Rules are meant to be broken. Surely, this rule applies to any living human, but perhaps more so to artists, especially filmmakers. Throughout the history of cinema, many filmmakers have experimented with movies and bent the rules of what filmmaking should be. But of course, some have done their films poorly, and others have delighted their audiences.
What counts as an experimental movie? They are avant-garde and unconventional approaches to a film’s narrative, structure, and visual style. Movies such as Enter the Void, The Holy Mountain, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are experimental films that have defied conventional cinema and what audiences are willing to accept as entertainment or experience.
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1 ‘Upstream Color’ (2013)
Upstream Color is written, directed, produced by, and stars Shane Carruth. The film is about two people, Jeff (Shane Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz), whose lives and behaviors are unknowingly affected by a parasite. The parasite has a three-stage life cycle that passes from humans to pigs to orchids. At every stage of the life cycle, the parasite reacts differently, which in turn, also affects the behaviors of its victims, and in this case, Kris and Jeff.
Like many experimental films, this one has always been up for interpretation. In several interviews, Carruth has mentioned that the film is about identity: “about whether we control our identity to whether our identity controls us.”
2 ‘Holy Motors’ (2012)
Where to begin? Holy Motors follows the chauffeur Céline (Edith Scab) and Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), seemingly an actor, who gets into a limo with a dressing room filled with costumes and props. Mr. Oscar’s first “performance” is as a beggar woman wandering the bridge in Paris; and then a gangster; a father; a red-haired man who lives in the sewers; a rich banker; “Mr. Vogan”; a man with chimpanzees as his family.
And although Holy Motors received critical acclaim and high praise from many critics and filmmakers, many still wonder about the true meaning behind the film. Why is a man dressed up as different characters, all within one day?
3 ‘Enter the Void’ (2009)
Enter the Void is a film told through the point-of-view of a young American drug dealer and addict, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), who lives in an apartment in Tokyo with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a stripper. Once Oscar dives deep into a hallucinogenic trip, his friend Victor (Olly Alexander) invites him to deal at “The Void” bar, but once he gets there, a police raid costs him his life.
After his death, Oscar is resurrected in the form of his spirit, and this is where the real journey begins: a psychedelic journey of Oscar’s past, present, and future. The film that premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival has often been praised for its colors and visuals.
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4 ‘Eraserhead’ (1977)
Written and directed by filmmaker David Lynch, Eraserhead is a black-and-white surrealist horror film that follows a factory worker Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who discovers that his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), is pregnant. However, their newborn child appears as an inhuman, reptilian-like creature that refuses to stop wailing. When things couldn’t get worse with the baby, Henry experiences visions of other characters, such as the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) and Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), troubling him even more.
Eraserhead is not a conventional horror but more so an extreme metaphorical take on the fear of parenthood, for instance, using the “baby” as a terrifying creature who cries endlessly and bizarre visions from perhaps, a parent’s lack of sleep. The film has often been praised for its score and sound design (also done by Lynch): Nathan Lee of The Village Voice wrote, “…to see the film means nothing – one must also hear it.”
5 ‘Mirror’ (1975)
Mirror (or The Mirror) is a 1975 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is told in a non-linear narrative structure with events based on Tarkovsky’s life, consisting of dreams and flashbacks of life pre-war, wartime, and post-war. In the film, Andrei Tarkovsky is represented by Alexei (Ignat Daniltsev), a 40-year-old dying man who shares the memories of his life, such as his parents’ divorce and the battlefields of World War II, with his wife (Margarita Terekhova) and children.
The film incorporates poems written and read by Tarkovsky’s real-life father, Arseny Tarkovsky, and stars his wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, and mother, Maria Vishnyakova. Besides the non-linear narrative, the film’s cinematography which slips between black-and-white, color, and sepia, contributes to what Tarkovsky wanted to portray: a man’s stream of consciousness.
6 ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (1974)
Celine and Julie Go Boating (French: Céline et Julie vont en bateau: Phantom Ladies Over Paris) is a French film that focuses on the friendship that blossoms between two girls: a stage magician, Céline (Juliet Berto), and a librarian, Julie (Dominique Labourier), who move in together and embark on a new adventure involving an inducing candy, a haunted house, and a murder-mystery melodrama.
In the movie, anything goes. It is this principle that drives the film to be as inventive and experimental as it can be. Céline and Julie Go Boating combine elements of magic and dreams where the characters share endless possibilities of pleasure, adventures, and parallel worlds.
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7 ‘The Holy Mountain’ (1973)
The Holy Mountain is a surrealist-Mexican film written, directed, produced, co-edited, co-scored, and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky. This film is almost too surreal to be true: an alchemist (Alejandro Jodorowsky) and his apprentice, the thief (Horacio Salinas), meets seven powerful people who are each introduced as a personification of a planet on the solar system.
Venus is a cosmetics manufacturer; Mars is a weapons manufacturer; Jupiter is a millionaire art dealer; Saturn is a war toy maker; Uranus is a political financial advisor; Neptune is a police chief; Pluto is an architect. Together, these seven people, the alchemist, and his apprentice form a group of nine who seek the Holy Mountain, where they hope to achieve enlightenment and immortality.
8 ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ (1972)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (French: Le Charme discrete de la bourgeoisie) is a French surrealist film by Jean-Claude Carrière that follows six upper-middle-class people and their repeated failed attempts of having a meal together. Each interruption becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. And while the situations become more bizarre and complex, it becomes clearer that these situations are dreams, within dreams, within dreams.
The film conveys what middle-class people represent: “Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners. It also offers the convenience of something to do (eat) and something to talk about (the food), and that is a great relief since so many of the bourgeoisie have nothing much to talk about, and there are a great many things they hope will not be mentioned.”
9 ‘Persona’ (1966)
Persona is a Swedish psychological drama written and directed by the late filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The film follows the relationship between two women: an actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who suddenly stops speaking, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), the young nurse who cares for Elisabet in the seaside cottage where they hope she would recover. As Alma becomes the confidant to Elisabet, she begins to have trouble distinguishing herself from her – as if their identities had become one.
The film’s exploration of insanity, duality, and personal identity, is described as a reflection of the Jungian theory of persona, where homosexuality, motherhood, abortion, and other subjects, may fall. Persona is like an open book where every audience has a different interpretation of the film, such as, in the words of film historian Peter Cowie, “Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true.”
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10 ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961)
Set in a baroque hotel filled with wealthy socialites who wear Chanel-designed attires (yes, Coco Chanel designed the costumes for the film), Last Year at Marienbad (French: L’Année dernière à Marienbad) follows a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they have met at a resort the year before, and had a romantic relationship. However, the woman responds by saying that she has never been to the place, let alone met him. As the film progresses, the woman is confident they never met, but the more convincing the man becomes.
The film is like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle: it presents you with a problem but never resolves itself. Who’s telling the truth? Did they meet previously, or is the man just a genius player and madman? It is up to the audience what they make of it.
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