Seeing Double celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies. On the lookout for a more perfect cinematic union, two reviewers watch and discuss a double feature chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we justify the pairing up front, and that both titles are readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites. Two Movies. Two Critics. Seeing Double.
As a regular contributor to Scene Stealers, I’m very pleased to be joined by my old friend James Long for the first Seeing Double in this new format. I pride myself on the extent of my film knowledge, but James has been putting me to shame for over a decade now, and there is no one I would rather talk movies with.
James Long: Primarily that it’s from the French director Claire Denis, whose work I admire quite a bit. This is one of the few films of hers I haven’t seen.
George: Of the ones you have, which would you most recommend?
George: Herman Melville has fans?
James: No comment.
George: I’m sure their conventions are awesome. You know someone is going to lose a leg.
James: It happens.
George: So aside from the fact that you wanted an excuse to watch it, why is it a good fit for “Thirst?”
James: Both have been described as “modern-day vampire tales” and they appear to focus on how this condition links two characters together. Though reviewers of TED are in disagreement over whether or not the characters are vampires. Netflix describes them as cannibals.
George: Are vampires or zombies cannibals?
James: In a way, I guess they are.
George: Well, vampires only want blood. They don’t really eat flesh.
James: True, and zombies are dead, but eat the living. Both don’t generally consume their own kind.
George: They either can’t or don’t, depending on which movie you’re watching. In “Daybreakers” vampires that feed on other vampires became very animal-like–much less human and much more monstrous.
James: Interesting, I haven’t seen that. When did it come out?
George: Earlier this year. It reminds me a lot of Carpenter’s best films. It’s an above average horror/action movie that tries to tackle the question of what a vampire society would look like and how it would function. It’s worth watching for its ideas alone.
James: So what made you suggest “Thirst?”
George: Well, like TED, it’s a film I haven’t gotten around to yet by a filmmaker I really admire. I’m also intrigued by the fact that it has a horror film’s premise but as far as I know never tries to be horror.
James: I think that description applies to TED as well.
George: They also both have subtitles and start with the letter T.
James: I think you watched too much Sesame Street as a kid.
George: So I wanted to kick off with TED, unless you have any objections.
James: OK, see you back here after TED, after which you might bar me from future collaborations.
George: Do your worst.
James: Better watch it, or you might be in for trouble every day. See, I’m adept at bad jokes as well.
George: That’s ok, I’ve developed a thirst for them.
George: So… um…
James: Not your ordinary movie.
George: Nothing like putting on a movie that’s ridiculously quiet for most of its running time, with sparse and mostly inconsequential dialogue and then it gets to a particular scene and everyone else in your house feels the need to walk in the room and say “WHAT are you watching?”
James: And there are two scenes like that. Both very jarring.
George: The movie seemed to be very disinterested in a conventional narrative.
James: I agree, and think that’s rather typical of Denis’s style. There’s little emphasis on plot.
George: For a bit there it seemed like there would be more plot to speak of.
James: Yeah, we do get that exposition about Dr. Shane Brown’s (Vincent Gallo) past interactions with Dr. Léo (Alex Descas) and his wife Coré (Béatrice Dalle), which seemed almost like a genre convention and suggested a plot that never really materialized. To me, those scenes made another jarring juxtaposition with the overall mode of quiet contemplation that you mentioned earlier.
George: So what do we know? Shane and Coré both have the same disease. Which basically makes them want to devour parts of their lovers during sex.
James: And this poses a problem for Shane, who has just married.
James: I agree “cannibal” is the more accurate term, though I’m not exactly sure what they are. The movie gives you very little actual information, which I kind of like about it.
George: If vampires are based on real people, this is probably what the non-exaggerated version would be. How does this compare to Denis’ other films?
James: I think the mood is very similar; she’s great at creating a sense of atmosphere in which the characters seem to drift through their environments. I find it a very interior, reflective approach. Though the “horror” elements are something I haven’t seen her use before.
George: I think it had more in common with horror films than I originally suspected. In particular, it follows a few characters in a very voyeuristic way, which in horror suggests a killer is watching them and suggests something bad will happen.
James: And of course, something does.
George: So did Vincent Gallo’s acting strike you as particularly… not good?
