Experimental Reviews

Caring for Your Carcass (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Johanne Chagnon

Writer: Johanne Chagnon

Cast: Johanne Chagnon

Running time: 11mins

The last time we encountered a film from Canada based artist Johanne Chagnon, the disjointed and uncanny Promenade en forêt admittedly tapped into some deep, primal fears – but its slapdash construction meant it did not hold up to closer inspection. Well, Chagnon is back, and exhibiting an admirable brand of stubbornness with Caring for Your Carcass – an unnerving and equally disjointed effort addressing life, death, and the cruelty humanity often inflicts upon nature.

What is clear about this film is that Chagnon knows who she is, she knows what she wants to achieve, and if you don’t like that, then to hell with you. Nay-sayers will take her to task for the distinctly unfinished feel of her art, but ultimately, she is not someone who will pay such tattle much mind – and in an industry where many people will bend over backwards to make their vision more commercially viable at the expense of its soul, that is a venerable characteristic.

Just as was the case before, Caring for Your Carcass is another intentionally off-putting piece of experimental cinema; deploying both grizzly, gore-soaked imagery and tempestuous sound-engineering alongside a number of irksome stock sound clips and jarring off-the-shelf visual effects to both disgust and frustrate the audience. You will walk – or crawl – away from this experience with a migraine, and to some extent that seems to be the point.

At times, this actually works in the film’s favour. As mentioned, Caring for Your Carcass seems to take aim at humanity’s often grotesque relationship with animals – something which makes many of the film’s overt attempts to distress its viewers entirely appropriate. The opening shot of the apparent smearing of some poor deceased seabird’s guts across the floor sets the tone for the remaining footage. Chagnon isn’t interested in making friends, or even taking prisoners, and it is a characteristic which means on some level, you can’t help but love her earnest kind of filmmaking.

By the end, we have gazed at a similar seabird’s cadaver, half-scorched above an open fire, yielding a small patch of roasted flesh among its tangled and dishevelled feathers, sending up an increasingly ‘chefy’ society’s obsession with perfectly cooked flesh. We have also seen Chagnon grimly spoon the hollowed out remains of a wolf, in a bizarre send-up of the fashion industry’s enduring love for pelts. And we have witnessed the incineration of another skin to demonstrate the apocalyptic future this behaviour looks set to lead to.

The film succeeds in being both engaging and repulsive then – which seems to be the right pitch for the ideas being addressed. We shouldn’t be feeling anything approaching peace or closure when meditating on the way our consumption-based society treats other living beings as fashion accessories or fetishized cuisine, any more than we should be feeling safe and content when contemplating the crimes of Ed Gein or Jeffrey Dahmer.

At the same time, it is hard to tell how much of this is intentional. There is undoubtedly some attempt being made to disturb us, while we ruminate on the destruction of the natural world for cheap profit, but the film could be more technically polished and still achieve that. Exemplifying this is the scene where cascades of plumage descend from the sky to cover Chagnon’s face, as cacophony of what seems to be gun-fire calls to mind a countryside firing squad taking aim at helpless ‘game birds’ they have cornered on their vast property. While this is a chilling scene, it did not need to be underwritten – or indeed undermined – by a scrolling text reminiscent of the end credits from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, crawling past to tell us “the black season has started.”

As with Promenade en forêt, there is also some truly woeful use of green-screen, with clear digital lines often appearing between the shifting shapes of the foreground and the background of what appears to be black bin-liners to paper the walls of the space the film takes place in. Again, this seems rather unnecessary – the most impactful things Chagnon pulls off are done without the use of such visual trickery, and in this case the post-production effects suite seemingly lifted from the Soviet production of Lord of the Rings seems an unnecessary and distracting inclusion.

It would surely have been easier to stick with cleaner cuts of organic footage and practical effects – and it would not undermine the revulsion those visuals have. As it is, once again we have a film which does not feel as though it belongs together. A rich tapestry of eldritch dread is unfortunately interwoven with plastic waste and unseemly digital tampering, in a way that means while there is plenty of meat to this movie, it is accompanied by a substantial lump of gristle to chew on.

While I don’t necessarily know if Chagnon’s films always succeed in imparting a particular message with their audiences, they will leave viewers changed after. In an almost Lovecraftian sense, exposure to their very existence means you will crawl away, your perception of life swirling, fluctuating, oozing, morphing before your mind’s eye. That is a quality to be treasured – but it is also something which needs to be handled with care. Too much digital interference or too little attention to detail in terms of prop and set design, and the gift will be squandered, as it has been to an extent here.

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