Very similar in tone to this year’s “Under the Skin”, René-Louis Cacciuttolo’s lurid nightmare “Cendre” leaves much for the audience to interpret but spares little in the way of grotesquely surreal visuals.
The title character, a psychotic deviant who has a fixation with fairy tales (played by Duan Bo Wen), fancies himself a prince in search of his princess. He posts ads in the classifieds to see who will respond. After she finally comes knocking (Huang Huan plays the object of Cendre’s obsession), it becomes unclear whether or not the woman is just a fragment of his fractured psyche.
It’s almost impossible to summarize this film with words, as it unravels more like a work of expressionist art than any kind of traditional narrative; the vivid colors and a chilling score produce a visceral surge that will not likely recede until hours after the film has ended.
One sequence involving Cendre’s subservient “sister” (Pauline Castelli) finds the young woman devouring a blood-red ice cream cone while he watches in an increasing state of arousal, as the blurred edges of the frame close in on him as if his mind were about to suffer a complete collapse. Castelli digs into her character’s depraved sensibilities with alarming enthusiasm, flashing a sinister smile that would give Charles Manson the heebie-jeebies, and again we wonder whether she’s real or just some grim fetish that derives from the mind of a disturbed man who’s one step shy of becoming a serial killer.
IMDB informs me that this is Cacciuttolo’s first film; impressive, considering it somewhat resembles the work of late auteur Stanley Kubrick (the cinematography by Terry Feng is astounding). Hypnotically fluid, “Cendre” peels away layer after layer of the main character’s delusional world until reaching its core — images of Cendre curled up in the fetal position as a child (Zhu Bo Wen) hints at the innocence beneath his insanity — only to unspool again into complete madness.
Other characters (including a mysterious visitor played by Ray Pan) seem to represent some of Cendre’s repressed desires, manifesting in warped interpretations of fairy tales like “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty” (one eerie shot lingers over Cendre and his “princess” as they lay in bed like corpses wrapped in industrial plastic as if to emulate eternal slumber).
Steeped in the dark obscurity of mental illness, “Cendre” yanks us straight down the proverbial rabbit hole. Both beautiful and very unsettling, the film will fascinate some and repulse others; Cacciuttolo’s hallucinatory horror fantasy puts its audience in the same type of unsafe space that Darren Aronofsky did in “Requiem for a Dream”. It takes some time to process, which the director seems to understand because each shocking moment is invariably followed by one of silent reflection. It’s in these idle interludes that we dread Cendre’s next twisted revelation.
“Cendre” is playing Wednesday, October 15th at the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza at DC’s West End Cinema.