Director: Johanne Chagnon
Writers: Johanne Chagnon
Running time: 8mins
We live in a world in terminal decline, where a series of impending systemic crises threaten the existence of life itself. We should not be comfortable or content – but often culture can serve as a psychological crutch to make us feel fulfilled, having vicariously exercised some demons through the trials and tribulations of a collection of pixels that we can conveniently live out our hopes and anxieties through – while the desire to change anything about the waking horror that awaits us beyond the walls of the cinema is dimmed as a result.
Sometimes, then, I enjoy – even encourage – films which do not make sense. Be infuriating. Do as much as possible to give viewers as little as possible. At least when we are enraged or frustrated by a piece of art it has reminded us that we are alive, giving us some kind of sensation beyond the eternal warm-bath-and-sleeping-pill feeling that the latest Marvel churn-out has provoked.
To a certain extent then, I did enjoy Johanne Chagnon’s avant-garde short Promenade en forêt – from start to finish it is a disquietingly opaque piece of anti-narrative, which is about as far as possible from the pleasant stroll through a woodland glade that its Anglicised name suggests. Seconds into A walk in the forest, an ear-shattering shriek punctures the pleasant bubble of ambience which had been built up only moments before.
Having initially expected that we were due to spend the next eight minutes of our lives in some kind of exercise in guided meditation, instead we find ourselves cast into the lair of what appears to be some kind of animalistic serial killer. Bleach-blonde scalps dangle from the unseen roof of the cavernous scene, while the soundtrack is perforated by intense, heavy breathing, and a pair of clenched fists menacingly contort and twirl a red cord, as if planning to garrot the viewer.
As the piece progresses, a figure cloaked in black, but for its feet and hands, takes up one of the scalps, and masquerades in it – gliding about the screen as if emulating Buffalo Bill’s famous dance sequence. The figure then bows before the ragged bark of some wretched, blackened tree, from which fleshy tendrils seem to bare some kind of ghastly fruit. Moments later, the film closes with the figure laying flat on its back – having picked the fruit moments before, its bulbous stomach seems to imply it is carrying some hellish entity to term, having undergone some great transformative process through its compulsive acts of violence. This is Mrs. Leeds changing, do you SEE?
Whatever the actual intent behind Promenade en forêt was, then, the end result is an obtuse, non-sensical and occasionally terrifying helter-skelter of bizarre visuals and distressing audi-cues. For that, I have to commend Chagnon; you managed to make me feel deeply unpleasant watching your film – but in a world of horrors, culture often provides me with a security blanket to shield me from those entirely necessary feelings, and your film momentarily burst that protective bubble.
With that being said, I do not feel that such an experience is unconditionally enough. Will this film stick long in the minds of audiences once those momentary shocks fade away, and their pulses return to normal? If it does, it will likely be for the rather rough-and-ready approach to set design on display, the choppy editing, or the fresh-out-the bag wigs which adorn the set throughout the film.
Every atom of unnerving and ominous atmosphere Chagnon manages to conjure is frittered away by her mishandling of the film’s environmental factors. The grim tree at which her character worships, for instance, appears to have been hastily constructed from black trash-bags, a detail which undermines the intent of the scene, as most viewers will likely find themselves distractedly wondering if they put the bins out today.
At the same time, the wigs around which so much of the eerie atmosphere of the piece seems to revolve do not appear to have been so much as brushed before they have been unceremoniously hoisted to the ceiling. As a result, at various points while the figure cavorts between them, static cling seems to draw strands of the polyester weave toward the character. Once again, our minds will wander, and the impact the film might of had lessens, which is a real shame.
All in all, Promenade en forêt is disjointed and uncanny enough to tap into some deep, primal fears, and not just any film can pull that off – however, it does not hold up to closer inspection. The technical mis-steps of the piece end up diminishing whatever menace the film manages to muster. It is, unfortunately, a poster-child for the cliché, “right idea, wrong execution.”