Blog #6/19 - Broken Wonder Machine
by Hugo Emmerzael
Seemingly far removed from the realism-heavy programming of the Berlinale competition, this surreal screening of Woche Der Kritik offered the alluring promise of entering a fata morgana. In only ninety minutes, Konstantinos Samaras’ Magic Skin offered plenty of surprises, twists, turns, dead ends, trap doors and other fantastical constructions that encouraged a refreshing form of spectatorship.
The film obviously has a story – it’s an adaptation of Honoré de Balzacs La Peau de chagrin -, but to recreate it here would almost be pointless, as it’s perpetually flipped, subverted and remixed to the point where it becomes more important to realize how you navigate through it, rather than to simply follow it. Trust me, you do get lost with Magic Skin, but what’s always there are the actors: usually Haris Fragoulis as Nikos, a man with burning desire, and Anthi Efstratiadou as the object of his affection, Christy. They always crash through the same borders of love: an encounter, moments of affection, a goodbye and moments of violence. However, the way they do it mutates in every next scene. Their mode of acting is extremely extraverted, spontaneous and explosive. Think Nicolas Cages “Nouveau Shamanic”, but in a more teasing way. Their performances are equally amplified and distorted by Samaras’ lucid style of filming with many dissolving and overlapping shots, sudden bursts of sound or music and films within films, within films (within films?).
In the post-screening discussion, that lasted as long as the running time of the film itself, Greek director Samaras fittingly described Magic Skin as a machine that repeatedly breaks down and reinvents itself. In doing so, this wonder machine of sorts embarks on unexplored paths of non-linear film spectatorship. Samaras, an ex-film critic himself, was joined on stage by film critic Devika Girish, theatre director Susanne Kennedy and La Fille du 14 juillet director Antonin Peretjatko to reflect on how contradictory the act of experiencing this film can feel.
Kennedy experienced a sense of jealousy from seeing the seemingly total freedom the actors enjoyed on screen. She noted: “It was impossible for me to follow them to that space.” Girish rather described it as having feelings of embarrassment. She observed rightly so that watching this film results in a constant dynamic between pleasure and agony, where you constantly have to choose how you want to process this film. Do you force rules upon a film like this to have it meet your expectations or do you accept that there are no rules and let go of the illusion of control? Samaras was mostly interested in these dilemmas, as they’re also present when he’s behind the camera. Peretjatko complemented this train of thought by sharing some of his experiences as a director: how do you give up control, when it might be an illusion in the first place?
So, here we have a film that at once has rules and no rules at all, that exercises control and stimulates freedom, that has a story, but also completely goes against the grain of what traditional storytelling would entail. The film is airtight, but also full of holes. In a way that makes it a difficult text to critique, because the structure of the film always can morph in a way to counter its critique. It’s almost as if the film sometimes wants you to be annoyed and disturbed.
Yet, the main problem I have with the film is not part of the structure, but rather of its depictions inside that structure. For a kaleidoscopic film that tries to comment on desire, the film offers only limited perspectives from a male point of view. In Magic Skin women are objects of worship or lust, they’re constructs seen through a prism of the male gaze. In defense of the filmmaker, this depiction can be seen as a critique in itself on the male gaze, but then we’re still stuck with that gaze. So to add to the contradictory nature of this film and its effects: seeing Magic Skin can be more of a delight for some, and a delusion for others.