As part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2019 comes a new film from Arielle Dombasle, ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE. To be frank, I’m not entirely sure, I am the proper person to fully unpack a movie like this, but we’ll get to that shortly. First, I want to talk about star and director Arielle Dombasle. She grew up in the United States, but soon set off for a more worldly life as she explored a modeling career before settling into acting and music. I wouldn’t be surprised if she dabbled heavily in other artistic ventures like photography or some other expressionist form.
Why I wanted to start with that is that ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE feels like a series of expressionist paintings or photographs and loaded with pregnant symbolism that happens to my eyes and dares my brain to reveal the message.
The plot, on the surface, revolves around machinations by Horus, the Egyptian god and his son, Hambourg. Their ultimate is to merge a man and woman into a perfect creature – an androgyne. This appears to have been long sought after by the Pharaohs of old. Hambourg has made past attempts, but they always end in failure. This time, he feels he has the proper combo, director Dolores Rivers (Dombasle) and a French rock star, Nicolas Atlante (music composer Nicolas Ker). The combination is built around their total opposite sensibilities and composure (she being very controlled and very determined while he is uncontrollable and very cavalier) while still having strong convictions and passions.
However, in order to bring them together, various nudges are needed to bring them to their lowest points where they can only depend on each other. Hambourg is not above using murder or temptation to remove obstacles. This also brings about the interference of international police and an investigator who doggedly tries to decipher a trail of murders.
Rivers, being a filmmaker, is tapped by three mysterious producers (agents of the Egyptian gods) to make a movie about an Egyptian princess who is a descendant of the Pharaohs. They talk about how the story of this woman MUST be told. They sell the idea that her visual style and his music will make this one of the greatest pieces of art ever put to film.
As the film goes on, Nicolas is estranged from his wife (Asia Argento), but is essentially fed women to sleep with by Dolores, even though she desperately wants him for herself. Dolores also has a nearly insatiable need for lesbian encounters with assistants and other acquaintances. Add to it a trail of murders, and the film production is in sincere trouble. As the movie marches toward its conclusion, there seems to be a palpable tension as characters are continuously met with situations that range from bad to strange to outright frightening.
As the movie ends, you are left wondering two things – 1) what happened? and 2) no, seriously, what happened? However, I don’t want this to be taken as a negative review or assessment. There are so many things to unpack in the movie that it really does take on a more artistic life of its own. The credits include bits that were all clips directed by Dombasle. In some ways, the movie does seem to reflect an album more than a linear narrative. This truly is a marriage of Dombasle’s visuals and Ker’s music.
In terms of the visuals, at times they seem melodramatic and almost undercuts the seriousness of the Dombasle’s intent. In a way, I feel like if the movie she was making was really made the way she was shooting it with the sets and the actors’ energies on display, it would almost look like a smarter version of THE ROOM. But while the visuals do tell a story, it’s maybe not truly the point of the movie. After all, I feel this was a movie made to tell as big of a story with as little overblown production as possible, and, in many ways, I admire that. There are several ways that Ker is shot that, honestly, remind me of something like Goddard’s BREATHLESS. You are totally brought into this guy’s charisma and can’t really pull yourself from his gravity.
On the subtextual level, we have themes explored here that is at the very heart of the movie and trippy narrative. First, undoubtedly, the primary theme is destiny and determinism. Hambourg are positioning humans like pawns and, ultimately, Nicolas starts to see his way through it and realize the hell of being locked into destiny. That also plays into the next theme which is the self-destruction of the heart and body. Nicolas is every bit the rockstar constantly drowning himself in booze and women. Dolores is doomed to always ignore what she knows to be what she truly wants for something less meaningful which ultimately tortures her soul and makes it very difficult for Hambourg to use these two perfect opposites in his Androgyne plan.
Finally, let’s talk about the cutaways with Hambourg, Horus, and the other Egyptian styled onlookers. This is probably the most jarring AND most interesting moments of the movie. They are looking on as if they are a Greek chorus telling us things about their plan, about their motivations to bring these two people together. I sometimes even got a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW criminologist feel from it as it cut away from something to discuss their machinations. It had topless women, over the top performances from Michel Fau’s Hambourg and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Horus, it was colorful when not awash with gold, and it was simply fascinating.
A lot of the fascination from the Egyptian immortal clan came in the form of androgyny. That is a MAJOR piece to the movie. It’s the whole reason for Hambourg to mess about with Dolores and Nicolas, and it is seen in the makeup and general stylings of some of the actors – including a bald woman who dresses like a man and a woman with bright, literal red hair that had strong facial features that seemed to almost look like a man dressed as a woman. There are times in which male characters, Nicolas included, acted effeminate while other circumstances found women, Dolores included, acted more dominant in sexual circumstances.
While I can’t say I fully understand after just one viewing, I feel the overall point was to play around with gender role and show that perhaps male and female aren’t all that different from non-binary beyond the physical. That the essence of people are androgynous and perhaps we could achieve some sense of greatness without total focus on what is male or female. As I mentioned, I could be off on my summation, but I also feel like there’s enough art here to allow a viewer to come up with their own interpretation beyond any intention from the artist.
If you are looking for something a little different, a bunch more European than your normal fare, and maybe have some pharmaceuticals handy (at least a couple glasses of Johnnie Walker Red), ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE might be the trippy fun you’re looking for.