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DVD SAVANT
Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Fever
and
Wild Side

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

England's Parasol Peccadillo label serves up two obscure slices of serious cinema this month. While the titles reviewed here come from two very different schools of filmmaking they do share a common thread of sorts: each film features a lead protagonist who is haunted by a tragedy from their past. In each case the act of returning to their parent's homes for an extended stay results in them trying to confront and work through their flashback-prompted anxieties. Fever is a fairly original contemporary thriller that is set in New York City while Wild Side is a quite affecting French art house drama with a difference.


Fever
Parasol Peccadillo
1999 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 92 m.
Starring Henry Thomas, David O'Hara, Teri Hatcher, Bill Duke, Sandor Tecsy, Irma St. Paule, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Patricia Dunnock, Lisby Larson, Remak Ramsey
Cinematography Joe DeSalvo
Production Designer Mark Ricker
Film Editor Thom Zimny
Original Music Joe Delia
Produced by Christian Martin
Written and Directed by Alex Winter

Synopsis:

Highly strung Nick Parker (Henry Thomas) is a struggling painter who teaches an evening art class in order to pay the rent on his room in a dilapidated New York tenement block. Feeling under the weather due to the onset of a fever, Nick is annoyed to discover that a new lodger, Will (David O'Hara), has moved into one of the storage rooms situated directly above his own room. When his landlord (Sandor Tecsy) meets with a violent end later the same night, Nick becomes convinced that Will was to blame. Alarmed by his worsening fever, which is now prompting hallucinations and bouts of sleepwalking, Nick's concerned sister Charlotte (Teri Hatcher) tries to convince him to return to the safety and comfort of their affluent father's house across town.

Directed by former actor Alex Winter, Fever is an obscure but suitably atmospheric psychological thriller that manages to throw up one or two very good surprises. As such, I'll try to keep this review both sketchy and brief in order not to give too much away. The nearest point of reference here would appear to be the work of David Lynch. The crumbling and impersonal tenement block that Nick lives in brings to mind the one featured in Lynch's Eraserhead. Nobody in this atomised section of New York really knows their neighbours and the nearest thing to personal contact on display here amounts to chanced glances of near strangers through half opened doors or weird noises and voices heard coming through paper thin walls. When strange things start happening to Nick, Winter introduces some Lynch-like industrial noise and intense synthesizer swells to the soundtrack in order to accentuate the unsettling nature of his genuinely frightening and disturbing experiences and hallucinations.

The trouble seems to start when Nick's landlord seemingly violates an informal agreement which stipulates that nobody should occupy the rooms above Nick's room. There's no evidence to suggest that the landlord even knows that Will has moved in - the room has hardly been prepared for habitation and Will is obviously something of a chancer who prefers to travel light - but his presence soon distracts Nick and interrupts his painting. The distracted painter trapped in what he perceives to be an urban nightmare motif presented here is similar to the one found in Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer while the isolated and delusional nature of Nick's mental breakdown begs comparison to some of the scenarios found in Roman Polanski's The Tenant. The surreal nature of some of Nick's hallucinations works to bring David Lynch's work to mind again.

In keeping with New York's 'melting pot' reputation, there are a number of diverse and interesting ethnic characters present here. The mysterious Will possesses a thick accent that finds Nick unable to determine whether he's Irish or Scottish. Either way, he's an intimidating mystery man who seems to exude menace and threat even when he's completely relaxed and trying to be friendly. Scenes where an angry Nick insists on berating and antagonising Will on his own doorstep have us cringing because it seems that the stranger could turn very nasty very quickly if pushed too far. It's a great performance from David O'Hara who vaguely brings to mind Robert De Niro's approach to playing bad guys: kind of understated but coiled and commanding at the same time. Henry Thomas is also convincing as Nick: his gradual spiral into malady and madness is also played in an understated and unsensational manner. Teri Hatcher's casting here is interesting. She works fine in the supporting role as Nick's successful sister and this post-New Adventures of Superman assignment plays like a fairly brave move for the actress. With her profile now returned to TV mega-star status thanks to the success of Desperate Housewives we might never see her in this kind of small-scale movie again. The show also features a superb performance from Bill Duke as a patient but thorough police detective who gets to deliver some great dialogue.

