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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 10.01.10] United Kingdom movie trailer news drama experimental

Year: 2009
Directors: Ayman Mokhtar
Writers: Ayman Mokhtar
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 7 out of 10

There’s arthouse flicks, then there’s arty arthouse flicks. If there’s a level above that, then I’d nominate Anaphylaxis as a prime candidate… there’s not much Brit director/writer Ayman Mokhtar left out of this rashly affected hypermix of form and content.

I’ve been itching to see Anaphylaxis since the great Quiet Earth posted a trailer & plot synopsis, as the story – a doctor allergic to living skin and a depressed woman obsessed with writing – certainly suggests a quick dive into the deep end of some psychopathological pool. Question is: will we think or swim?

In actuality, the plot is great, revealing the pain and desperation of both a physical and mental disassociation with humankind, and the lengths to which the psyche will go to achieve some kind of satisfaction. The doctor takes the physical route, starting with drugs, then an amazing injection gun, and finally complete physical abstinence from living flesh. Fortunately, he can touch dead flesh so he becomes a pathologist. Here’s a guy who trades love for a litany of diseased organs. Who forgets himself in technique and work. While all this is going on the poetic woman gets married, screws, has a child and develops postpartum depression after a horrific birth sequence. Cut to her husband: cold and indifferent. Her baby: stuck to her nipple. Her poems: escape. She tries drugs then abandons them to the siren call of her desk, paper, booze, cigarettes, inkwell and nib pen. She’s free from the family reality, but becomes a freaked-out obsessive-compulsive producer of endlessly miserable, dejected verse. Her shrink says more writing will kill her, but no writing is another kind of death, anyway, so she decides to cover herself with tattooed verse. Unfortunately the overuse of ink kills her and the movie’s prosaic ending is indeed indecent as our touching doctor finally finds satisfaction in a necrophilic morgue scene.

Yeah, pretty cool stuff.

But now for the artsy overlays, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Let’s lay down a bit of background first. Reportedly the budget for Anaphylaxis was £850,000 and after the scenes were shot, exclusively on green backgrounds, Mokhtar spent the next two years creating the flick’s form in post-production. His major technical device is something the movie’s wiki page calls “prosodic cinema”, which is a fancy way of saying he’s timed out his shots as echoes of the elements of poetry – syllable, foot, meter, stanza – and has edited it all together to create cuts based a rhythmic, temporal structure. The effect when you first experience this technique is a tad disconcerting -- it’s like watching a visual stutter – then sort of interesting, then sort of boring, and finally you start craving just a little backbeat of prose to balance off the stifling perfection of a relentless rhythmic pattern you really can’t easily follow, anyway. C’mon, like we’re going to count the visual beats at the same time we’re supposed to be caught up in the action? Our eyes don’t work like our ears. And therein lies the danger of over-arted art. The damn techniques start insinuating themselves into consciousness, and you’re stuck in a sort of limbo twixt reality and fantasy, between technique and story, separating form and content when they should be one.

Another problem I have with this version of the prosodic is Mokhtar’s lack of visual “words”. This movie has a speech impediment. If he had spent less on post and more on content he might have had a few more scenes with which to work his poetic rhythms. Instead we see endless repeats of the same bits of action, and while the emphasis is on timing, it doesn’t work so well when the vocabulary is very limited and prone to being interpreted as visual stutters. As visual stutters. As visual stutters. You get my point. This repetition is either exacerbated or enhanced by Makhtar’s proclivity to tell both doctor and poet stories at once, so we’re constantly flipping back and forth – great for emphasizing the dualism of their distress – but not for really getting anywhere. Are we stuck in a fibrillating time machine? These are questions we shouldn’t be asking.

What else do we have? An emphasis on colour. Most of the doctor’s scenes have an element of red; the depressed poet’s colour is blue. Everything else is black and white (yeah, we get it). Secondary characters are uniformly dressed in white or black, depending on the mood. Many scenes are connected insofar as they share a large piece of what appears to be abstract art in a strange frame. Backgrounds are a lot of fun, as Mokhtar has filled in his green screens with a variety of somewhat digi macro shots of odd surfaces, like stamped metal, tiles, or fake painted rooms covered in large letters. Sometimes the design is minimalist representative, sometimes it’s symbolic, often it’s simply an interesting wall pattern. Unfortunately, all this great digi work is somewhat discouraged by the cheesiness of the actual physical sets, as we’re mistreated to what looks like an off-broadway stage set rather than a movie set, with any lushness of décor replaced by minimalism and whatever symmetry Mokhtar could squeeze out of his cheap and few props, all of which are used to represent a few indoor scenes… Don’t get me wrong, I do like minimalism, but in a production as designed to the tits as this is I was expecting more interesting furnishings.

The acting is competent, but nothing to get excited about. If anything, our protagonists appear to exhibit that slightly self-conscious look of the closely directed. The whole thing was shot without audio, and you can sometimes get the feeling Makhtar is barking out orders as the cameras roll. The acing is worst in the surprising number of basically explicit sex scenes… There’s one XXX scene of vaginal entry, and the rest are an often endless series of fake and mostly unhappy humpings – the prosodic repetitive effect -- as the doctor rashly attempts to jump his fiancé, the poet has it with hubby, and the doc necros the dead poet. It’s mostly bodies & boobs, but these dalliances with pork salad annie grind up a fair percentage of the meager 86 minutes that is Anaphylaxis. And the pelvic grind sex is not even sexy.

As you might expect, given the lavish attention to the editing, the soundtrack is great. Once you get used to people talking either off camera or with their back to you, the slight dialogue works OK. The sound effects are terrific. Anaphylaxis also has many “stanzas”, and each is introduced by a snippet of the poet’s dark and stormy verse, with the tag, “she wrote” after each header… these little clues do help explain the often inexplicable action that follows, but I kept having this strange feeing that Jessica Fletcher might suddenly arrive.

Anaphylaxis. Basically a sort of study of the dualism of despair – from both physical and mental roots – and what might constitute a physical and emotional cure. God knows what the doctor’s plans for the wordy woman are, but cold sex appears to interest him more than no sex, so the pathology lab might qualify as a love nest for future cadavers. Very pleasant. Sure, the poet died from her obsession, but not directly, and the death by ink overdose does seem a bit deux ex machina in hindsight. It’s a weak point in the plot. It’s a little forced to get to the final scene, as she obviously couldn’t die from writing because she then wouldn’t have a body covered with all this darkside drivel for the doctor to digest. And so it goes.

Overall, this is one wacky movie completely under the control of an imagination fueled by a highly-complex stylistic discipline. I like it, but this whole prosodic schtick seems a brave yet risky experiment that expects our eye to respond to fluctuations in temporal rhythm. Yes, you do “see” the structure, but the effect appears more repetitive that poetic, whatever that means. I would also winnow out much of the gratuitous sex. My prescription? See it if you can. If it gives you a rash, stop watching.

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