2016

The Boundaries of Intimacy Are Explored in Porn-Based Dramas ‘After Eden’ and ‘Malgré la nuit’

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The “No Limit” section of the Transilvania Film Festival has the reputation to screen transgressive films, and this year was no exception. Both After Eden (Canada) and Malgré la nuit (France, Canada) explore complicated tales of love through the means of pornography in unique fashion. Directed by Hans Christian Berger, After Eden tells the story of a porn actress, Eve, who is played by real life adult film star Alyssa Reece. Very plausible, she is followed by a mysterious fan. On the other hand, Philippe Grandrieux’s Malgré la nuit approaches a love story in experimental fashion, transmitted through the quest of Lenz, an English man who searches his ex-lover Madeleine in Paris.

Both approaches are unconventional yet quite different. After Eden could be categorised as a soft porn with a twist. The camera follows the story of Eve, an adult film performer and a student, Adam (who might or not be named Adam for real), who develops an obsession. Essentially, the Canadian director prefers to leave out the context in which this girl has been drawn into this situation, or the reasons of her stalker, in order to offer insight into the industry without actually judging it. Eve is followed, even at her auditions for adult movies, and filmed with some handycams by some anonymous employers whose faces are never shown. Instead, the camera focuses on her reactions to the questions she’s asked at the interviews within detailed closeups. The girl passes through different roles, and while at first she plays the part of the ingenue girl who has just entered the industry, she further adapts her speech for more daring performances. Eve shows off a relaxed, contempt attitude and succeeds in convincing that she is neither exploited or forced by financial situation to do this, as she simply loves having sex and enjoys the attention. The indie porn actress manages to play her own acting career convincingly, and at times, the viewer may take her sexual appetite for granted. Even so, director Berger doesn’t fall into a mindless depiction of casting in adult films, yet he thoughtfully adds the perspective of the silent student Adam, who tracks Eve even in her private moments when she throws up after an audition. The director alternates the perspective of the handycams that shoot Eve at interviews with surveillance cameras from the studios and diffuses the boundaries between the security cameras and Adam’s obsessive’s shooting. Moreover, he pushes the audience’s expectations with some elements from the thriller genre; Adam holds a gun and goes to the shooting range regularly — he films everything that Eve does, and at one point, the audience is misled to believe that he and Eve shared a previous story.

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Mixing the interviews with the thrill of the stalking, the director combines elements from adult movies with the thriller genre (and the drama love story) in a narrative that raises the issue of marketing and commodification without pointing the finger to certain wrongdoers. With a title that delivers an easy metaphor of the decay from the primordial garden and the beginning of knowledge and shame, After Eden depicts what actually happened after the “fall”: the sex-appeal drove us to a image-based society.

In terms of script, After Eden depicts a system that is based on visual consumerism without turning it into an adult movie. Although the subject concerns this director, he manages to achieve the less is more effect, without showing too much. This deconstructive style isn’t new, as it was achieved in a similar manner with the short film Rate Me (Fyzal Boulia), which shows different feedback from the clients of a teen escort called Coco. With After Eden, the viewer witnesses Eve audition and provides their own rating.

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Eve plays her cards well from the debutant to the schoolgirl to the sluttish nasty girl with conviction, stating that she “loves” every sexual practice, clearly stating anything that her viewers would like to hear. This kind of scene (borrowed from the internet culture) precedes videos of her private time, accompanied by classical music to prove the dynamics between offer and demand — and how the society of instant gratification relies on fulfilled fantasies and stereotypes.

Eve’s supposedly large audience is never seen, and Adam — the student who is obsessed with her barely appears. Although he follows his object of desire with detachment, he breaks the rules of repetition and expectations, offering flowers and fooling Eve into a slightly different sex tape. Adam connects with Eve in order to break her shell and to see what’s beneath. And to do that, he uses the methods of the system she’s part of, provoking Eve to star in his own private tape and offering a generous amount. In the end, the main question concerns Eve’s real identity. Is she the fictional multi-faced woman that lives only on a screen, or the vulnerable being that Adam follows?