James: Yeah, he was very flat. Then again, I really can’t stand him as an actor.
George: He always comes off as a cold, unfeeling, colossal douchebag.
George: But this time he came off as one who also wasn’t even trying to act.
James: The scene where he was talking to the doctor in the lab had some of the worst line readings I’ve seen in a while. Tricia Vessey who played his wife, June, struck me as very natural, though.
George: Oh, she was great. Speaking of her, with that shot of her eyes… What do you think she’s thinking or seeing there?
James: Not sure. It’s another evocative moment that impacts us as viewers even though we can’t exactly verbalize what’s going on or what it means.
George: It seemed like Shane was hoping Léo did in fact have a cure, and once those hopes were dashed he gave into his urges. He really doesn’t want to hurt his wife and has been holding back during sex to try and protect her. Likewise, Léo wants Coré but restrains himself because he doesn’t trust her.
James: I agree, in which case the ending seems especially ominous. There’s very little resolution.
George: So any other films that you think would play well with this?
James: Denis’s earlier “I Can’t Sleep” mentioned above takes a similar approach to depicting a pair of serial killers. There’s also the original “Cat People,” directed by Jacques Tourneur, though I guess Schrader’s unfortunate remake could also apply. The movie reminded me a bit of Cronenberg at times, so maybe “Rabid,” “The Brood,” or “Crash.”
George: Of those I’ve only seen Schrader’s “Cat People” which I think would in fact play well enough with this, your disdain for it notwithstanding.
James: I definitely prefer Tourneur’s version. Leos Carax, a contemporary of Denis, has a similar interest in evocative character pieces with abstract plots, so “The Lovers on the Bridge” and in particular “Bad Blood” would work well.
George: So moving onto “Thirst,” the only thing I know about it aside from its director is that it’s about a Priest who is also a vampire. That and like TED it has some disturbing sexual content.
James: I also know relatively little about it. I expect a lot more plot in this one, though.
George: I agree, though Park does have affinity for abstract scenes as well.
James: Have you seen his “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK?” I haven’t.
George: I’ve seen the first half. It reminds me a bit of Jeunet. It’s pretty whimsical.
James: I think you were the one who first recommended “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” to me, six or seven years ago.
George: I was. It was actually the first Korean film I ever saw. Since then I’ve seen all of the features he directed from “JSA” on. I’ve also seen most of the short films he made this decade. His short in “Three Extremes” was good.
James: “Three Extremes” has been in my Netflix queue for years so I’ll rely on your knowledge for that one.
George: So which Park films have you seen?
James: Just his “Vengeance” trilogy. “Oldboy” is easily my favorite of those, though its plot has always struck me as a bit too convoluted.
George: I like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” the best, though “Oldboy” is the most re-watchable. “Lady Vengeance” is a bit underrated too because most people think its just pretty good and it’s at least very good.
James: I think “Oldboy” is the only one I’ve seen more than once.
George: So are you ready to watch your first non-Vengeance Park film?
James: Sounds good.
George: Immediate reaction?
James: I liked it a lot, and I thought it worked well with TED.
George: It was interesting. I think TED was better to play first because once “Thirst” started I was like “Alright, some actual conversations! YES!”
James: As predicted, there was a lot more plot and a more direct storyline in this one.
George: Since when do vampires donate blood? They only make withdrawals at blood blanks, never deposits.
James: Terrible, just terrible
George: I forget how funny Park’s films can be, and it’s always a pleasant surprise
James: He has a rather wicked sense of humor. I laughed out loud a few times. When he used the armoire as a coffin… Brilliant.
George: I liked the fact that the priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) had to go and make his little accidental cult lose faith in him before facing his ultimate fate.
James: I agree, but I found how he chose to do it a little disturbing.
George: I also loved the back and forth between the priest and Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), particularly at the end.
James: I think their relationship was generally compelling.
George: Park has been very forthright about the inspiration for this film being the novel Therese Raquin.
James: That’s a Zola novel I haven’t read.
George: I had never even heard of it, but based on the Wikipedia entry, the events I found odd in “Thirst” make more sense when viewed as an update to that book.
James: It occurred to me early on that they were both trapped in a social environment they found constraining–his position as a priest, her unhappy marriage in an abusive family–and that’s very in keeping with literary naturalism. Do you think by the end that’s what the house has become?
