ROT WOMAN: ERIC FALARDEAU’S “THANATOMORPHOSE” AND ERIC ENGLAND’S “CONTRACTED” GET CRAZY FROM THE INSIDE OUT
In light of the Fantasia Festival’s recent premiere of THANATOMORPHOSE, we look at the uniquely feminine body horror of both films, currently scarring audiences on the fest circuit.
Readers of FANGO #323 will recall an interview with Quebecois director Eric Falardeau about his debut feature THANATOMORPHOSE – which had its Canadian Premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival this past Monday (and plays again on August 3rd as a late-nite show – details HERE). A messy, sweaty showcase of stomach-churning body horror FX, Falardeau’s film centers on a young sculptress (Kayden Rose) in a debasing sexual relationship who is gradually afflicted with mysterious wounds. As these ailments intensify from bruises and pustules to muscular atrophy and complete necrotitis, her mental state becomes equally compromised. In the hermetically-sealed cocoon of her apartment, she slowly begins to go insane.
But THANATOMORPHOSE is not the first film I’ve seen this year in which a woman undergoes psychosis when her body starts rotting from the inside. Eric England’s CONTRACTED, which screened in the Cannes Market this past spring, also featured a young woman (Najarra Townsend) who starts to notice physical discomfort, followed by severe vaginal haemorrhaging, varicose veins and eventual necrotitis after an unprotected one night stand with a stranger. And while the two films share a similar theme, and a similar glee in gross-out gags (if you thought the tampon-sniffing scene in EXCISION was hard to take, beware) they also share a regrettable inability to bring the audience into the headpace of their respective characters.
The first act of CONTRACTED is quite compelling and even subversive; likening the onset of an STD to monstrous transformation is something that has been addressed by the AIDS analogies of films like Cronenberg’s THE FLY and Larry Fessenden’s HABIT – and even prefigured somewhat by the tragic degeneration of the monster in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY – but to present these stories from a female perspective is relatively fresh, and requires a brave performer willing to get deep into the muck of female body horror. The amount of time spent in the bathroom in and around toilets – in both CONTRACTED and THANATOMORPHOSE – is in itself a confrontation with taboo imagery that is commendable. The image of a female locked in the bathroom trying to maintain her composure as her body is violently rebelling is clearly linked to menstrual crisis (which also reminded me of the ‘STIGMA’ episode of the BBC’s annual A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS series, an episode I relished for this very reason), and in CONTRACTED specifically, the early stages of her illness – cramps and haemorrhaging -are indistinguishable from the debilitating effects of menstruation. “But there’s not that much blood!” protested one of my male friends during our post-screening discussion. I laughed. Sometimes there is. First comes the blood, then comes the crazy. The comparison is unavoidable.
But as intriguing as CONTRACTED is from the outset, it takes a left turn into sheer ridiculousness halfway through, suspension of disbelief is lost, and the viewer disengages with what could have been a challenging film about perceptions of monstrosity surrounding sexually transmitted diseases.
While hinging on a similar premise, CONTRACTED and THANATOMORPHOSE are markedly different in aesthetic; the protagonists of CONTRACTED are LA party girls and the film’s visual palette is relatively conventional. Falardeau’s background on the other hand, is in experimental cinema (earlier short films include PURGATORY  and CREPUSCLE , the latter of which was covered in FANGO #307), and his film is fraught with frenetic visual sequences punctuated with harsh noise sound design, obscure lighting (admittedly the projection I saw was dark), and even chapter headings seemingly ripped straight from Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST. But regardless of their disparate ambitions, both of them crumble for the same reason: the characterization is weak. And if you want to make a film about a woman going insane, that is the one thing you can’t skimp on. Both directors seemed incapable of writing the characters that their films desperately needed at their respective centres in order to carry the very promising concept. This is not to say there is no room for fantasy or interiority in a film about mental disintegration – indeed, interiority is key. But you have to buy into it. If you repeatedly scoff at a character’s actions, then you are clearly not connecting with the world the film is trying to create. Films like Lucky McKee’s MAY, Marina de Van’s IN MY SKIN and Robert Altman’s IMAGES (to name a few examples) contain situations that are just as illogical or unrealistic, but the writer/director and the performer must be able to help you transgress those logical boundaries to encourage you to follow their trajectory.
Where THANATOMORPHOSE does succeed, in showstopping fashion, is with its practical makeup FX by David Scherer and overseen by Remy Couture – an artist so expert that his realistic creations nearly landed him in jail on obscenity charges (You can find out all about the case in Frédérick Maheux’s documentary ART/CRIME). As fellow horror journalist Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare pointed out, you can practically smell the film’s nauseating squalor. Much like Jorg Buttgereit’s notorious films NEKROMANTIK 1 & 2, DER TODESKING and SCHRAMM, in THANATOMORPHOSE the stench of filth is palpable.
All this said, I do recommend checking both films out; despite any failings, both films are conceptually strong, and likely to stimulate an interesting dialogue. THANATOMORPHOSE has one more screening at Fantasia on August 3rd (again, details HERE), and according to CONTRACTED’s Facebook Page, it will soon be playing both Frightfest and Sitges.