Things have been quiet on the French Extremity front in recent times, but fear not! A director calling himself ‘Quarxx’ has brought the controversial brand of European cinema back with a cosmic-horror bang via new film All the Gods in the Sky.
From its opening shots of a factory floor manufacturing sheet metal and the accompanying cacophonous industrial sound effects, All the Gods in the Sky makes for an intense viewing experience. The grey world of industry is abandoned in the next scene transition, however, offering a vision of bucolic serenity (a wheat field shining in the radiant light of a summer’s day), the camera suddenly elegantly panning, making for a total aesthetic volte face to the previous scene’s unsteady handheld camera work, close-ups of abstract-looking machinery and hellish noise. The overall effect is unnerving and sets the freakish tone for all that follows.
Simon (Jean-Luc Couchard) is a 30-year-old factory worker living in rural France with his sister, Estelle (Melanie Gaydos). An event in childhood changed their lives forever: Simon found their father’s revolver and they played a game of Russian Roulette (an unbearable scene which would make Michael Haneke proud), and Estelle was left with severe injuries to her face and brain. The family setup is odd, though, as the parents are now entirely absent, the house a crumbling pigsty and Simon’s mental health slipping into full-blown psychosis. He quits his job, stops taking prescribed antipsychotic medicine (Ziprasidone) and spends his day in the wheat field making a gigantic corn circle pattern.
Simon is a paranoid schizophrenic and how long Estelle has been on the receiving end of his frightening mood swings and bizarre thinking is left untold, but we come to understand he loves his sister profoundly and yet equally resents the all-consuming feelings of guilt. Estelle has of course physically changed and mentally changed, Simon sometimes cruelly referring to his sister as ‘It’ and, on Estelle’s birthday, comments, “She would have been 28.” We can glean, too, from the bruises and red blemishes and scabs all over her body, Simon sometimes gets rough and outright violent with his mute, bed-bound ward.
As a portrait of mental illness, sibling rivalry, guilt and redemption, All the Gods in the Sky is consistently extraordinary, nightmarishly surreal and heart-wrenching. The ace up its sleeve is a surprising emotional gravitas amid the crazy goings-on and arthouse shocks, and the very strange but rewarding journey undertaken by Simon and Estelle, which ends up complicating the image we have of the older brother for much of the movie as a man unable to truly accept responsibility for his actions. Quarxx leaves us to ponder what is an unexpectedly uplifting payoff.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn