By Patrick Feutz
Stepping out of Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys is like lifting your eyes from the dusty old View-Master you found buried in a damp box deep in the basement to find that nearly two hours have passed, your dad’s fried Kenwood has been playing The Doors backwards, and dang, those nature slides are a lot weirder than you remember. That’s the sort of disorientation brought on by this turn of the century odyssey, which is pounded by waves of light and flighty vulgarity, like it’d been made in a vacuum far away from concerns about everyday decorum. But don’t go in expecting a gleeful, confrontational destruction of etiquette. Its tone is defined instead by a remarkably breathtaking blitheness.
Following a brief flash forward, we go back to the day when five teenage boys sexually assault their literature professor, an act that leads to her death and gets the boys dismissed from school. We might mistake the depiction of the attack for a stylized version of the truth. After all, the inaccuracy of each boy’s testimony is used to sum up the substance of their characters, ranging from the dark, prowling Jean-Louis (Vimala Pons) to the evasive, bleach blond Tanguy (Anael Snoek), while they’re assembled before stunning rear projection footage of roiling smoke. But we just don’t know the movie’s rules yet. Once we do, we take for granted the boys really wear paper-mache masks during the attack, the teacher really does lounge in a field of waving wheatgrass, the boys really do tie her to a horse that bolts in terror, and, last but not least, the boys really are enthralled to their own private Dionysus, personified by a bejeweled skull they call TREVOR. How’s that for a burlesque take on Skull and Bones? On top of that — and if it wasn’t already apparent — the boys are played by grown women, all of whom embody the laconic swagger of their characters’ disaffection so thoroughly its impossible to see unless you know to look for it.
Soon after the attack the boys are entrusted to the care of The Captain (Sam Louwyck), a Dutch seafarer who press-gangs wayward youths on his ship in the name of reform. The Captain’s unconventional approach leads them to an island that’s essentially one giant erogenous zone, a Freudian fantasy world filled with “groping grass” and a musky odor best left to the script to describe. The boys take advantage of the irony and splurge on the erotic offerings, blissfully ignorant of the consequences. Here’s where the casting starts making sense, and where it’s best to wrap up the plot details.
If a movie’s aspirations can be mapped on a dartboard, the bullseye here is a mid-twenties silent feature, heavy on the decadence, excited by the newness of the medium. Mandico and company throw a perfect shot. Visually, every frame bursts from the seams, thanks to its inkblot black and white cinematography (interrupted by dream sequences lit in gorgeous pinks and blues), lush mise-en-scene, liberally interspersed silent era tricks, and fleet-footed pacing. Sonically, it mixes retro and modern, utilizing Pierre Desprats’s understated, tumbling surf electronic score, plus a winking selection from The Nutcracker, to enforce the rules of its dreamscape environment.
In the end, the richly artificial sensuality of its sets and props are to be taken, and appreciated, at face value. Hunt for deeper meaning and you’ll find its a short dig to the gooey candy center. Its intense execution speaks to the simplicity behind Mandico’s vision. Humankind, stripped to its anatomical basics, is omnipresent, detectable in its inventions as much as it is in nature. Look for faces superimposed on dark hills and bodies hidden in dense foliage. Statuary are played by live models. The boys are collared to and figuratively become part of The Captain’s ship, while human hair is literally sown into its sails. Form and meaning are one and the same, and the short distance required to make that jump is sure to induce some degree of laughing disbelief. The dry presentation of characters gorging on suspiciously scrotal fruit goads a very specific reaction, most likely a chortle or guffaw if you’re onboard with it, a gasp if not.
Process if you can the idea of a ship’s captain whose lifetime of tattoos and scars are condensed to the space of flesh exposed when he relieves himself. It’s the most egregious example of sensuality in The Wild Boys, wherein everything animate and inanimate (Who are we kidding? Everything is animated here) marches crotch out to explore its surroundings.
The Wild Boys is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Oct 5 - Oct 18 2018.