The Post-covid Body, Between Deformation And Dismemberment

in 29th European Film Festival Palic

by Michele Sancisi

The winner of the FIPRESCI Award, Rimini by Ulrich Seidl, and other movies seen in competition at Palic 2022 reflect on human physicality.

After two and a half years of pandemia, with relative isolation in lockdown and digitization of social life, the cinema born during that period is affected at a psychological-creative level by the collective shock we all suffered. Cinema is a cold medium that “tells” corporeality rather than exposing it to the viewer as theater does, but that storytelling reveals our intimate perception of corporeality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that several films seen this year in the rich competition of the European Film Festival of Palic in Serbia proposed a reflection on the theme of human corporeality and its drifts. Among the ten films submitted to the evaluation of the FIPRESCI jury, there are several in which the human body is at the center of a physiological or fantastic, ironic or monstrous deformation, influenced by the incredible experience we have all had of deprivation of social corporeality.

The winning film of the Fipresci Award was Rimini (Austria, France, Germany, 2022) by Ulrich Seidl, a master of European cinema. He built his coat of arms on a disenchanted gaze on the squalor of bodies and places abandoned in the emptiness of meaning, in a degraded human dimension. We remember Canicola (Austria 2001), in which his gaze is shipwrecked among the naked bodies that crowd the scene and the human flesh boiled by the heat and the absence of any vital heartbeat. We remember Paradise (Austria 2013), three “scandalous” films (LoveFaith, and Hope) about the used, abused, or sublimated female corporeality.

In a different way, Rimini stirs in the squalor – Seidl’s creative mark – with a bizarre and deformed irony that makes one think more of Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys than of the previous works of the Austrian director. Seidl, however, confirms his mastery in creating his world apart and, here also, an icon that can stick to memory. Everything revolves around Ritchie Bravo, a gigantic character beautifully played by Michael Thomas (60 years old and 87 films to his credit). A former star of schlager music, Richie Bravo is a mature singer who performs for little money in desolate hotels in Rimini, welcoming bored groups of elderly winter tourists. He also rounds up like a gigolo for some solitary female spectators, spending the residual erotic energies in almost-explicit sex scenes between almost-elderly people that cinema has rarely offered to the viewer. But a young daughter by an ex suddenly shows up to demand his years of contributions unpaid to her mother, forcing the man to find a faster way to raise money.

In Thomas’s swollen body (he had to gain 20 kilos to support the role) and in the desolation of the snow-covered Romagna beach, Seidl finds an ideal canvas for sketching new, inspired existential and bodily drifts. Crossed by lonely and sorrowful human figures, Rimini is a long-awaited large fresco, poised between sordid and epic, which bothers and amuses. A “twin” film entitled Sparta should come out shortly, telling a story connected to that of Rimini about Ritchie’s brother. The two biographies were meant to be parts of a single movie titled Wicked Games

In the competition for Palic’s FIPRESCI Award, at least three other exciting films refer to the theme of a deformed or dismembered physicality. Gentle by László Csuja and Anna Nemes (Hungary 2022), already awarded with the FIPRESCI prize at another festival, follows the tragic figure of Edina, a female bodybuilder ready to sacrifice everything for the dream she shares with Adam, her partner and trainer: to win the World Championship. The odd love she must find on her way to achieve her goal reveals a different nature of her personality and different ways to live her body, until a dramatic consumption of her physical dimension just in the moment of its triumph.

Though in the splatter drift, more irony and fantasy are present in the narration of Smoking causes coughing (France, 2022) by Quentin Dupieux. The film uses a multi-stories structure wedged together in a frame that can recall Boccaccio’s Decameron and many other filmmakers, starting with Bunuel. The pseudo-science fiction characters of the movie are a group of vigilantes called the Tobacco-forces dressed in strange spacesuits and endowed with ridiculous supernatural powers. They hunt down unlikely prehistoric cartoon monsters blown up with grandguignolesque cascades of blood and innards. But the dismemberment also attacks a desacralized human body at the mercy of the most insane dematerialization. A film that fully affirms the loss of centrality of bodily life, which, starting from objective reality, enters the dimensions of gaming and fantasy, dissolving into it.

Among the other films seen in Palic with this theme, we should mention the disturbing Sick of myself (Norway, Sweden, 2022) by Kristoffer Borgli. Signe and Thomas are in an unhealthy, competitive relationship that turns vicious when Thomas suddenly breaks through as a contemporary artist. In response, Signe, a waitress, desperately attempts to regain her status by creating a new persona hell-bent on attracting attention and sympathy. The consequence is to lose her face (literally) through the abuse of mysterious Russian pills, making her facial identity progressively deform like a new “elephant woman.” In this movie, as in Gentle, the body collapses while rebelling against the dictatorship of the mind. And as Smoking causes coughing, it reacts to the social imperative to be the center of our life on earth.

Michele Sancisi
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger