Surrealism usually pays off in one of two ways. Typically, the random avant-garde vignettes and even wilder flights of fancy add up to something coherent and cogent, a message metered out in hallucinations and unconscious imagery. Then there are those efforts that aren't interested in looking at things lucidly. The various dreamscapes crash into each other without ever adding up to an unified whole. Eraserhead follows the former path. Luis Bunuel's Phantom of Liberty follows the latter. Somewhere stuck in the middle is the 2006 French film Avida. Directors Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine want to use a veritable creative kaleidoscope of ideas, images, and implications to tell the tale of marginalized people on the periphery of a dystopian future shock society. Instead, their meaning gets mangled in scenes that don't go anywhere and eccentricity for the sake of strangeness.
A deaf mute decked out in a padded suit allows himself to be attacked by vicious guard dogs, apparently for the amusement of their owner (and to keep the curs in tip top killing shape). When an accident provides the put upon homunculus an escape, he heads over to the local zoo. There, he meets a pair of drug addicts who use the facility's dart gun (and never ending supply of animal tranquilizer) to get their kicks. The trio devises a plan - they will break into the home of rich bitch Avida, and steal her pit bull. The ransom will reward them handsomely. When things go awry, however, the heavyset socialite demands something in return: she wants to die, and she wants the would-be animal nappers to take her to the ocean. Naturally, she must be carted along on a homemade log gurney. Oh, and there will be lots of lunatic fringe dwellers along the way.
As someone who celebrates David Lynch's first feature length film as one of the greatest achievement in modern cinema, it's hard not to be underwhelmed by Avida. It's not that this is a poorly made or incompressible piece of pop performance art. Nor are filmmakers/stars Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine at a loss for compelling visuals. But when compared to other examples of absurdist narrative, it definitely looses its luster. While female lead Velvet D'Amour proves a potent proto-drag diva (she's all woman - and then some, considering her size), their 'hurl it at the screen and see what sticks' style grows aggravating at times. Take something like El Topo, or better yet, Alejandro Jodorowsky's utterly brilliant and profane The Holy Mountain. His images frequently felt like a fever dream laden with pus and politics. But at least when it was all over, we understood the method to his monumental motion picture madness. Here, Kervern and Delépine come across as children with fingerpaints and way too much free time. They create compelling set pieces, but can't quite get them to fit together successfully. The result is a film that's jumbled and without internal support.
Granted, the journey is fairly impressive - at least initially. The opening sequence, where Kervern comes out of a shed like prison and interacts with some angry dogs has a brilliant silent movie quality to it, like watching Charlie Chaplin (or more appropriately, Jacques Tati) as a giant chew toy. Famed French filmmaker Claude Chabrol's cameo as a picky eater taking a table at a local zoo also has a nicely sickening suggestiveness. From a coffee cup headed individual to a man who plays matador to a rhino, Avida has many engaging elements. Once Velvet D'Amour arrives, living in what looks like a cross between an observatory and an abattoir, we're ready for anything. But then Kervern and Delépine turn their textured tale into one long, extended road movie. All the lobster stealing and face scotch-taping gets lost in a paradigm of repetition and pointlessness. There's no need to travel to a taxidermist to understand that life is cruel. We aren't required to see people living in landfill squalor to understand that any social class system is a disparate and disturbing. But our filmmakers fancy their own insular approaches, and so Avida goes onward and inward.
By the time we reach the 80 minute mark, the ending needs to be spectacular in order to win us back - and Kervern and Delépine almost pull it off. When the film opens, we see Kervern's character staring at something, a glint of emotional moisture in his eyes. When the last shot arrives, it's shocking at first. Getting from Point A to Point B shouldn't have been this complicated. But the directors had screen time to fill, and so they decided to experiment. That doesn't make Avida bad, but it does detract a little from the fascinating finale. There is a power here, a realization that all we want sometimes is the recognizable and the comfortable. Ms. D'Amour is also critical to selling this sentiment. Naked, her supposed singing voice delivering a solemn aria, we finally feel a purpose to her presence. For most of the movie, she's a stunt, a gimmick as gluttony that stands as a far too obvious symbol. In fact, much of Avida could be called tenaciously obtuse, flaunting its freak show nature while hoping everything holds together eventually. Sadly, it simply stumbles back into perspective before disappearing again. There is no doubt that Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine are talented. The movie is flooded with interesting mixed metaphors. But artistic ambitions need to serve something. Avida doesn't provide a proper outlet for their originality.
Filmed in grainy black and white (with a single shot in color), Cinema Epoch's 1.33:1 full screen transfer of Avida is pretty good. The image seems to shudder quite frequently, but this may be a disc mastering issue having nothing to do with the analog to digital reconfiguration. The details are sharp and the contrasts clear without obvious edge enhancement or excessive defects. The low budget leanings are definitely present, but overall, this is a good looking film.
There is nothing particularly special about the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 presentation offered here. Most of the dialogue is in French, and the English subtitles do a good job of explaining what's going on. Ms. D'Amour speaks in her native tongue (she's from the U.S.) and it can make for an odd aural juxtaposition at times. There is very little music and lots of ambient noise. The mix does little to ruin or reinforce the mood, however.
Unless you're enamored with Ms. D'Amour, you'll find the added content on this DVD lacking. Our lead gets a couple of homemade music videos and while interesting, they wear out their welcome quite quickly. Similarly, the trailer offers nothing more than snippets from the film. Almost mandatory would be a commentary track or a descriptive making-of. Either would give us the necessary insight to understand what these filmmakers were up to, and what their frame of reference was.
When something tries hard to be different and unique, you either enjoy the novelty or grow numb to all the idiosyncratic clashing. Avida exists somewhere in the middle of this aesthetic melee. It's good, but grating, refreshing as well as redundant. Earning a hard fought Recommended rating, there will be those for whom a Rent It more than satisfies their cinematic urge. In fact, unlike other examples of the genre, this may be one adventure in surrealism that doesn't mandate study and scholarship. Indeed, the images here, while compelling, can't compare to the visions available from true masters of the form. For all its confrontation and conflict, its decision to flaunt convention while simultaneously selling simplicity, Avida deserves come credit. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up to the insightful exercise in envelope pushing perspective. It's just odd for odd's sake.