“She Is Conann” is a flippant homage to cult films and directors of the past. Alternately, it’s a deadly serious attempt to treat the character of Conan, created by author Robert E. Howard and embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger in two ‘80s films, as a mythic hero. Queer director Bertrand Mandico’s third feature indulges in some of the same provocations as his first two, on a much larger scale this time around. All his work has a handmade feel, degrading the image by flooding the set with smoke or flashing lights. The production design is one of its most imaginative elements. No one who saw his first feature, “The Wild Boys,” will forget its phallic plants dripping a liquid that looks like semen.
Mandico’s elaborate narrative is difficult to absorb on just one viewing. Rainer (Elina Lewinsohn), a dog-faced man, roams the underworld with a camera, reciting the story of Conann. Over the course of the film, she’s played by six actors at various stages of her life. Conann changes so much that her gender and race are constantly shifting: at 25, they’re non-binary. To progress to the next era, she has to make a declaration of love for her current incarnation and then kill herself. Roaming through hell, she gains power through violence, with sword in hand, haunted by a lifelong battle with Sanja (Julia Riedler), who enslaved her as a teenager and forced to eat meat from her mother’s shoulder.
“She Is Conann” is steeped in references to touchstones of hip literature, music, and film. A truck sports the sign “naked lunch,” referring to William S. Burroughs’ novel. (The title of “The Wild Boys” is taken from Burroughs as well.) Sonja’s apartment is decorated with vinyl from Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Klaus Nomi, while the actor who plays her looks like Grace Jones. Rainer, whose name comes from the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, sports a leather jacket with his name written in metal studs. Yet one has to dig a bit deeper to find the actual influences on Mandico’s style. The psychedelic revelries of lesbian director Ulrike Ottinger and the pastiches of Guy Maddin run through his work, as does an older style of French fantasy derived from Jean Cocteau and Max Ophuls.
At first, Mandico planned to stage “She Is Conann” as theater in 2020, but the pandemic prevented him from doing so. The short “Rainer, A Vicious Dog in Skull Valley,” which plays Feb. 3rd and 4th as part of the anthology feature “The Show Is Already Finished,” was shot in 2021. While turning his own mood of blockage at the time into fiction through the character of a frustrated director, it also presents many of the ideas and images from “She Is Conann” without the narrative context. The finished film is a spiritual sequel to the work he did then, as he’s constructed several projects around this character.
Mandico delights in creating an entire universe for his characters to inhabit. As his budgets have blossomed, he benefited from the ability to shoot in 35mm, using a crane on an enormous set (sprinkled with glitter and dust). Beginning in hell, “She Is Conann” clings tightly to fantasy. Even its version of the Bronx, with graffiti everywhere, wrecked cars, porn theaters, and fires raging in the middle of the street, would seem a bit much to the average Fox News viewer. The film’s full of brutal violence, rendered with gleeful delight. Conann reaches her hand down a woman’s throat and pulls out a sword dripping with blood. In the biggest set piece, a woman’s body is cooked and carved up while she’s still alive. Yet unlike the sexual assaults of “The Wild Boys,” the gore of “She Is Conann” is rendered in such a stylized manner that it’s hard to take literally.
“She Is Conann” turns pulpy material into a serious meditation on aging, power and violence, queering the macho heroism of Schwarzenegger’s Conan. The film’s tone can’t be pinned down, which sometimes works against it. Mandico’s direction is so showy that it sometimes detracts from his material, but it’s hard not to respect his desire to challenge the spectator. If “The Wild Boys” remains his most accomplished feature overall, “She Is Conann” is the most difficult and ambitious, resisting snap judgments and instant comprehension.
“She Is Conann” | Directed by Bertrand Mandico | Altered Innocence | In French with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 2nd at Anthology Film Archives