Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Last summer I was saddened by the closing of UK based Tartan Films and Tartan Video (which put out my beloved Tartan Asia Extreme). But happily Tartan didn’t vanish entirely. The U.S. company Palisades has acquired the Tartan library and looks to be seeking out a similar brand of films that push the envelope, like their latest Palisades Tartan DVD release of “Princess,” which comes out today.
“Princess” is a mix of live action and mostly animation from Denmark. I have to admit I wasn’t really aware of Danish animation with the exception of an interesting piece called “Strings” that was done with marionettes. Director Anders Morgenthaler has said that Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki was part of the inspiration for making “Princess.” Previously Morgenthaler made a short entitled “Araki: The Killing of a Japanese Photographer.” In an interview Morgenthaler expressed appreciation for Araki’s work and the way he “mixes sexuality and art… That made me see them [the women] in a different way. Suddenly I saw these girls, I saw their faces, and then I had this idea, what if that was my sister, or my mother or my daughter? I think that was the turning point, because when you start thinking like that, you don’t get disgusted by sex, you get disgusted by what these people have experienced in their lives that made them decide to do porn. And that was the start of 'Princess.'” That was also the point when he realized it would also have to be a revenge tale in which the protagonist's rage against the porn industry would manifest itself.
“Princess” melds elements of “Hardcore” (in which a Calvinist father tries to rescue his daughter from the porn industry) and “Taxi Driver” (borrowing elements of a man bent on cleansing the streets that he has deemed dirty). Morgenthaler’s story involves a devout, thirtysomething clergyman named August (Thure Lindhardt) who arrives at a Danish brothel to take custody of his five-year-old niece, Mia (Mira Hilli Moller Hallund) from an aging prostitute who's been watching her. Mia’s mother Christina (Stine Fischer Christensen) was a porn star named The Princess, and she recently died from a drug overdose. As August grows closer to Mia he discovers that she has been abused and has become precociously sexualized by the porn industry environment she has grown up in. Since images of The Princess are still prevalent and Mia is still exposed to them, August goes on a mission to destroy all the porn merchandise featuring his sister. Needless to say Christina's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christian Tafdrup) whose company owns the profitable merchandise doesn’t feel like complying. That’s when August decides to take more decisive and violent action.
The twist to this revenge tale is that August takes little Mia with him and allows her to share in his bloodlust for revenge. But in his perverted attempt to avenge his sister and to do good by obliterating evil, he ends up becoming as bad as the people he’s punishing, and ends up losing his own humanity. And poor little Mia suffers a similar fate once she joins him in his vengeance. Her exposure to the sex industry has already begun a process of objectifying her and dehumanizing her but her choice to join August in his violent revenge causes her to lose another part of her humanity.
In the notes accompanying his film at a festival screening, Morgenthaler described “Princess” as an attack on the dehumanizing aspects of pornography because "to enjoy a porno film one must either be very dumb or be able to abstract from the fact that one is watching real people.” So Morgenthaler’s choice to mix live action and animation brings the notion of dehumanization to the forefront. He uses real images to depict the porn so that they “pop” in a sense; they stand out as vividly real against the animated environment that Morgenthaler places them in. So he forces us to revrse the dehumanizing effect and see the women like Christina as real rather than as objects. The animation also allows Morgenthaler to be extreme in a way that he probably never could have been in an entirely live action film. Little Mia engages in sexual behavior and violence that’s shocking even in an animation, and that would probably be undoable in live action. But Morgenthaler needs those extremes to initially spur August to action and then later to show how Mia has passed a point of no return. The irony is that August thought he would be the one to best protect Mia but in reality she might have been better off left with the old prostitute.
Some may complain that the extreme violence in the film is a kind of pornography that is as problematic as the sexually explicit material August condemns. And I’m sure that some will come to this film and enjoy its perverse extremes for the wrong reasons. But Morgenthaler intends for “Princess” to be provocative and to disturb viewers. As viewer you need to feel the urge to pull back from the film because what you’re seeing is wrong, but that’s what I think Morgenthaler intends. He wants you to be shocked by August’s actions and by Mia’s precocious sexuality – both are aberrations.
“Princess” (in Danish with English subtitles) has won the Best European Fantastic Feature Film at the Sweden Fantastic Film Festival 2007 and Best Film at the Catalonian International Film 2007. “Princess” also opened Director’s Fortnight in Cannes in 2006 and played The Midnight Madness section in Toronto Film Festival 2006. If you have a taste for extreme animation in the adult mold of a number of Japanese anime, then "Princess" is worth checking. The animation style is cruder than the best of Japanese anime but its crudeness helps intensify Morgenthaler's harsh themes.
Companion viewing: “Strings,” “Hardcore,” “Taxi Driver”