Bertrand Mandico’s psychedelic science fiction drama is a glorious pop culture-laden trip into sexual expression, liberation and occultism.
As regular readers will be aware, we generally have little time for the self-indulgences of ‘elevated’ cinema, a form of filmmaking that takes all the pretensions of experimental cinema but none of its imagination, style or ideas. Oh, how we yearn for movies that can genuinely offer something fresh and inventive, challenging and experimental without being empty cinemasturbation. With Bertrand Mandico’s After Blue, our prayers have been answered.
After Blue opens in British cinemas today, though whether or not that’ll be a cinema near you is another question – this seems to be the sort of arthouse movie that most arthouse cinemas run a mile from, which is a pity because if anything really benefits from being shown on as big a screen as possible, it is this psychedelic, witchy sci-fi melodrama that is awash with vivid colours, trippy low-grade special effects and oddball imagery that calls back to the classic weird cinema of the past. It’s quite a visual and audible feast, all in all, and feels like an adaptation of the great sexy European sci-fi comics of the late Sixties and early Seventies, taking atmospheric influence and visual moments from Barbarella, Valentina, Satanik and others both in print and on film. It’s a film that is filled with casual erotica (you’re never more than a few minutes away from nudity in this film, something that feels especially odd and transgressive in a modern movie), strange visual imagery that often feels very old-school sci-fi movie at heart, and odd, seductive characters who appear from nowhere and offer a sense of mystery and intrigue as they discuss philosophy, art and desire. “It’s very French”, said Mrs R. as two characters discussed expressionism and existentialist despair. She meant that as a compliment, by the way.
At the heart of After Blue is a classic journey of (self) discovery, almost cliched in narrative: as we discover at the start of the film via an ongoing on-screen narration by the film’s main character, Roxy: in a future time, Earth has crumbled and the inhabitants have relocated to a new planet, After Blue, where – in the hope of not repeating the same mistakes again – technology is banned, though this seems to be a somewhat hit and miss restriction, with laser-razors and assorted guns suggesting that this culture’s rejection of modernity can be conveniently ignored. All the men have died off, the victims of ingrowing body hair caused by the planet’s atmosphere; however, those who dream of an all-female paradise freed from toxic masculinity will be disappointed to see that this world is one full of people who are every bit as mean-spirited, violent, power-hungry and exploitative as on the planet left behind. Hence when bullied teen Roxy (Paula-Luna Breitenfelder) – renamed ‘Toxic’ by her ‘friends’, all of them the results of artificial insemination – unearths a buried woman on the beach, everything goes wrong. The woman (Agata Buzek) – a witchy figure who introduces herself as ‘Kate Bush’ – and yes, you can laugh at this blatant cultural reference, but just the once thank you, because that name is repeated a lot during the film and if you find it hilarious every single time (and you know the sort of audiences I mean) it’ll get very annoying – immediately kills the three bullies as part of a ‘three wishes’ deal with Roxy. This is very much a ‘careful what you wish for’ story, as Kate finds your hidden, darkest desires and makes them real – the whole idea of being granted three wishes becomes a bit less fun if the genie can read your mind and explores your darkest fantasies. Roxy wished her friends dead – she just didn’t know and won’t accept it as what she wanted. The villagers are understandably a bit peeved that Roxy has released this murderous woman – who had been buried in the sand as punishment for her crimes, awaiting the tides to drown her – and force the teenager and her mother Zora (Elina Löwensohn), the village hairdresser – to track the witch down and kill her.
Thus begins the classic journey of discovery, where the reluctant assassins head out of the familiar surrounds of their community and into a world undiscovered. Along the way, through a world of rotting forests and almost-familiar rock quarry locations, they meet Kate’s (possible) mother and sister – a pair of vagabonds with variable accents – and wind up at Kate’s hangout, a magical mine, where they meet seductive and mysterious artist Sternberg (Vimala Pons), whose wealth and status has allowed her to live free from the communal rules that bind the rest of After Blue’s societies. For Zora, the journey is an unsettling removal from her normal life, a life that – despite how she has been treated by her community and despite the strange wonders that she discovers en route – she yearns to return to. For Roxy, already an outcast due to her bleached hair – she’s the only woman in the cast without dark hair other than, notably, Kate Bush – this is an escape from a world where she never belonged anyway. Despite her protestations that she didn’t want Kate to kill her ‘friends’, she has been liberated. She just doesn’t realise it.
If this makes the film sound very much like a regular science fiction story – a Logan’s Run or such – then it’s because, at heart, that’s just what the film is. The story of After Blue – neatly subtitled Dirty Paradise – is surprisingly solid and traditional at heart, but it is awash with moments of strangeness and surrealism alongside visual imagery that is at once inventive and weird while also being surprisingly simple. This is a film of unexpected beauty and oddness, from the visual design to the extraordinary soundtrack by Pierre Desprat, and is awash with nods to other films – I saw elements of Jean Rollin, De Sade, Jean-Luc Godard and David Cronenberg here alongside nods to movies like Baba Yaga (the underrated movie adaptation of Guido Crepax‘s Valentina) and classic-era Doctor Who in the mix. But this is a film that is awash with cultural references – the guns are all named after fashion designers (the most upmarket pistol is a Chanel, the more basic model a Paul Smith; a rifle is a Gucci and an android – the only male figure in the film, complete with multiple tentacles in place of a penis – is a Louis Vuitton. I suspect that you could work slowly through this film finding all the references – and maybe disagreeing on what, exactly, they are. Mandico knows his pop culture, his cult movies and his cultural icons and sprinkles his references freely. At times – yes, that continually-referenced ‘Kate Bush’ name again – it becomes a little distracting, perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, even though this film was shot before the real-life Bush‘s rediscovery by Gen Z. But then again, what better name for a witch?
For all the science fiction and comic book influences at work here, this ultimately feels like a witch movie, Kate Bush being an ethereal, morally ambiguous and – dare we say this? – possibly an imaginary figure who floats through the film, sometimes as a murderer, sometimes as an environmental warrior, but emerging mostly in Roxy’s (wet) dreams as a counter-point to the phantoms of her slain ‘friends’ that haunt her demanding retribution. There is a major question mark that slowly emerges over just who ‘Kate Bush’ might actually be – one that the film’s post-credit sequence seemed to confirm for us, though you might have different interpretations and I’m not going to go them in this piece – it’s hardly a spoiler because it’s definitely a personal interpretation, but why put ideas into your head in advance? Suffice to say that witch films often have a blurring of identities and that feels like something that is at play here. But like I said, it’s ambiguous and you really should find your own conclusions. Roxy’s own narration – in the form of an interview/interrogation with an unseen questioner – isn’t going to reveal any secrets.
After Blue is essential viewing for those of us jaded with films that are trying too hard. How you might see it, I don’t honestly know – I assume it’ll be available to stream and that Anti-Worlds will be issuing it on disc at some point (Mandico’s short film career certainly offers the possibility of an impressively extras-laden Blu-ray) but don’t take my word for that (we’ll update as and when we find out). Mandico’s previous feature, Wild Boys, is still a rather elusive movie in English-speaking territories, which is a shame. On the basis of this, he is one of the few modern filmmakers that can combine experimental cinema with the level of genre awareness and understanding to create something that is both challenging and accessible.
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