Undisclosed traumas and undiagnosable maladies afflict the people in Delphine Gleize’s Carnages. Shuttling back and forth between the south of Spain and northern France, this European mosaic is populated by haunted mothers, cheating husbands, suicidal philosophers, and aimless actresses. Hope hasn’t been completely leeched from the landscape, however. Linked by an enigmatic metaphor and deft montage, Carnages‘ denizens spin into each other’s orbits and offer the prospect of communion and regeneration.
The dispersed remains of a gored bull serve as the connective tissue for this drama of discontent. The fallen toro is disassembled and distributed to waiting consumers. The horns are rewarded to a taxidermist, the eyes sent to an adulterous scientist, a lean cut in wine sauce served to an addled mother. (To the dog goes the bone, of course.) This precious device occasions an Altman-esque tapestry of unexamined lives. Half-engrossing, half-exasperating, Carnages is burdened by strained whimsy and the ghost of Kieslowski, but Gleize somehow makes it worth our while. As lapidary as the central conceit is fuzzy, Gleize’s formal command gives the movie the heft that its half-baked narrative fails to provide.
With that bovine motif and its ponderous vibe, it would be tempting to call Carnages a load of bull. Sensory pleasures trump intellectual misgivings, however. The movie opens intriguingly, with teasing glimpses of the panorama. In Spain, a young toreador prepares for his rendezvous with the bull. Cut to a classroom in France, where a teacher parleys with a precocious five-year-old, who abruptly collapses to the floor in an epileptic fit. Cut to an uncertain actress at an audition, which ends in a wrestling match with her scene partner. Cut to two writhing creatures on the floor, office mates having rough sex in a darkened hallway. The mesmerizing prologue ends with a shot of the teacher cradling the unconscious girl in her arms, a ritualistic tableau that plays out behind the red scrim of the opening title card.
The stories are gradually fleshed out. Winnie (Raphaelle Molinier), the little girl, turns out to be okay, but her parents lavish more attention on the hulking family dog. The teacher (Lucia Sanchez) visits her own mother (Angela Molina, looking barely older than her) in Spain and talks about her strange little student, opening portals to the past in the process. The actress, Carlotta (Chiara Mastroianni), begins aqua therapy, underscoring her own drift through life. Meanwhile, a scientist, Jacques (Jacques Gamblin), unhappily awaits the onset of fatherhood, leaving his wife, Betty (Lio), to deal with an abnormally distended stomach by herself.
For a first-timer, Gleize juggles the multi-paneled narrative with considerable flair. An early cut, going from the bull’s charge, as seen on TV, to the massive pet trotting over to Winnie, offers a potent hint of Gleize’s bravura technique. Built on the ineffable connection between strangers, Carnages constructs an intricate collage of rhyming effects and visual echoes. Winnie’s drawing of her dog foreshadows her teacher’s reengagement with her childhood; a swimming pool of lost souls later becomes transfigured into a redemptive ice rink. Canny casting invokes an uncanny connection: playing a floundering actress, Chiara Mastroianni, Marcello’s daughter, derives unexpected poignancy from her illustrious legacy.
Unnerving though some of it may be, Carnages doesn’t quite sustain the premonitory jolt of its early passages. A collection of conceits that are intricately arranged but only vaguely legible, the movie is less a coherent mystical statement than a grab bag of signs and symbols. Haunting initially, the serendipitous twists gradually exhaust patience. Assiduously cultivating obscurity, the movie recalls Pauline Kael’s putdown of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven: “The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it.”
Less bloody than the title would have you believe, Carnages nonetheless more than justifies its monicker. In keeping with Gleize’s visceral editing, vicious cuts dot the movie’s anatomy, from the disemboweling of the dead bull to the surgery performed on a fallen bullfighter to the nasty work of a reclusive taxidermist. For all of the innards we see, too little of an interior life is descried. Gleize strives to humanize her creations with compelling pasts and catchy quirks, but they remain ciphers for the most part.
A child shall lead them, as so invariably happens. As the wise, innocent center of this fractured film, Molinier carries Carnages. But even she isn’t immune to Gleize’s overwrought design. The movie ends on Winnie’s smiling face, a capper that recalls La Dolce Vita, another sick-soul-of-Europe mural starring a diffrent Mastroianni. But Carnages ends on a less ambiguous note: the charming Molinier’s smile seems forced, an unearned benediction for an angst-ridden continent.
Unapologetically about mood and form, Carnages lacks the dramatic force of a Magnolia or Short Cuts, similarly expansive movies about the hidden strings linking our disquieted lives. Buoyed by Eric Neveux and the Labo Orchestra’s captivating score, and Crystal Fournier’s showy ‘Scope cinematography, Carnages doesn’t lack for brio, however. Gleize may mistake inscrutability for meaning, but there are enough glimpses of brilliance here to keep you hanging around, both till the end of the movie and the rest of her career. Hers is a common condition among neophytes with talent to burn: she may have nothing new to say, but she sure says it well.