Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Movie: Sheitan

Sheitan has plenty going for it. For instance: attitude. As the first full-length from the Kourtrajmé collective (though Kim Chapiron is the named director)—best known for their hip-hop inspired short films—Sheitan demonstrates a no-holds-barred attitude when a title card announces, “Lord, don’t forgive them, for they know what they do.” It’s like Jean-Luc Godard in baggy jeans. Kourtrajmé’s anarchic energy attracted the attention of Vincent Cassel, who plays the maniacal, giggling groundskeeper Joseph. His wide-eyed portrayal of a man who may or may not have made a deal with the devil is another thing Sheitan has going for it.

The movie centers on a post-racial crew (an Asian, a black African, a light-skinned Muslim woman, and the main character, Bart, who’s as whiny has any other white suburban kid) who just want to have a good time—which includes picking fights, shoplifting, and driving away from the pump without paying. When they meet Eve, a pouty-lipped sexpot, she suggests, “Let’s go to my place in the country,” and—well, you know what you’re in for.

But not really. Sheitan bucks traditional backwoods stalk-n-slash for something more amorphous and loose. Kourtrajmé has previously disdained narratives, but when you’re not Chris Marker, achieving it with some sort of cohesion is a lot harder than it sounds. The director/writers move the film in any number of directions at once, milking creepy dolls and doll parts for all their worth. But bizarre plot deviations and perverse goings-on don’t necessarily build suspense; instead of building to a climax, Sheitan sort of accretes.

As if to compensate for this lack of narrative tension, Sheitan piles on the hip-hop attitude. And although linking hip-hop to the French riots might be short-sighted, the anti-social behavior in which our less-than-sympathetic characters partake have a hip-hop soundtrack, more a vent for their own strangely misdirected anger, rather than a means of authentic self-expression.

But fidelity to the strictures of hip-hop, however, isn't an excuse for misogyny. I know, it’s almost redundant to criticize a horror film for this, but given the filmmakers’ staunch anti-establishment stance, you’d also hope that they’d rebel against patriarchal structures, rather than falling prey to them. Their simplistic views of female sexuality seem too willfully narcissistic, and the sight gags involving female genitalia and childbirth seem particularly childish. The women in the film are little more than cyphers, and while Roxane Mesquida plays the siren effortlessly, compare this to her work as a fully-fledged seductress in À ma soeur! If you want a provocateur, try Catherine Breillat on for size. Jerking off a dog just isn't the same thing.

There’s also a strange queer subtext to Sheitan—which seems to codify this masculine ideal. When Joseph shows an unusual interest in Bart (inviting him to go skinny dipping, thrusting his nubile red-headed niece at him, having Bart climb on his shoulders), Bart insists that he’s “not a fag,” even as his compatriots tease him about Joseph’s advances. Plus: Vincent Cassel in wet underwear.

Wet underwear aside, Sheitan offers a thrilling, if confusing ride, willing to throw in camera-tricks and narrative jumps to shock the viewer. But, as we all know, the devil is in the details.

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