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Philippe Grandrieux’s Malgré la nuit is another film that has its focus on porn culture and ignores the past of his characters. Utilizing a more poetic and experimental approach, Malgré la nuit is similar to a prolonged music video with mysterious characters reduced to the essential. The premise is simple: a London guy named Lenz returns to Paris to find his previous girlfriend, Madeleine, only to find out from common acquaintances that she entered the world of BDSM. During his quest, Lenz will encounter an ethereal singer, Hélène, a married nurse that mourns the death of her young son while she coincidently involves in self-destructive erotical practices. The viewer is made to doubt weather Hélène is Madeleine herself (at some point it is mentioned “I go by Hélène now”) or her alter ego. In addition, the identity of Madeleine is not even important, as Lenz clearly prefers Hélène, a suffering lost soul who tries to feel anything by starring in violent, sexual scenes of adult movies shot in the woods. The loss of Lenz’s love is mixed with a guilty pleasure that keeps the male protagonist from connecting with Lena, the sweeter and loving choice. Love takes an unusual face in this story where any practice is acceptable.

Although both movies take advantage of extremely detailed close-ups, Malgré la nuit is different in pace and mood from After Eden, counting on a extrasensory experience and the chiaroscuro in which the bodies are bathed. What the two movies have in common is the willful denigration and the submission of the women in order to fulfil a certain expectance in a male-driven business (and over-sexualized society) where feelings have been suppressed. The assumption on which this movie is based is that the proximity to death reconnects us with the essence of our feelings, and in order to achieve this, the bodies should be be repressed. For love to triumph, anything is acceptable. The moral factor is brought into discussion by Lena, the only sane character from this trio, a perspective that After Eden doesn’t include. With its ambivalence, Malgré la nuit succeeds in complexity despite its ambiguity.

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In comparison, the “No Limit” section of TIFF shifts from the cheerful sexual appetite of After Eden to the dark misery porn of Malgré la nuit. The violence of the second film is hardly accessible and the painful poetry of bodies (and their attraction to painful sexual encounters) is pushed to the limit. The props are from the S&M register — rubber masks, guns, blood, animals — yet this parallel universe of sadism filled with pimps, prostitutes and near-death experiences puts a shallow focus on the look to the past. The atmosphere is charged, yet the indie musical intermezzos (played by the gorgeous Roxane Mesquida) make it bearable. Unfortunately, her character, Lena, is insufficiently explored and the scorned love story with Lenz is preferred to the desires and memories of Lenz (who is the catalyst of the narration). The protagonist meets Lena at a party and hooks up with her — but without real interest in getting to know the woman. The victim role becomes the alluring beauty of the model Mesquida, and at the same time, it represents the unattainable image of the lost Madeline, who might live only as a memory in the protagonist’s imagination. Functioning as a premise of the sublime, grief leads people to do inexplicable things. While Helene scorns love with her deviant behaviour, Lenz does the same thing to innocent Lena.

The sexual danger is not explained by a social background as in Pasolini’s Salo for instance, nor as an awakening of the spirit like Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour; Grandrieux prefers to deliver an unsolved mystery that lacks logic but is enriched by the expressionist approach. Although more fleshy than After Eden, Malgré la nuit shows a deeper interest in the torment of the soul.

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Though the oblivious, submissive sex and the union in violent practices of Lenz and Helene could shock, this doesn’t seem to be the director’s intention. Sex as an escape from something, or as a means to feel something, fails to provide a solution to its character but transmits a feeling of intense grief to its viewers. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential statement “Hell is other people” applies, yet Grandrieux proves that hell is also the prison we choose to lock ourselves in. Shot in poorly focused and over-exposed images, with a dialogue reduced to the essential and interpreted in a low whispered voice, this oneiric drama falls in its own stylised trap. The focus is so much on the means and less on the message, as Malgré la nuit remains a prologued mise-en-abîme that struggles to prove that “Some things are only experienced by thinking and living abjectly,” as Hélène once states.

In the end, the two films are essentially stories about connections with others, with life itself and ourselves. While After Eden takes distance and shows the cold side of things, Malgré la nuit pushes the extremes.

Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.

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