Are you sick to death of sleek cinema? An overbearing aesthetic that has trickled down so far that even the most whacko experimental films and unhinged underground movies strive to achieve a similar spotless surface perfection as those boring big-budget Hollywood films? Blech! Give me the awkward, the uncanny, the janky, the shonky, the half-baked, the hideous, the unnatural, and yes, THE CAMP!
It wasn’t until I watched French filmmaker Bertrand Mandico’s new film After Blue (Paradis sale), a deliciously perverse psychedelic post-apocalyptic intergalactic sci-fi Western that appears like something you’d hallucinate after mixing DMT and Blue Chew, that I realized just how much I missed deliberately wonky film aesthetics. I mean, I’m an avowed lover of the Cinema of Transgression and other eyesores. Where did that anti-audience-pleasing impulse go?! This is not to say that glossy experimental films have nothing to offer. For instance, Bruce LaBruce’s sacrilegious twincest romp Saint-Narcisse is a feast for the senses, particularly for those who gravitate towards lurid and lugubrious Catholic religiosity. Julia Ducournau’s Titane too, though chock-full of body horror and car fucking, exists in an alluring visual world that never once tips its hand to reveal its constructed nature. While both these films certainly excel in shock value and their own form of camp theatricality (and were two of my favorite films I saw last year), what other forms of camp cinematic rapture have we lost when we’ve pushed away artifice entirely?
This is why I breathed a sigh of relief when a blind jewel-adorned “new generation android” man Olgar 2 (Michaël Erpelding) rubbed his tentacled Cthulhu-like penis(es?) against the boyish Billie Eilish-lookalike protagonist Roxy, played by Paula Luna, in After Blue (Paradis sale), which hit theaters in New York and LA this weekend with more in the US to follow. Not just because this was a delightfully and aggressively off-putting moment of bizarro erotic bliss, but because I didn’t fully buy it. Its naturalism failed, revealing itself as a welcome anachronism in the context of contemporary experimental cinema. As Sontag writes in Notes on Camp (speaking of anachronisms), “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” And After Blue (Paradis sale) is, above all, a film about glittering, extravagant, fully erect, and hyper-aroused style—one that is decidedly closer to Jack Smith’s self-fashioned trash-picked Lower East Side Babylon than anything recently released from arthouse production companies like A24 or Neon.
Since I would argue the plot of After Blue (Paradis sale) is secondary to its aesthetic vision, I barely want to even talk about narrative, better experienced without trying to impose too much linear logic on its surrealism. Just submit yourself to the imagery and Pierre Desprat’s hypnotic dreamy score. Nevertheless, the film is set on the harsh yet lush After Blue, a faraway planet that Earth dwellers colonized after “the end of the screens, the economic-existential crisis, the neo-virtualists…” destroyed our home planet. The choice of After Blue wasn’t such a good one for the males who all died after “their hairs grew inside because of the atmosphere.” Um…what? Also yuck! This means, of course, that After Blue is a lesbian Xanadu, inhabited only by women or “ovarian-bearers,” meaning Twitter might have a field day with this one! (Please hold your ‘what about’ comments).
The film centers around the aforementioned Roxy, called Toxic by her so-called friends, a teen born on After Blue that narrates the film while seemingly having a therapy appointment with an unseen voiceover credited as La Vérité aka The Truth. Half-fairy tale, half-Western revenge flick, Roxy’s is a coming-of-age story and a hero’s journey. But that’s putting it simply. Roxy’s fate becomes sealed after she unearths a stinking sand-covered body on the beach, while her three annoying friends run around her and piss on it. The body transforms into a glittering sea hag with one hair-covered arm who grants Roxy three wishes like the genie in One Thousand and One Nights. Her first wish? Kill all her friends! Whoops! Be careful what you wish for, Roxy.
This sea hag is known as Kate Bush, a shortening of her full name Katarzyna Buszowska, a winking joke that goes on for far too long throughout the film (Kate Bush is really having a renaissance of references nowadays, huh?). A homicidal maniac who would “cut her own horse’s throat while listening to disco,” Bush’s intoxicatingly platinum-haired, long-nailed ethereal androgyny is played somewhere between Grimes and Tilda Swinton by Agata Buzek. While horrified by her friends’ remorseless murders, Roxy becomes completely obsessed with Bush (who wouldn’t be?), particularly after sneaking a glimpse at Kate Bush’s third eye hovering on her dazzling crotch.
