Sunday, January 12, 2014

Young Ladies are Advised to Bring a Knife to the Nightmare

Now let's go to a dark, silent city rife with murder, domestic abuse, sexual enslavement, dismemberment, and jazz. Such a strange, nightmarish world is depicted in 1955's Dementia, a stranger film than most made at the time but pop psychology very much typical of its era renders it far inferior to the German Expressionist films that influenced it. Still, it's a delightful curiosity.

Dementia is a silent film except for occasional laughter from characters on screen and even that is buried a bit below the music. The movie doesn't even have title cards--instead, we follow a young woman played by Adrienne Barrett credited as "The Gamin" from when she wakes in her apartment and through a series of dangerous adventures she has in an unnamed city.

The world composed of sinister, encroaching shadows seems to convey the Gamin's mental state and her experiences in the city don't seem to reflect an objective reality. Some people on the streets wear black stocking masks and seem unmoved at witnessing murder and mutilation.

One of them, like the Ghost of Christmas Past and Future all in one, takes the Gamin to a graveyard where he points at graves marked "Mother" and "Father" and we see spectres of the Gamin's parents appear. Her father is shown to be a drunkard and her mother a floozy, shown clearly as explanation for the Gamin's current personality in the fashion of simplistic psychoanalysis that has aged so poorly in many otherwise fine films of the 1950s and early 60s--like Rebel Without a Cause or Marnie.

Leaving that aside, Dementia has an earnest, charming weirdness. The Gamin carries a switchblade and has a tendency to laugh maliciously when people are hurt, particularly men who attack her.

And such a man seems to show up every few minutes--first a hobo who tries to force her to drink, then a pimp, then a rich man whose car the pimp puts her in.

I won't spoil the film but I will say that the Gamin puts that switchblade to rather impressively slow, gory work. For some reason the path of terror eventually leads to her singing with a jazz band in a nightclub.

Like the musicians at the end of And God Created Woman, the movie rather amusingly expects us somehow to associate bongos and trombones with the ultimate in depravity.

I might recommend watching The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari first but Dementia is certainly a nice little ride.

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