Thanks to the recent release of James Wan’s Malignant (2021), there’s been a lot of talk within certain circles about the desire to see big swings in cinema that create vigorous division over something good but safe. Having not seen Malignant yet, there’s no addition I can make, but I couldn’t help thinking about this while watching writer/director Bertrand Mandico’s (The Wild Boys) new film, After Blue (Dirty Paradise), which is making the rounds on the festival circuit with screenings at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and 2021 Fantastic Fest. Mandico’s fantasy western is a wildly imaginative, extremely horny, fever dream of tale that’s the absolute definition of a big swing. This is the type of film that requires a specific wavelength to appreciate in full and, if you dial into it, you’re in for surreal ride.
After the total corruption of Earth, humanity found protection on a distance planet in another solar system they dubbed After Blue. There, they colonized and split themselves into individual communities restricted to their original nationalities, each one abiding by a specific set of rules that forbade (a) anything which might lead to the kinds of technology that ruined Earth and (b) to remove anyone deemed a danger to the community at large or greater. This is the world that Roxy (Paula Luna), called Toxic by her friends, grew up in and the world she threatened the safety of when she freed Kate Bush (Agata Buzek) from her in-ground prison, in full breach of the laws of the land. Thus, it falls to Roxy and her mother Zora (Elina Löwensohn) to track down and kill Kate Bush before her influence can spread further across the land.
In doing research on Mandico, I stumbled upon his “Incoherence Manifesto” which makes 12 claims on his vision of cinema. It claims things like one must always shoot on expired film stock, use optical effects in-camera, and use uncertain but timeless geography. It is a declaration of war against all the tried and true approaches that make up the bulk of cinema from studios large and small. He seeks, it seems, to make films beyond the rules, creating something entirely unique, stamped with a specific style. One need only watch the first four minutes of After Blue to see most of this at work as an extended expositive conversation between a disembodied voice, Roxy, and several other female figures lays the groundwork for what’s to come: overlapping images of the women, colors swirling in patches, discordant yet complimentary hues fading in and out over the speakers, volume rising and falling as though coming from far away and too close. This opening is both beautiful and disquieting, setting the stage for a journey that’s grounded yet phantasmagorical, where you won’t necessarily understand what’s happening or to whom, yet you will remain compelled to figure it out from start to finish.
On the surface, After Blue is a straight-forward western within a fantasy setting. The duty to make right the communal wrong is a narrative tool we’ve seen in countless stories before, though they’ve never been expressed in quite this way before. For instance, one interpretation of why Roxy sets Kate free is she herself is bullied by her three friends, so she sees the act of saving Kate as a pacifistic resistance to a violent rule. Another interpretation is that Kate represents something naturalistic, something of nature that Roxy wants to join with, as evidenced by Roxy’s seemingly insatiable libido and the location of Kate’s all-seeing third eye. To his credit, as horny as After Blue is, Mandico’s presentation of nudity or expression of sexuality is not necessarily intended to titillate, rather it’s presented as a regular part of this world. It’s refreshing to see this presented on-screen in such a way that doesn’t feel fetishized or voyeuristic, the primarily female-cast exposing themselves for the pleasure of the audience. There’s a purpose to each flirtation, kiss, fondle, or caress.
That said, it’s near impossible to discern what the purpose of the film is at its core. Is it speaking on the issue of humanity’s fate to destroy every natural habitat it comes across? Is it exploring feminine sexuality through the lens of burgeoning lust/love? Is it a commentary on what life is like absent men, which is to say it’s about the same as with them? It could be all of these things and none of them at once. Even the way the film opens, setting forth that Roxy is giving testimony that will follow the events as we see them, by the film’s end there is no concrete measure as to what the purpose was of such a narrative tactic. This is where being on the same wavelength matters most because there’s a great deal that’s impressive about After Blue from a technical perspective: the beauty of the score, the incredible practical effects, the tangibility of the planet’s surface they’ve crafted, and the way the in-camera filters make the ordinary extraordinary. But as someone unable to hit the same frequency, my appreciation for After Blue can only go so far.
Whether one agrees with Mandico’s manifesto or not, there’s no arguing the singularity of After Blue (Dirty Paradise). It’s never dull and is certainly spellbinding in all its shifting beauty, but it lacks a certain tether that makes it gripping or helps it take hold post-watch. Does it need to be seen to be believed? Yes. But this film is certainly one where you’ll either love it or not. There will be no in-between.
For more information, head to Altered Innocence’s official After Blue (Dirty Paradise) website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.