David Lynch has a lot to answer for. Too many directors assume that by using blue light, white noise, and incomprehensible plot twists, their film will become the next Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Unfortunately, Jean-Claude Brisseau is just such a director, and The Exterminating Angels (Les Anges Exterminateurs) is a derivative melding of Mulholland Drive and sex, lies, and videotape. The plot sees fifty-something director François (Frédéric van den Driessche) making what he considers to be a cutting-edge film about the “secret” world of female pleasure. Before casting the project, he “tests” several actresses by asking them to perform explicit sexual acts to make sure they are truly open to the transgression of boundaries his film will represent. In this endeavor, François is inexplicably both helped and hindered by seemingly supernatural figures. Two black-clad women, presumably the titular angels, see to it that two particular young actresses take part in the filming, with disastrous results: one falls in love with him, the other claims to be possessed by the devil. Meanwhile François’s deceased grandmother appears, spotlit and in full makeup (looking not unlike Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet), to warn her grandson of the danger his project will incur.
The film is a gratuitous mix of lesbian love scenes and preposterous dialogue as François becomes both confessor and voyeur of his troubled cast, not realizing his production is heading for disaster as the girls’ total instability is revealed. Moreover, it is all very self-referential, with François becoming a stand-in for Brisseau himself, pontificating on dramatic construction—his references to classical tragedy and Corneille’s theories of dramatic poetry give viewers a hint as to where the film is going—and the importance of bringing the supposedly taboo subject of “mystical ecstasy” to the screen. That François never gets to complete his project suggests that the subject is too dangerous even for the maverick filmmaker to expose with impunity; though, of course, the meta-narrative of the film itself contradicts that idea. The film would be exasperating enough had it not been done before, and done better, by the likes of Catherine Breillat, and indeed, David Lynch.
On the other hand there is L’ Iceberg: a similar premise, a vastly different execution. This Belgian comedy centers on a woman’s struggle to free herself from domestic limbo: Fiona (Fiona Gordon) gets locked in a freezer overnight. Her husband and children don’t realize she’s gone. This causes Fiona to re-evaluate her unfulfilling suburban existence and sees her setting off on a personal odyssey to find her own iceberg. These are the bare bones of the film, created by a trio of former circus performers. Arguably, this structural skeleton is fleshed out by the actors’ physical comedy, yet the work as a whole feels more like performance art than a feature film.
To say the dialogue is sparse would be an understatement. The film begins with a seemingly unrelated discourse by an Inuit woman on her disappearing language, Inuktitut. Almost ten minutes of silence follows before the first words of dialogue are spoken by the protagonist. And yet language, specifically the unreliability of speech, is central to the film. After escaping from Belgium, Fiona finds herself at the French seaside, where she falls in love with a deaf sailor with whom she communicates through pictures, while her husband’s repeated question, “T’es où?” (where are you), which receives no reply, encapsulates Fiona struggle to come to terms with where her life’s journey is taking her.
With so few words, the film relies on images to make its message understood. Actions replace dialogue to comedic effect, while landscape is manipulated to reflect the characters’ states of mind. The bleak suburban sprawl of Fiona’s everyday world is punctuated with splashes of red, suggesting the passion that burns beneath her cold exterior. The many wide shots of sea and sky are visually stunning and add to the theme of the personal journey as the characters traverse the great expanses. Throw in a boat called “le titanique” and an actual iceberg, and the overall effect is original and slightly surreal.
The over-the-top, almost slapstick humor of the film belies deeper themes about love, self-fulfillment, and identity as Fiona eventually finds what she’s looking for. Though it has difficulty sustaining her nearly silent search for 84 minutes, L’Iceberg, unlike Exterminating Angels, offers the viewer a unique experience.