as anyone familiar with this hackneyed subplot will know, enjoys the gesture initially but must concernedly quiz him afterwards about his new uncharacteristic urges.
In America, viewers can witness most of these clichés in 80s and 90s erotic thriller junk starring either Sharon Stone or Mickey Rourke. If not for Brisseau’s directorial flair, the film would come off as cheap and exhibitionist. Instead, it’s just sheer pretension, nearly a parody of the postmodern French film. Brisseau displays a modicum of humor, saving the film from its increasingly self-defeating weight. The initial interviews with the prospective actresses are particularly droll, as the camera displays face after face of hopeful-auditioner-turned-mildly-disgusted-feminist when each learns François’s true intents. One refuses a part in his film but then asks François to critique the “vamp act” she performs to turn on her boyfriend, a hilarious series of convulsions set to awful American techno music.
Still, The Exterminating Angels proves mainly a long trudge through familiar psycho-sexual checkpoints. Brisseau maintains a competent dream logic throughout and shrewdly elevates certain scenes by filming them against grand French interiors. The plush furnishings, twilight-tinged incandescence, and skyscraping doors create a falsely ripe environment of significance. But Brisseau the emperor, like most of his characters, has no clothes. For each time the aural landscape succeeds, it fails twice over. The characters express their monologues (or moan-a-logues) in an effective, even haunting, ping-pong of whispers and shouts. Yet François sporadically chimes in with intrusive voiceovers, non sequitur poetry inexplicably introduces scenes, and the score veers from sentiment to cheapo-pulp with all the delicacy of a bulldozer.
The grandmother appears again in the film’s final scene, a dreadful coda finally defining François’s point B while distilling all of the film’s surrealist affectation into a precious two minutes. While all these hints of magical realism recall David Lynch at his ethereal worst, Brisseau commits his biggest sin by just scraping the surface of the potentially probing links between sex and self-revelation. If his conclusion only moralizes that sexual exploration makes for depraved persons and spiteful bedfellows, then maybe he should screen Fatal Attraction for himself a few dozen times to realize someone marked this territory long before the age of fairy grandmothers and dark angels.
The Exterminating Angels (Les Anges exterminateurs) will be released on DVD July 24th, 2007.
By: Mike D’Alessandro
Published on: 2007-07-18