There's some pretty good cinematography on display here. Winter and cinematographer Joe DeSalvo make use of some noticeably odd angles which act to amplify the unsettling feelings that much of the film's content provokes. Many shots appear to have been intentionally framed very tightly in order to emphasize Nick's claustrophobic sense of paranoia. All kinds of effective visuals are employed in order to telegraph the true extent of Nick's mental breakdown: phantom visitations, Nosferatu-like shadows on walls, intense lighting effects, disturbing dreams and flashbacks, the sudden development of x-ray vision, etc. Things get so bad that Nick resorts to tying himself to his bed at night but even this act of absolute restraint cannot guarantee him an undisturbed night's sleep or prevent the nagging suspicion that he's been sleepwalking again. Nick's subsequent return to his father's home seems to confirm the feeling that the film is concerned with showing two cities within one: the narrative action is split firmly between poverty-stricken regions of the city and massively affluent ones. This aspect of the film is further emphasized via an intermittent series of well-composed shots of the city. The show in general has a slightly noir-ish feel and its art direction possesses a very dark 1990s look that is a little reminiscent of TV's The X-Files and Peter Hyams's The Relic. Composer Joe Delia supplies a good variety of ambient-ish music tracks that are used in conjunction with the Lynch-like ambient sound effects. Delia's music comes in a number of unobtrusive styles which all compliment the sequences that they underpin perfectly. All in all this is a really quite effective little shocker.


The picture quality of this presentation is near enough excellent. The film does have a slightly dark hue and much of its action takes place after dark or in dimly lit locations but some reasonably good lighting means that none of the action is obscured. The disc's sound is pretty good too. The review disc that I received featured the film only but the retail version boasts some extra features that include interviews with Teri Hatcher, Bill Duke, Henry Thomas and Alex Winter.


Wild Side
Parasol Peccadillo
2004 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 m.
Starring Stephanie Michelini, Yasmine Belmadi, Edouard Nikitine, Josiane Stoleru, Corentin Carinos, Perrine Stevenard, Benoit Verhaert, Fabrice Rodriguez, Jacques Hery, Amine Adjina
Cinematography Agnes Godard
Production Design Veronique Melery and Roseanna Sacco Colas
Film Editor Stephanie Mahet
Original Music Jocelyn Pook
Written by Stephane Bouquet and Sebastien Lifshitz
Produced by Gilles Sandoz
Directed by Sebastien Lifshitz

Synopsis:

Stephanie (Stephanie Michelini) is a transsexual prostitute who works the streets of Paris. She's involved in an uncomplicated menage et trois with a Russian immigrant Mikhail (Edouard Nikitine) and a French Arab Djamel (Yasmine Belmadi) but the trio's unconventional lifestyle is disrupted when Stephanie's mother (Josiane Stoleru) is taken ill. When Stephanie makes the painful journey back to her rural home town in order to nurse her mother, Mikhail and Djamel decide to join her.

This film could be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine in as much as it serves to offer an insight into the lives of immigrants and 'others' living within contemporary France while also reflecting upon the transnational nature of the modern world. Stephanie is a truly indigenous child of France but her status as a transsexual seemingly positions her as an 'other' too. In one scene Stephanie and two other transsexuals appear to telegraph their sense of not belonging to the nation state by pretending that they don't know how to play their country's national sport, boules. As such, it's perhaps not too surprising to find that Stephanie lives amongst, and has relationships with, the immigrants who populate the poverty-stricken banlieu estates that circle outer Paris. One of her lovers, the Arab Djamel, is also a prostitute who chooses to service both male and female clients. Tellingly, his estranged family simply cannot believe that he has found himself a proper job and they are quick to guess where he is getting his money from. Stephanie's second lover, the Russian Mikhail, is a home-sick immigrant who has travelled to France in search of work. He can speak some English but he speaks little French and he can't stand the menial restaurant work that he is forced to take on.

