Art-house horror is back, and we should love it.
The history of the cinematic #horror genre — and cinema as a whole — has one of its strongest foundational pillars in Germany. The artistic vanguard of German Expressionism birthed the film that we all refer to as the first horror feature: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
True Love Ways, the newest film written and directed by Mathieu Seiler is separated from Caligari by almost 100 years, a difference noticeable in the film's own style, which seems to draw influence from a wide range of films, from the French New Wave to the American Slasher. And yet, amidst all its influences, it is its own film.
True Love Ways
The very first minutes of #TrueLoveWays give a glimpse of the film's predominant style. The black-and-white accompanied by natural lighting highlight the shapes and contrast between characters’ emotional states and the environment they are in. The color contrast seems to emphasize the protagonist Severine's internal conflict. Her first appearance of said character — played by Anna Hausburg — happens in a park, where she observes a group of teens playing. Anna has such a puerile, charming beauty, that it is impossible not to fall for her immediately.
Right after that scene, she is transported back to her apartment. She wears a nightgown that stresses the curves of her body and makes her a lustful figure, especially for her boyfriend, who sits against a wall gazing at her with passion and desire. The physical distance between them eludes to an even larger emotional distance, which becomes clear when they start arguing about their relationship. There is great simplicity in regard to scenarios and staging and the camera is mostly static, framing the picture in a way that artificiality has no space in it; it aims for realism, which evokes many different aspects of European cinema.
Their conversation, occasionally interspersed by long moments of silence, observation and reflection, is composed to create an atmosphere that breaks with traditional representations of conflicting relationships in cinema and allows for an interesting examination of those characters. It's almost impossible not to correlate what is on display in here with the '60s vanguard of French New Wave, one of the most noteworthy influences over Mathieu Seiler's style (a style that he clearly embraces and worships). Curiously, the random intrusions of technological devices within the film — such as iPhones — completely shatter the illusion of watching a piece from the '50s or '60s.
Severine's emotional contrast remains the sole focus of the narrative throughout the entire first act. From the start, she seems to look at the world with distrust and curiosity, as if she were not accustomed to the environment itself, nor to her own body. Besides that, there are some odd elements onscreen that have no clear purpose and somehow externalize the angst and discomfort of said character. This combination of strange elements induces a dream-like state. Everything points to that oneiric atmosphere: framing and lighting; silence and dialogue; interactions of old and new; and mainly, Severine's ethereal, incomprehensible affections.
True Horror Ways
Seiler's most remarkable influences through the first half of the film hark back to the vanguard of European cinema, especially from the '60s and predominantly from the #drama genre. However, as the plot unfolds and Severine becomes a victim of a group of men who probably came straight from A Serbian Film (2010), True Love Ways transforms into a different, darker side of European cinema, namely Italian and German horror. She is targeted by an organization responsible for kidnapping, torturing, raping and killing women, while documenting all of it to sell the snuff tapes to the black market. As soon as she is forced to confront those men, she reveals herself to be quite resourceful and the worst kind of victim: The one that kicks and screams. At first, her transformation means survival, then it becomes a reveal of her truest, meanest self.
In the sequences where she roams around in the corridors of the mansion where she is trapped and being pursued by the bad guys, that same oneiric ecstasy from before remains present, like she is in a constant violent Suspiria-like nightmare, in what feels like Mathieu's tip of the hat to Dario Argento and other Italian directors.
When she eventually faces the criminals, she gives her body and soul to über violence, brutalizing them. The sickening and gory bloodshed promptly recalls to one of the most important contemporary German horror filmmakers: Jörg Buttgereit and his necrophilia love story Nekromantik (1987). It also resembles a little to the German-spoken Angst (1983).
It's nearly impossible to distinguish violence from art; they simply blend into each other, as if death and brutality were the natural endings of life and beauty. Horror is everything, but Seiler dares to infuse into the most controversial genre, elements from one of the most artsy vanguards of cinema, creating something that is obviously influenced by other films but also quite original and unique.
Check out the trailer below:
What other art-house elements do you see at work in the True Love Ways trailer?