If there’s one culture on this planet I truly don’t understand it’s the French. This isn’t to say that I have anything other than respect for them. So much literature and film that I love is from France…and yet there is an undertone to some of their cultural output, specifically their fantasy films, children’s programming, and comedy, that I find unsettling and even off-putting. The epitome of this French cultural strain, terribly bothersome to me, is the Cirque de Soleil. Yes, I know that many people find their work beautiful and inspiring. I simply find it devoid of emotion and mechanical in an elusively morbid way.
I usually try to avoid the term “pretentious.” As you might be able to gather from my own writing and interests, I’ve been accused of being pretentious a few times myself. It strikes me as an empty criticism because it presumes knowledge of its target’s essence without any proof. What it really seems to refer to is an uncomfortable dichotomy in appearances that the critic finds distasteful. It’s unfairly presumptuous, I think, to conclude that one aspect of this dichotomy is true and the other false.
And yet I can’t help resorting to the phrase “pretentious” sometimes when trying to describe what bothers me about some widely celebrated examples of French culture. The films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, from DELICATESSEN to AMÉLIE, are praised for their creativity and their “playful” style. To me that “playfulness” feels false. It depends upon a kind of cold, clockwork inspired visual style and narrative that seems intent upon recreating the fantastic imaginings of a child but fails miserably. Jeunet’s films, for me, give the impression that he is desperately seeking to reunite with the freedom of childhood fantasies (and to evoke childhood’s fears) when those memories have been beat out of him by years of brutal discipline. At its most disturbing, this strain of French “whimsy” reminds me of those fundamentalist Bible lessons you might see on community access cable programs in which aged, sweat-slick preachers seek to instill the fear of god into children via inexpert, often terrifying, animation of poorly-voiced puppets and stuffed animals.
Nonetheless, in spite of my criticisms and instinctive aversion, there are times when this kind of uncomfortable tonal conflict works for a French film. Usually it’s when the disturbing aspects of the film are emphasized as opposed to the “whimsical.” This is often the case with straightforward horror films and, in some French horror films, the notes of whimsy or inappropriate and cruel humor become appropriately perverse. The more whimsical or humorous they try to be, the more they feel like a sadistic clown attempting to amuse a child before slitting the child’s throat. That’s an extreme comparison, I realize, but you can easily see similarities between the potential psychological motivations of a “clown killer,” like the one portrayed in Stephen King’s IT or AMERICAN HORROR STORY, and the psychology of a film like Jeunet’s CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. The image of the clown killer (a killer of innocence) merely makes overt the tendencies latent within this all too familiar form of French “whimsy.”
ADRÉNALINE fully capitalizes upon this corrupt form of whimsy and treats it honestly as a symptom of perversion rather than dressing it up in sequins and silk. It is a fast moving anthology film comprised of very short independently directed segments that appear to be inspired by nightmares or idiosyncratic responses to the question “what scares you.” Nightmares are notoriously hard to depict on film. David Lynch is one of the few filmmakers to repeatedly succeed where others have failed. Many of the segments in ADRÉNALINE honestly feel as if they could have been directed by David Lynch. They have the same obsessively fetishistic focus that seem to be the side-effect of unexplained and possibly malevolent motivations. They also have a similarly grotesque, though not as explicit, depiction of violence.
Most disturbing in ADRÉNALINE is the depiction of horrific images and ideas in a context that appears to cast them as a form of humor. As much as I love Bruce Campbell, I personally find the campy violence of films like the EVIL DEAD sequels a little tiresome. The same sort of approach is evident in ADRÉNALINE, but it actually highlights the horror of the violence as opposed to defusing it. There are times, while watching ADRÉNALINE, when I felt as if I was witnessing the cinematic equivalent of a five year old joyfully picking off the wings from a fly. One powerful segment depicts a madman who does exactly that…proceeding to affix the dead flies to his walls in a perfectly symmetrical, disturbingly precise pattern that could only be the work of an unhinged adult.
The majority of stories in ADRÉNALINE have twist endings that come off like punchlines. This gives the movie the kind of breezy feel of a comedic 60s/70s variety show like LAUGH-IN in which the humor comes from death and damnation. I’ve seen other movies which rely upon the same sort of premise, but ADRÉNALINE is by far the most unsettling in its self-contradictory tone. As is usual for these kinds of anthologies, the movie returns to a continuing narrative between the short segments in order to link them. In most anthology films this involves people sitting around telling stories in some particularly ominous location. ADRÉNALINE’s segments are linked by a surreal image of blind people waiting in line within an ERASERHEAD-esque industrial landscape. Who they are and what they are lined up for is never fully explained. Sometimes they appear oppressed and frightened like lost souls in hell. At other times they sway as if motivated by music. Sometimes they are laughing. I get the impression that they are ADRÉNALINE’s intended audience. What’s truly horrifying is that, by the end of the movie, you may become one of them.
As most of the segments in ADRÉNALINE have no dialogue, it is without detriment to the quality of the film that the linked version has no subtitles. There are a few segments, later in the film, with minimal dialogue but, in the case of this movie, not understanding French may contribute to the nightmarishness of what your are viewing rather than detract from it. In any case, should you be concerned, the plots are easy to follow even if you don’t understand the brief moments of dialogue.