There's a depressing angle to any narrative that details the lives of individuals who are forced to prostitute themselves in order to simply survive but, in between living in cramped and atomised housing conditions, dealing with clients and putting up with the drudgery of low-paid restaurant work, our trio seem to make the best of what they've got when they are together. A turning point of sorts comes when Stephanie receives the telephone call that results in her returning home to nurse her sick mother and confront a tragedy from her past. What follows is a series of individual episodes or acts which do not follow a linear narrative time-line. Subjects covered include Mikhail arriving in Paris to meet up with his uncle (who actually moved on a year earlier and left no forwarding address), Djamel staking out a train station in his search for potential clients, Stephanie's reunion with her mother and several conversations between the two, Mikhail trying to have a conversation with Stephanie's mother, Mikhail trying to teach Djamel how to box, Stephanie on a night out in a Paris night club, Stephanie's train journey back to Paris, Stephanie meeting an old school friend, etc, etc. Much of it is sympathetically presented 'slice of life' stuff that is showcased in an impressive European art house/world cinema/social realist kind of way. The film's narrative is further disrupted by several flashbacks which detail key moments from Stephanie's childhood.

Some feminist writers have expressed the idea that movie camera operators and film editors routinely conspire to shoot and edit together film frames which show only selected fragments of women's bodies rather than the whole person: these montages are then projected onscreen as a kind of pleasurable spectacle for the male viewer's gaze. Director Sebastien Lifshitz cleverly exploits our subconscious familiarity with this filmic convention during the opening sequence of Wild Side: a montage of fragments from what appears to be a sleeping female body unfolds until a flaccid penis is revealed to be part of the same seemingly feminine body. But Stephanie's transsexualism is never used in a sensational or exploitative way in this film: although the film's narrative is non-linear it does endeavour to stick to a serious social realist agenda for the most part. Likewise, while Stephanie and her lovers' sexualities have a part to play in Wild Side, this is ultimately a film that is primarily about people rather than their sexualities. There is some fairly frank sex talk present here, and some fairly frank sex scenes too, but we are invited to see past the characters' sexualities and their unconventional lifestyle in order to engage directly with the very real human emotions that they experience and project. There's a sense of humanity, compassion and fulfilled mutual need present here that is sadly lacking in many contemporary films and it's these elements that make Wild Side work so well. When Stephanie breaks down and cries at the film's denouement, we feel for her and want to comfort her.

Wild Side is a thoroughly engaging piece of art house cinema - the kind of film that you might unexpectedly stumble across and get drawn into during a bit of late night channel surfing in spite of its presence in the TV listings having earlier gone unnoticed. There's some really excellent cinematography on display here courtesy of Agnes Godard. Stephanie's flashback's are particularly well realised and their stylish presentation and vibrant colour schemes set them apart from the more overtly realist approach that is employed in other sections of the film. Some parts of the film play like classic realist observation pieces: successions of painterly and expertly framed location establishing shots, character studies of individuals picked out from crowded scenes, character studies of the trio's neighbours, almost cinema verite-like street scene sequences, etc. Djamel's back-story is told by a montage of family photographs that show him growing up. The fairly naturalistic acting found here is also excellent and Stephanie Michelini brings Stephanie to life with a great sense of dignity. Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons - the unexpected winners of a recent Mercury Music Prize in the UK - has a cameo here as a club singer. Jocelyn Pook's (Eyes Wide Shut) incredibly beautiful soundtrack score really enhances and amplifies the emotional ambience of the film's most poignant and moving scenes.


The picture quality here is excellent. The sound quality is also excellent: the DVD features the film's original French language track supported by optional English subtitles. The review disc that I received featured the film only but the retail version boasts some extra features that include interviews with the film's cast and director and a selection of deleted scenes.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fever rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: See note above

Wild Side rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: See note above


Packaging: Separate releases in Keep cases
Reviewed: November 10, 2005



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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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