As the pandemic rages on, Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird,” both beautiful and disquieting, makes for ideal digital viewing. It’s one of three films available on Video On Demand this week.
Nothing is quite as purely, gorgeously cinematic as a black-and-white, widescreen movie, just slightly removed from reality, and adding an enigmatic layer of poetry to carefully composed images: Think Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” or even Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.”
Then there are also movies that are, simply, extremely difficult to watch, that delve in onscreen atrocities that go beyond normal shocks, such as like Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.”
“The Painted Bird” is both.
Based on a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski — his “Being There” was adapted into a memorable 1979 Peter Sellers movie — “The Painted Bird” tells a simple story.
During World War II, a young boy (Petr Kotlár), who may or may not be Jewish, lives with his aunt in a remote farmhouse in Eastern Europe. As the movie starts, bullies kill the boy’s ferret and set it on fire. Then the aunt drops dead and the shocked boy drops his lantern and burns down the entire farm.
From there, the boy drifts from place to place, temporarily taken in by various adults, and experiencing many forms of bizarre, hideous cruelty.
The movie is divided into seven chapters, each named for adult characters. Familiar faces such as Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper appear, but no English is spoken. Very little is spoken at all. (What is heard is called “Interslavic,” comprising several Eastern European languages.)
Among images of murder and molestation, the movie delivers things like a man’s eyeballs ripped out, a man falling into a pit of rats, a woman (pretending?) to have sex with a goat, a severed goat’s head tossed through a window, and the title image, a bird with paint on its wings being systematically attacked and destroyed by other birds in an aloft frenzy.
The boy endures being buried up to his neck and being pecked at by crows, being forced to drink alcohol, being slapped, molested, bullied, enslaved, and made to watch various other horrors.
By the end, he has developed an unmistakable hardness. When bullies in an orphanage advance on him, he stares them all down and walks away. He doesn’t even have to pull out the gun he has hidden in his pants.
It’s an extraordinary performance, based on dark, cold emotions that no child should have to acknowledge. But unfortunately, in this life, they do.
The movie’s combination of stark beauty and sheer abhorrence, continuing for 169 long minutes, is a reminder that hurt can cause some hearts to close up, and other hearts to open.
The Painted Bird
Starring: Petr Kotlár, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper
Written and directed by: Václav Marhoul
Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes
Also set during World War II, but far more lightweight and entertaining, the horror movie “Ghosts of War” is a hybrid, pitting soldiers against ghosts.
It’s 1944. A squad of five men, led by fresh-faced Chris (Brenton Thwaites), are ordered to hold a chateau — formerly occupied by Nazis — in the French countryside.
The other men are: rough-and-tumble Butchie (Alan Ritchson), sci-fi fan Eugene (Skylar Astin), soft-spoken, kind-hearted country boy Tappert (Kyle Gallner) and matter-of-fact Kirk (Theo Rossi, from TV’s “Sons of Anarchy” and “Luke Cage”).
They find strange things like scratches on the floor, a burned rug, and, eventually a satanic star painted on the floor. They start to see things in the shadows, flashlights flicker out while they search the basement, and more.
“This place is bad juju,” drawls Tappert.
Eventually they try to leave, but… they can’t.
Written and directed by Eric Bress, whose previous film “The Butterfly Effect” was released a whopping 16 years ago, “Ghosts of War” is a professional job, smooth and good-looking, with effective creeps and crawls.
Bress uses the chateau’s large spaces to beautiful effect, crossing luxury with dread. Images that echo and mirror one another are cleverly done, creating a prickly sense of deja vu.
Though it’s perhaps inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s legendary short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (one of the characters mentions it), it will nonetheless be almost impossible to guess where “Ghosts of War” is going.
A potential problem, however, is that it takes such a wild, hard left turn that the spell the movie works so hard to cast may be broken. But the film’s ending has such a satisfying click, it will most certainly be worth a look for horror fans.
Ghosts of War
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Skylar Astin, Kyle Gallner, Theo Rossi
Written and directed by: Eric Bress
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Finally, Emily Harris’ “Carmilla” is, like our other two movies, set in the past. It contains elements of horror, but, happily, no war.
Based on a 19th century novel by Sheridan Le Fanu, which has inspired other movies from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 masterpiece “Vampyr” to things like “The Vampire Lovers” and “The Blood Spattered Bride,” “Carmilla” feels less exploitative and more literary.
Harris narrows the focus of the story with Lara (Hannah Rae), a lonely teen whose mother has died and whose father seems to be forever working.
She spends most of her time with a pretty but strict, pious governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), who straps the left-handed Lara’s arm behind her back to teach her to favor her right. (Apparently, being left-handed is considered ungodly.)
Lara eagerly, obsessively awaits the arrival of Charlotte, a friend from a neighboring town, but Charlotte’s visit is canceled when she falls ill.
Not long after, a carriage accident (in which the driver is impaled and killed) brings a mysterious, ethereal young woman (Devrim Lingnau) into the house. She says she cannot remember who she is, so Lara names her: Carmilla.
The two become inseparable, much to the chagrin of Miss Fontaine, who warns Lara against “feelings of excitement.” Before long, Carmilla suggests that they become “blood sisters.” Then Lara becomes paler and paler and begins sleeping more.
We know, and Harris knows, that this is a vampire story, but no one makes a big deal of it. The word “vampire” is never mentioned, and there are no bats, pointy teeth, capes or coffins. (There is a stake, however.)
Instead, Harris occasionally offers close-ups of slugs and worms — as well as a bloody nightmare sequence — for an unsettling effect. Additionally, Lara is fascinated by some kind of bizarre medical book, swiped from her father’s library, and by decay and rot. When she sees a dead bird, her first question is: “Why is nothing eating it?”
But the relationship between the two young women is vivid and sensuous, painted in red blood and pale skin, loneliness and longing.
The most troublesome aspect in the otherwise accomplished “Carmilla” is a Black maid character with maybe one or two lines of dialogue. A marginalized character like this may have been the norm, but today it seems irresponsible to include her with no modern commentary or context.
At the very least, her inclusion can potentially open a dialogue, give people something to talk about, something to think about. In the end, “Carmella,” “The Painted Bird” and “Ghosts of War” are hardly escapist movies, but perhaps they can lend a little perspective on our times. Things could be worse.
Starring: Hannah Rae, Devrim Lingnau, Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies
Written and directed by: Emily Harris
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes