Tiff 2022: Roundup Part 1

De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel

Runtime 115 Mins

Existing on a provocative platform of questionable legality, De Humani Corporis Fabrica is unlike any documentary on the conditions of the healthcare industry that you are likely to see. Set within the interiors of several major hospitals in France (and the interiors of some of its patients), the film purports to be shot covertly with the reteaming of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (Leviathan, Caniba) sneaking their cameras into operating theaters and body cavities with unabashed viscerality. 

The purpose of this gratuitous surgery footage is to “candidly” zero in on the workers of these operations as they voice their frustrations with the material conditions of their work, often picked up incidentally while Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s camera is deep within the abdomen of a nameless patient, in awe of the mechanical process of rearranging organs. The film is an oddity that is undoubtedly hard to watch, not only on account of the invasiveness of its camera into the body or the repetitiveness of its formula, but also for the contentiousness of its ethical side. 

I have no doubt that the patients offered their consent to have their surgeries captured, but a particularly prolonged sequence involving the filmmakers’ camera following several dementia patients or a scene of the blasé preparation of a cadaver rubbed the wrong way. De Humani Corporis Fabrica comes across as a searing indictment of the over-stressed French healthcare industry, but one wonders if the conveyance of that message needed to be so closely tied to the repetition of its most visceral footage. Either way, much like the rest of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s shared filmography, their collaboration has birthed another provocative cinematic curiosity that needs to be seen to be believed.

Fixation

Directed by Mercedes Bryce Morgan

Runtime 99 Mins

Style over substance is the name of the game for Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s ambitious debut feature, which takes the mental breakdown of a trauma patient at the hands of an eccentric medical cult as its entrypoint into a wide-swinging exploration of the subconscious. The script by William Day Frank is built upon a solid, engaging premise of a manipulative clinic founded by an L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure (Stephen McHattie) forcing the repressive Dora (Maddie Hasson), who has guarded her mind with a persistent state of denial over a recent traumatic episode to deliberately reenact moments from her past in the labyrinthian-like hospital – all while forcing her to question the conditions of her reality. 

The idea is solid, but, in execution, the film clumsily handles the psychological investigation into trauma, and the gimmick of gaslighting lacks the deftness to make any of the revelations and twists resonate. Morgan’s direction is showy but disorganized, not realizing when the flourishes of her style work or actually detract from the attempt to build tension and intrigue. The cast is uniformly great – with the likes of Hasson’s perennially tortured Dora and Genesis Rodriguez’s sadistic nurse who’s watching over her holding the film down with their anchoring performances, but the blunt clunky qualities of Frank’s dialogue often let down the commitment of their characterizations. Nothing can sum up the heavy-handedness of his script’s intentions quite like the sinister doctor character putting on a show-trial for Dora and comically announcing “Welcome to your subconscious!” in McHattie’s booming voice. The production design is inventive and the concept is solid, but Fixation falls apart in the execution.

Venus

Directed by Jaume Balagueró

Runtime 100 Mins

What is it with Spanish director Jaume Balagueró and the persistent architectural horror of the towering apartment complex? Returning to this setting, which first put him on the international radar with horror sensation (2007), with his latest, Venus, he puts a new twist on the location, but it fails to live up to the ambitions of the initial concept. A series of circumstances place the ruthless Spanish cartel and a young woman who ripped them off (Ester Exposito) on a violent collision course with the decaying apartment complex “The Venus,” which hosts a secret and violent past and sits on the outskirts of Madrid. 

There, go-go dancer Lucia hides out with her estranged sister, Rocio (Ángela Cremonte), and impressionable niece, Alba (Inés Fernández), and gradually discovers something is amiss with the cabal of sinister eldery women living in the floor above. Balagueró sets up a series of engaging elements, but the follow-through and the capitalizing on these ideas leaves something to be desired. Poorly paced – with its drawing-out of the intrigue behind the apartment complex robbing the film of much of its tension – Venus shines when it gives into the audaciousness of its visceral gore and cosmic horror, but these moments are few and far between. With Balagueró reteaming with cinematographer Pablo Rosso, visually, Venus can occasionally stun with how it frames this recycled setting, especially during the action-packed and frenetic climax which feels like the film finally coming alive after spending much of its runtime in first gear. Otherwise, Balagueró, returning to many of his established tropes, such as the apartment complex of and the mysterious occult chicanery of The Nameless, breaks no new ground for the now veteran director.

Sick

Directed by John Hyams

Runtime 83 Mins

Sick was always going to be a hardsell. Written by Kevin Williamson and Katelyn Crabb, the film takes a “post-COVID,” ironic detachment to its pandemic-centric story, poking a lot of fun at the inane societal expectations and safety precautions thrust upon a selfish society. While the “too soon” vibe of Williamson and Crabb’s punchy script can be grating, the premise is much more clever in execution than one would expect, building a tense and terrifying slasher set-up that actually uses its setting of peak-2020 pandemic both as a metaphor for the threatening paranoia of the time and as integral to the narrative. The idea of two college students, Parker and Miri (Gideon Adlon and Beth Million), quarantining at an isolated estate in the sticks — only for an unknown killer (who, yes, has the kind of “mask” you are imagining) to terrorize them — gives way to a tightly paced, strained, no-nonsense home-invasion horror that has no confusion over what it is or what it trying to say, vis-à-vis the developing societal animosity toward the expectations placed on the pandemic. 

Despite itself, Sick works with one glaring issue in its direction. Hyams presents an over-reliance on the “shakycam” gimmick for his moments of horrific struggle between the protagonists and the killer, of which much of the mainstream horror genre had wisely left in the past. Scenes of supposed terror are rendered illegible and indistinguishable, due to Hyams’ and cinematographer Yaron Levy’s overly frenetic camera and drably lit sets that tragically rob much of the action of any tension. Although slick and to the point, where none of its brief runtime feels wasted, the overall effect of Sick is a surprisingly astute premise made difficult to enjoy by its needlessly abrasive filmmaking.

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