George: Its all confinement. Her life in general. Her marriage. His life as a Catholic priest. His disease. Vampirism.
James: They both embrace the life of a vampire as a form of release, yet in the end they discover it’s just as confining.
George: I also liked that earlier in the film his solution to sexual arousal was to beat himself with a yard stick.
James: That reminded me of Gallo’s character in TED in the sense of trying to control his sexual urges.
George: I think both of them try to find reasonable and moral ways to live with their affliction before eventually losing hope. So what does it say that in both cases the woman is way more prone to fully embracing it?
James: Her giddy-like embrace of being a vampire troubled me a bit, almost as if they were portraying her as more savage than her male counterpart.
James: It’s implied she lied about some of it, but the filmmakers still render her home life as very stifling and her husband (Ha-kyun Shin) and mother-in-law (Hae-sook Kim) as rather controlling.
George: She’s never really been free. A bit like Estella and Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations.”
James: True, I think that’s why they put such emphasis on the scene where he leaps around with her in his arms. It’s a form of release and enjoyment she’s been denied. What’d you think of the depiction of her husband? I found his later appearances pretty funny.
George: Yes, particularly the sex scene.
James: Or when his mother smells his fart. What image was more unexpected: the fart smelling in “Thirst” or the cum shot in TED?
George: I’d say the fart smelling. It wins by a nose. This film had a lot of unexpected moments.
James: It also introduced a few unexpected methods for consuming blood.
George: In general I love scenes where people explore newly discovered powers, and “Thirst” had a few fun ones.
James: True, I think the movie does a good job of exploring each character’s integration into the life of a vampire.
James: To an extent, this story feels a bit less contrived or overly constructed, as opposed to say “Oldboy.” I thought the plot flowed pretty well.
George: Well both “Oldboy” and “Thirst” are based on other sources, so the contrivances are ones he probably was attracted to that he didn’t create himself.
James: Good point.
George: So what did you think about the fact that both films had a medical explanation for their respective diseases with hinted origins in Africa?
James: I think it’s just there as background info, not really explored much.
George: I guess since HIV first originated in Africa it’s the go-to country for unexplained diseases?
James: Yeah, it’s kind of become a film cliche by now. As lots of people have pointed out, vampire stories make logical AIDS allegories.
George: What other films would you possibly pair with “Thirst” now that you’ve seen it?
James: It reminded me of “Near Dark” with its comparable interest in exploring the integration into vampire life.
George: I think “Daybreakers” would play better with “Near Dark,” though. I think “Lady Vengeance” probably would play the best with it as far as Park’s films go. I also think the undead horror comedy “The Revenant” would also play well if it ever gets distribution.
George: But “Martin” and “Vampire’s Kiss” are dying to be their own double feature.
James: People who have a higher tolerance for Jesus Franco than I do could pair one of his lesbian vampire movies with “Thirst.”
George: I think there’s always something interesting going on in Franco’s films, even if they’re easy to sleep though.
George: So ultimate verdict on the double feature?
James: I think they worked well. Similar scenarios, but different techniques–one more abstract and expressionistic, the other plot-driven with fantasy elements.
George: TED felt like a good warm-up for “Thirst.” Not sure the reverse would have worked as well. I liked how conventional “Thirst” felt after TED, even though it’s far from being conventional otherwise.
James: Its narrative is definitely more conventional, though it does allow itself to diverge from what we might expect the story to do.
George: I think if I had watched TED by itself I would have been a little disappointed, but seeing it as half of this pair helped me appreciate it in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. I also thought it was interesting that “Thirst” had scenes in English that were flatly delivered too.
James: You’ve got a good point about its form working well in juxtaposition to “Thirst.” I thought the actors in “Thirst” conveyed that the characters weren’t comfortable speaking English, as opposed to Gallo’s monotone line readings.
George: He sure can pull off that psycho look, though.
James: Yeah, he’s kind of creepy.
George: He’s 31 flavors of creepy. So of the alternative pairings we’ve mentioned for both, I do think that the one we ended up with is probably the best or most interesting overall. Not to pat our backs too hard.
James: Yeah, it’s not your expected double feature, that’s for sure.
George: And I like those, especially when they work as well as this one did.