Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Litan (1982)

... aka: Cité des spectres verts, La
... aka: Litan: La cité des spectres verts
... aka: Litan ou les messagers de l'au-delà
... aka: Voleur de visages, Le

Directed by:
Jean-Pierre Mocky

I've always had a difficult time watching full blown surrealistic films because, to be blunt, I don't like feeling like a complete idiot. I also don't typically care much for films so out-there that they require hours of research to decipher. I'm the type of guy who likes happy mediums met. Surrealism is fine as long as there's ultimately some tangible sense and purpose behind the strange and seemingly random events included in the actual film. I like my surrealism not so fully personalized that only the director has a clue what their movie is about. You know, you'll watch their film, scratch your head and then have to seek out interviews with the person who made it where they sanctimoniously spoon feed all of us dummies out there their intentions. Sometimes I get the impression many surrealists don't even really have much to say, and what they do have to say isn't necessarily made any more profound because they've chosen to present the material in a more confusing, heavily-symbolic way. In fact, needlessly mucking things up often can have the opposite effect: it detracts from what they have to say. Thankfully, Litan finds that delicate balance between art and entertainment; abstraction and sensible, meaningful storytelling, and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and welcoming way. It's invitingly, accessibly surreal. The perplexing aspects engage and intrigue instead of frustrate and alienate. The images have meaning, the dialogue enhances that meaning and the film has both focus and a perspective; a point that's well-delivered but not blatantly, obviously so.

Litan is the name of a small French village, and it's unlike any other village you'll see in any other film. Usually drenched in a haze of thick fog, Litan is in the midst of a region-specific holiday called "Litan's Day;" a festival celebrating and honoring the dead similar to Mexico's "Dia de los muertos." The streets are decorated with banners, streamers and paper lanterns, an orchestra decked out in silver masks and red jackets continue to play the same dreary tune and children run around laughing and throwing firecrackers. The streets are littered with people decked out in masks; either skeletal or corpse-like to bring to mind the deceased... and there's something seriously off with the majority of them. Most are emotionless, some are downright zombie-like, some walk around with eyes bulging out and wide smiles for no good reason and others start speaking in strange dialects or suffer from amnesia. And many suddenly start becoming violent. Quite casually violent. Not everyone has been inflicted by whatever it is that's going on in Litan, but it seems to be spreading rapidly and overtaking the entire village.

Things center around Nora (Marie-José Nat), who believes a nightmare she's had is actually a premonition, and her lover Jock (director Mocky), a rational-thinking geologist doing some work near a large set of caves called the Black Rocks. After her dream, which spelled doom for Jock, Nora frantically heads out to locate her boyfriend, and immediately notices the strange and unexplainable things occurring in Litan, such as a man in car crushing another against a wall while people continue to walk on completely un-phased by the event. At the caves, a bunch of Boy Scouts are looking for a monster when one of them - Eric (Terence Montagne) - falls through the ground into some water in the underground catacombs below. He's retrieved, but he's not quite the same and is in some kind of catatonic state.

Jock, Nora and the boy's father (Georges Wod) rush him to the hospital, where even stranger events unfold. The place is filled with a combination of injured, bandaged, bloody, mindless people (some of whom are shackled down to their beds) and people completely out of their minds locked away in a separate wing. The hospital staff isn't very cooperative and seem to be hiding something. Rooms are filled with bloody sheets, another has a doctor removing the vocal chords from dogs and yet another is an off-limits experimental chamber with a strange piece of machinery. The chief physician there - Dr. Steve Julien (Nino Ferrer) - is somehow reviving the dead and using the machine to communicate with them. Jock and Nora attempt to go to the police, but then find themselves under suspicion and on the run from hefty Commissioner Bolek (Roger Lumont), who isn't apt to believe their story and is pretty much looking for a patsy to blame for the sudden and unexplainable outbreaks of violence and death. Faces appear inside pupils like fingerprints left on the soul and there's some kind of blue glowworm (which may have been accidentally unleashed from below by Jock and his colleagues) infesting the waters that possess people and can completely dissolve corpses in a matter of seconds. The latter turns out to be an almost symbolic way to say, "When in Litan, don't drink the water."

Peculiar as many of the events are, Litan is ultimately - and quite simply - a celebration of life that just so happens to be taking place in the midst of a celebration of death. More specifically, it's about how death can intrude upon, control and cripple the living. It questions why we as existing, living, breathing beings who have happiness and joy and love and passion and all kinds of other positive things to discover and indulge in allow ourselves to instead obsess over death and the already dead.

Death itself looms over nearly every single frame of this film. The skull-and-corpse-masked people are always silently standing in the backdrop, like an ever-present, nagging feeling in the back of your mind that just won't go away. There's a pronounced "live for today" mantra in here, which several ruminations about the afterlife allude to. During one scene, scientist Jock asks the not-quite-completely-sold Nora, "If God exists, what difference does it make if you're alive or dead?" Religious artifacts, statues and crosses are as ever-present as the 'dead,' and the film draws the apt conclusion that religious beliefs are to blame for creating a death-obsessed society. After all, religion is centered entirely around death and what becomes of us when we die. It's as much a preoccupation as an answer; an escape. Our protagonists, a pair of unmarried (in the eyes of the Lord) lovers, are not only trying to flee the city because of the obvious physical threats there, they're also hoping to leave behind a superstitious culture that revere the dead more than the living; death more than life itself; the possibility of an afterlife more than the life they're currently living. They're hoping to get away from all of that, hopefully with their optimism and sanity intact.

Litan is such a wonderfully-made movie it can be enjoyed on a multitude of fronts; for its ability to provoke thought, for its audaciousness, for its visuals, or a combination of all three. There's a bizarre surprise around every corner, it's well-acted by the entire cast and has the added bonus of being a great-looking, superbly-crafted film that can be marveled at for presentation alone. The art direction, shooting locations and photography are all excellent. Like many other surreal films, Litan defies easy categorization. It's currently labeled as just "Horror" on most movie sites, including IMDb, who have a habit of stripping the horror label away from anything that isn't a slasher flick. That's fine by me. We'll take this one. I've always believed the horror genre was one of the most expansive genres, anyway. Fans always welcome all manner of unusual, challenging, out-of-the-mainstream films under its umbrella. Litan has an extremely creepy vibe, fantastic themes, suspense, horror, black humor and is quite violent and bloody at times, so it fits. If this film were more popular and widely-viewed (it currently has fewer than 100 votes), IMDb would undoubtedly slap it with their generic dreaded "Thriller" label on it.

Never officially released in the U.S., this won awards at several European film festivals and - like so many other excellent foreign-language films - is still waiting to receive its due.

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