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March 23, 2008

Eat, For This Is My Body


One of the films that's stuck with me the most since seeing it at Sundance is Michelange Quay's Eat, For This Is My Body. This is the sort of film one never hears mentioned in the Park City buzz, whose relative invisibility gives way to cries that the festival has sold out. There's no way for mainstream journalists to qualify a work like this because there's no way to rate it on a scale of indie credibility; this is the sort of film that's designed to challenge and confront on a higher plane, and in doing so to frustrate audiences unwilling to meet it halfway. All of which makes it both inexcusable to ignore and, unfortunately, far too easy.

The film is a stark portrait of colonialism and race in Haiti - stark not in its harsh realism but in its broad, encompassing symbolism. It's a film populated by archetypes, where an individual can represent a people, a caste, a mode of archaic thought, a paradigm shift; Quay creates a context in which defining someone by the color of their skin is not only appropriate but necessary for narrative purposes.

That narrative is vague, conveyed through a series of studiously composed and mostly dialogue-free scenes in which those characters engage and transgress. One could technically boil down the drama herein to a traditional model of conflict-resolution - and indeed the dramatic arc of the story is quite simple - but it plays out so slowly that it's difficult to actively chart the progression; this is storytelling at its most distended, which is precisely why it fascinates me. In one of the best reviews of the film I've read, Karina Longworth notes that "Eat feels more like fine art than film." Which is very true; although she goes on to compare elements of the picture to Lynch and Bunuel, a comparison I'd more readily draw is to Matthew Barney (particularly his more recent work). Quay is less phantasmagoric in his intentions than Barney, and certainly more literal, but there's a languid appropriation of traditional cinematic language present in both directors' work, and just as Barney's films were most at home in museums, I think audiences might appreciate and understand Eat more if they go in expecting art first and film second.

Which isn't to say it's not cinematic: in fact, it contains one of the most memorable scenes I imagine I'll see on the big screen for quite some time. The scene (glimpsed briefly in the trailer) involves a big white cake and twelve black schoolboys; it begins in a close-up and slowly pulls back in a long, steady dolly shot whose assuredness contradicts the escalating chaos it's gradually revealing. It's the sort of scene that, existing so perfectly as it does in one medium, is best not described in another. So I'll simply close by noting that Eat, For This Is My Body can be seen in New York next week at the New Directors / New Films series. Suitably, the first screening is at the MoMA.

Posted by David Lowery at March 23, 2008 12:08 AM