25th Jul2019

Fantasia 2019: ‘Alien Crystal Palace’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Arielle Dombasle, Nicolas Ker, Asia Argento, Michel Fau, Theo Hakola, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Christian Louboutin | Written by Arielle Dombasle, Florian Bernas, Jacques Fieschi, Nicolas Ker | Directed by Arielle Dombasle

alien-crystal-palace-poster

Apparently something of a well-renown socialite in France, I admit I’d never heard of singer turned actress turned director Arielle Dombasle, yet after watching Alien Crystal Palace I don’t think I’ll EVER forget that name! And that’s undoubtedly because I will NEVER forget this film – the freakish, hypnotic, erotic fantasy that Dombasle and writers Florian Bernas, Jacques Fieschi, and co-star Nicolas Ker created.

Let me explain.

The official synopsis for Alien Crystal Palace reads like this: “A crazy scientist, Hamburg, is on a quest to create a new, immaculate, androgynous being. This transformation is only possible through the alchemy of two old souls: Dolorès (Arielle Dombasle), an avant-garde filmmaker, and her reincarnated lover Nicolas (Nicolas Ker), a confused rocker.” However… that outline doesn’t even scratch the surface of Dombasle’s film which is as close to the visualisation of a Bauhaus and/or Leonard Cohen song that has ever been produced. And as someone who loves both Bauhaus and Cohen AND enjoys a trippy, psychedelic film as much as the next guy it’s safe to say I’m probably the target audience for Alien Crystal Palace. Everyone else? Maybe not so much!

To be fair there has always been a somewhat outlandish, some might say odd, side to French cinema – from the experimental films of the French New Wave in the 50s and 60s, to the French Extremist cinema of the early 200s. In fact Alien Crystal Palace reminded me very much of the former, and in particular the dreamlike mind-bender that is Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad – a film that has stuck with me since watching it as part of my Film Studies A-Level years ago and a film that shares a similar “what is real, what is fantasy” style of storytelling. Although Dombasle’s film also throws in the stylings of 80s pop videos (think the enigmatic music AND videos of  a young Vanessa Paradis)

I’m not going to lie. Alien Crystal Palace is not a film for everyone. In fact I’m guessing the audience for this film is VERY finite; very, very finite. Probably those that know the work of Arielle Dombasle and those – like me – who are taking a chance on the oddities you can often find at film festivals. Though the Headless Eyes-esque poster (pictured above) might do wonders to sell it to unsuspecting viewers on a myriad of streaming services in the future. On a personal level I really enjoyed Dombasle’s film, though it is not without its issues – the biggest of which is the drawn-out running time. Yes it’s a hair over 90 minutes but the film could have been trimmed further without losing too much in terms of story. It would however mean sacrificing some of Dombasle’s fantastic visuals.

Speaking of which, Dombasle and her cinematographer Elie Girard certainly have an eye for the strange and bizarre – and not in the ways you think. Everyday situations are picked apart and turned into weirdness thanks to the way the film is shot. And the opposite is also true. The oddities that take place within the film are presented almost matter-of-fact style. For example the scientist Hamburg resides in a submarine; a fact that is presented in the most straightforward fashion, there’s no pomp and circumstance surrounding his “home” or his way of living – even if that way of living includes being surrounded by topless women and being stroked whilst sat on a plastic egg chair! It just is. Again tying into the idea that Dombasle’s film treats normality as odd and oddity as normal.

There are also influences a-plenty at play here: from the gloved killer of Giallo (apt given Asia Argento’s appearance in the cast) to the neon-soaked, erotic stylings of films like Cafe Flesh. And much like the aforementioned Cafe FleshAlien Crystal Palace doesn’t shy away from eroticism. But much like it’s European brethren it often treats nudity as an everyday thing. Yet at the same time is relishes in the lurid, sometimes extreme nature of Nicolas’ fantasies, many of which see woman as little more than objects of wanton lust and desire. It’s an interesting dichotomy and one that adds significant layers to the already indomitable nature of Dombasle’s vision for her film.

**** 4/5

Strange, bizarre and certainly something of an audience divider, Alien Crystal Palace screened at Fantasia International Film Festival on Friday July 19th 2019.

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