After the deaths of Roxy’s friends, who continually taunt and haunt her throughout the film, now draped in a deathly silver, their village not only grieves but turns blood-thirsty. The townspeople demand that Roxy and her hairdresser (barber really, as she shaves women’s necks with some blue laser light) mother Zora (the perpetually wide-eyed Elina Löwensohn) chase Kate Bush to the mountains with their trusty mare and kill her in revenge (using guns, which on After Blue all bear the names of designers like Chanel and Paul Smith). Like any mother and daughter, Roxy and Zora are alternately at odds and fiercely protective of one another. At two different moments, they point weapons at each other’s backs. But, mostly, they’re struggling to survive on a hallucinatory odyssey through various ooze-covered terrains, meeting a variety of strange people and creatures along the way such as the humanoid Indiams that resemble David Altmejd sculptures with their hollow, geode skulls. This includes the swaggering Sternberg (Vimala Pons), a wealthy artist who runs some artist commune of outlaws in the forest with her android man Olgar 2, a replica of her ex-lover on Earth, as well as Climax and Kiffer, glowing eye makeup-wearing assassins that also cast torsos. Even on other planets, artists’ egos are a little hard to take.
Even still, Zora falls for Sternberg when in a grotesque hot tub of gelatinous goo called a “Youvence bath.” She’s not the only one discovering (or rediscovering) her sexuality. Roxy, too, has several erotic awakenings through the course of the film. First, with Kate Bush, which leads her to stick Bush’s weapon down her pants. And second, some serious heterosexual yearning with Olgar 2, though the androgyny of almost everyone in the film makes labels fairly meaningless. These sensual moments aren’t exactly wholesome and endearing, though. In one startling scene, Olgar’s nipple plops out a little metal ball post-heavy caressing by Roxy, which she then covets and sniffs. Alarming! Titillating!
The landscape of the film mirrors this inauguration into the pleasure dome. There’s a reason the subtitle of the film translates to dirty paradise. After Blue is truly a filthy world—a gushing, seeping, dripping fantasia that seems to be seeping with sexual fluids. If the wetness wasn’t enough, After Blue also features a procession of phallic crystals and wiggling penile creatures, as well as a womb-like mine covered in what could either be jewels or monkeypox pustules. Sometimes this landscape is used specifically to engage with Roxy’s near continual horniness. For example, after her encounter with Olgar 2’s tenta-penis, she flees into the woods where she confronts a suspiciously dick-like tree branch covered in a slick of slime, which she quickly grasps and smears all over her face. As you do.
This hot and bothered nocturnal emission is further augmented by the relentlessly DIY aesthetic of the film’s sets drenched in heavy fog machine smoke, as well as the vibrant K-hole of in-camera effects, which bathe Roxy in colors and create kaleidoscopes of Zora. From what looks to be tinsel hanging from trees to moments of disjointed awkwardness, After Blue‘s pure aestheticism also rejects realism. This is the film’s triumph—not so much its narrative, which tends to drag a bit and sometimes make no sense. No bother. Incoherence is not a problem for me as a viewer or for Mandico for that matter, who co-wrote “The Incoherence Manifesto” with fellow filmmaker Katrin Ólafsdóttir. Lord knows we love a good manifesto here at Filthy Dreams.
For Mandico and Ólafsdóttir, the Incoherence Manifesto advocates for a return to DIY cinema and the glory days of experimentalism. As Mandico tells ScreenAnarchy, “We have listed everything that makes our biases of staging against the current. Biases that may seem incoherent in the dominant industry of arthouse cinema.” This includes using found material for the sets (echoing Kembra Pfahler’s articulation of ‘availabism”), “rejection of any rule of screenplay,” and perhaps my favorite, “actors will alternate non-acting and overacting,” a dogma that is certainly on display in After Blue (Paradis sale).
Fully countering the encroaching creep of perfectionism and by proxy unimaginative and dull professionalism, Mandico’s After Blue recalls a plethora of experimental cinematic greats. While, of course, given the Western tropes and townspeople with wide-brimmed hats, a combo of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky is the kneejerk immediate reference. However, with its opulent jewel-toned colors, deranged and sordid glamour, nebulous plot, and well, the prevalence of extremely long nails, Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome seems like a more appropriate comparison to me.
Nick Zedd, with his absolutely uncompromisingly abrasive, determinedly demented, and purposefully amateurish vision, is another smutty and subversive touchstone, in particular the sci-fi camp unreality of Geek Maggot Bingo and the post-apocalyptic orgiastic mindfuck War Is Menstrual Envy. Zedd and Mandico even seem to echo each other’s unwavering beliefs. For instance, Mandico further explained International Incoherence to ScreenAnarchy: “To be incoherent means to have faith in cinema, it means to have a romantic approach, unformatted, free, disturbed and dreamlike, cinegenic, an epic narration. Incoherence that’s an absence of cynicism but not irony.” How far is that from Zedd’s assertion in his own Cinema of Transgression manifesto: “We propose to go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men. We pass beyond and go over boundaries of millimeters, screens, and projectors to a state of expanded cinema”? Not that different.
While I’m still mourning the loss of our late Cinema of Transgression filth elder that had audiences screaming, “Why do my eyes have to see this?” it’s heartening to know others like Mandico are following in his maniacal footsteps. The draw of aggressive camp artifice hasn’t died along with him but remains a pleasurably jarring force in cinema.