The "crazy" love, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger tells us, is not of the "crazy about you, babe" variety but the "watch me huddle in the corner and fling my own poo to defend against CIA psychics" variety.
Here's to the losers
Mondo Macabro's release of Crazy Love is a strange blend of the highbrow and the grotesque, like a Troma film picked up by Criterion. The film in question is a beautiful, strange, but ultimately horrific film that feels like the sticky residue underfoot at a street carnival. Though it dwells in repugnance, Crazy Love is rife with artistry and compassion.
Facts of the Case
The film depicts three distinct moments in the life of Harry Voss (Josse De Pauw, Everybody's Famous! and Geert Hunaerts, Team Spirit). As a young boy, he is stricken by the notion of pure romantic love when he sees a movie starring a flawless princess (Florence Béliard). He struggles to reconcile this pure notion with the evidence of his own family's prosaic life. When he confides in his friend Stan (Michael Pas, Team Spirit), Stan introduces Harry to the truth about sex and adult relationships.
We then fast-forward to Harry's teenage years, when he is the unfortunate victim of obscene acne. Harry becomes reclusive; still, he holds to his ideals about romance. His friend Jeff (Gene Bervoets, The Flying Dutchman) tries to hook Harry up with a date, but it goes badly.
It will be many years before Harry makes a real breakthrough, and in a strange way the Princess is central to his epiphany.
There is a fascinating story behind Crazy Love, which the extras spell out in great detail. Belgium is neatly divided into French-speaking and Flemish-speaking regions. The former has great artistic resources, because French-language films are quite marketable on the world stage. Native Flemish films have less marketability, so the fledgling movie industry concentrates on smaller, more intimate films. According to director Dominique Deruddere, the Flemish sense of humor is remarkably stout and dark. It is perhaps understandable that the combination of black humor and geographically constrained language lead to few outside successes for Flemish cinema.
Deruddere's film has broken down those boundaries; in fact, it breaks all boundaries. He submitted a government grant application to film a benign story. When he got the grant, he filmed the story he actually wanted to tell: A feature-length adaptation of his short film about two friends who run around with a corpse all night. Needless to say, this was a gutsy move and a huge financial risk. Fortunately for Deruddere and his producer, the film board liked the result, gave him a slap on the wrist, and distributed the film. It became an international sensation.
Keep in mind, though, that rashes and bee stings are also sensations. Yes, this story is creepy. It thrives on the darkness, fear, and dysfunction of humanity. Harry and his friends are not beautiful people. In fact, you could go so far as to call them disgusting lowlifes. They leer at women, even grope a drunken woman in the sanctity of her own bedroom. They steal liquor. They lie, cheat, and fail to connect with their fellow human beings on an empathic level. Small wonder: Crazy Love is rooted in the story "The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, CA" by Charles Bukowski, the sot who inspired Barfly. This film is a dark, perverse fairy tale.
That said, it is surprisingly easy to watch and to appreciate. Deruddere skims the surface of truly deplorable topics, but he shields the viewer from trauma. Harry's personal conflicts become the central focus, and the emotional resonance is sufficient to power the film. Intellectually we recoil, but our heart tugs in sympathy.
Make no mistake, the film has its fair share of grotesque imagery. One small example is when Harry gets in the back seat with a horny harlot. He bears down over her and nuzzles her neck. His oozing pimples leave a trail of pus down her porcelain cheek. We don't see that so much as anticipate the juxtaposition of textures, and it leaves us squeamish. In fact there are three love scenes in Crazy Love, and each has a heightened sense of the macabre. Yet we cannot look away.
This is a sign of Crazy Love's artistry. The film is broken into three distinct periods. These periods have clear differences, but also remarkable cinematic harmony. In each case we're given a clear idea of Harry's personal crisis. He always has a singular friend (all with brown eyes, baby faces, and chocolate-brown hair) with the soul of a freak—but good enough looks to fit in with others. The friend brings Harry a woman who is vulnerable to sexual contact, but Harry has reservations that spoil the deal. Finally, their anarchist actions culminate in dire consequences. These parallels grant Crazy Love sincere artistic merit.
Another powerful device is bookends featuring the same actress, Florence Béliard. At the beginning of the film she is an ethereal princess who pierces the heart of young Harry. What a cunning twist to have him meet a real-life version of the princess and fall instantly in love with her! These adroit touches invalidate any claims that Crazy Love exists only to shock us. Instead, we are forced to analyze the themes with the same respect we'd grant true works of art.
Further evidence comes from the music and cinematography. The songs are precisely chosen to echo the events onscreen, but they fit organically with the scenes. The songs are amazing to boot, which makes Crazy Love an involving musical effort. Though the sound mix is not in surround, the track is full and engaging. I detected hints of harshness at times, but never enough to detract from the joy of the mix.
Better still is the look of the film, which moves from bucolic splendor to dank oppression. The opening act is full of light and air, suggesting Harry's infinite possibilities for the future. As the film progresses, the cinematography becomes ever more cloistered and shadowy as Harry withdraws into himself. The final act is set on a foggy night (incidentally, the original short film was titled Foggy Night), with surrealistic yellow lighting and photorealistic moments of clarity in key moments. The transfer is up to the task, with bright colors and clear detail. The image leans toward high key, giving it a vague impression of being washed out, but this is probably a conscious artistic decision. The only noticeable image bugaboo is that the corners are chopped off, which makes the image slightly octagonal. This may be a side effect of the film stock used, but I'm not sure.
It might go without saying, but had the acting not been so conscientious we'd feel nothing for these characters. Harry's friends Stan, Jeff, and Bill (Amid Chakir, The Crossing) quickly establish their roguish similarities and idiosyncratic differences. In some ways they are the same person, or at least the same foil in Harry's life. Both the young and old Harrys sell their respective stages of life, with the final two acts belonging to Josse De Pauw. The middle act was his greatest challenge, playing a teenager and a freak, and De Pauw displays extra special care with his character. The elder Harry is not as compelling, but fortunately we're already invested in the character by this point. I most feel for Amid Chakir, who had little time to establish himself as more than a prop. Florence Béliard stopped my breath in both of her scenes, though she wasn't given much opportunity to act.
The overall effect is an outrageous psychosexual journey fraught with painful moments. As a viewer you begin the journey with sweet innocence, struggle through a painful adolescence, and finally realize that the horror of an abject adulthood has snuck up and overwhelmed you. By the time you figure out that Crazy Love is the kind of film you might not choose to be watching, you're already invested. It is like when your mother distracted you with lollipops while the doctor plunged the syringe into your arm.
When you throw the bevy of quality extras into the mix, you're left with a strange synthesis of dubious content and highbrow criticism. On one hand there are trailers for B movies with fake blood and bountiful breasts, and a feature film with perverse undercurrents. One gets the sense that Mondo Macabro typically deals in less stellar efforts. On the other hand, the depth and detail of the featurettes would complement a minor masterpiece. The featurettes are packed with information, even if Dominique Deruddere does come across as a depraved alcoholic at times.
Despite surprising nuance and artistry, Crazy Love will always be a fringe film. It lacks international star power, and its fiercely despondent tone will turn off many viewers. Crazy Love champions the losers and the rejects, and it does such a good job of evoking those uncomfortable labels that it makes the viewer uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it is clear why Crazy Love exceeded its boundaries and caught the world's attention. I fear that Crazy Love will eternally flounder on the edge of obscurity, waiting for sympathetic cinephiles to discover it and wonder why it never caught on.
The film is not guilty. Its characters are so guilty that it makes my stomach churn.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
• Making-of Documentary Featuring Cast & Crew and Exclusive Footage of Charles Bukowski
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