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SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY (2000)
Dir. Karim Hussain, Canada
Welcome to Film Gutter for our latest trawl through the most unpleasant aspects of cinema. Once again we'll be taking a deep breath and holding our noses as we explore the most foetid waters of film as we know it. Today's choice is Subconscious Cruelty, another regular feature in many people's 'most disturbing films of all time' lists. And with good reason. In fact, if I were to make a list of the most confusing films of all time, this would be a definite contender for the number one spot there too.
The film is framed with a reference to the left brain and the right brain, which kicks the film off as well as closing it. This must be in some way referring to the power and vividity of human imagination, because that is a huge aspect of this movie, nearly half of which I think is a dream. It's hard to really give a coherent summary of the plot, because there is so little coherent plot to summarise. The lead character (unnamed) refers many times to his dreams, so there's distinctly something additional there in that respect. I have a theory about what the plot actually is, which I'll explain in closing, but until then let's explore exactly what we are presented with.
There's no dialogue that I can recall in this film at all – the first segment is entirely told to us in voice-over by our male lead, who lets us a little into his strange, strange world. The first thing we find out is that he lives with his sister, whom he has some incestuous feeling towards – he watches her have sex with her lovers while he masturbates, which epitomises something of the love/hate relationship he has with her. As we join the story, she is pregnant, and he is taking care of her every need, as a close member of the family might. However we are treated to a constant repetition that he is going to commit 'an act' – something that is allegedly the absolute worst thing that any human can do. While this opening segment is interestingly shot, and the voice-over is expressive in a lunatic kind of way, I was finding it was largely the promise of this act and my own curiosity about it that kept me hooked in. The atmosphere between brother and sister is claustrophobic and becomes genuinely cloying as her due date approaches, and the date of his 'act'. It crossed my mind that this one might have given some inspiration to A Serbian Film, but don't worry, it's nothing like that. And if you've seen A Serbian Film, you'll know exactly what I'm referring to.
So anyway, the big day comes, and it's a homebirth, and our unnamed lead is delivering the baby calmly and efficiently. Then, as the baby's head appears, he draws a knife, cuts the baby's throat and proceeds to hold the exsanguinating child up to the mother. The blood pours all over her as she screams, and screams, and screams. The sound throughout this film was really effective, and added richly to the nightmarish landscape and colour palette, and never was it more effective than in this scene.
We fade to black from this genuinely upsetting scene, and we actually find a way to produce something even more disturbing in the second segment of the movie. From here on out, I'm convinced we are in pure dream territory, and the Subconscious Cruelty the title speaks of is our male protagonist allowing his dreams to serve as a vivid and sickening guilt trip for what he has done. Because in none of these dreams do things look good, or feel good, or sound good. Subconscious Cruelty might actually be as close as cinema has come to truly capturing a nightmare – visceral and inexplicable, with its own kind of logic that defies the waking world. Traditional narrative goes out of the window as we encounter one dream-snippet after another before our closing callback to the left brain and the right brain.
There are many moments I could talk about here, but two that genuinely stuck with me – the first of which sees us witnessing a host of naked men and woman gaining sexual pleasure from rolling on the ground in some sort of filthy desert – all shot in black and white, so a little hard to tell – and in contrast to this, a colour-saturated scene in which our leading man's incestuous fantasy finally comes true, only to go horribly and gruesomely wrong. This dream-vignette, probably of all of them, is the one that for me captures the sense of the second section of things – our lead has consciously committed a deed that is evil, reprehensible, and his subconscious is not going to let it lie easily. He has caused terrible suffering, and he will suffer terribly for it.
A film of two halves – one intriguing, one inexplicable, both harrowing in their own way. No doubt this one was carefully shot for maximum impact, with some scenes accompanied by an absolute wall of sound and technicolour shading that leaves nothing to the imagination, in places verging on the hyper-real. I'd say this was more a viewing experience than it was a film – forty minutes or so are possible to follow, but the remainder is just a pure collage of first-grade cinematic shock. Don't expect tidy resolution here – if you're anything like me, you'll be left as baffled afterwards as when you came in. With all that said, this is a film that packs a genuine punch, which is why I'll give it a decent 7/10.