Rules Don’t Apply
By Nick Pinkerton
The Wild Boys (Les Garçons sauvage)
Dir. Bertrand Mandico, France, Altered Innocence
The Wild Boys is a debut feature—a fact unremarkable in itself, though in the case of director Bertrand Mandico it’s worth commenting on. Mandico, who is now 47, has been making short and medium-length films at a rate of rarely less and often more than one a year since 1997, and in a medium and market where artists are generally perceived to have reached artistic “maturity” upon matriculating to the long-form, a 20-year dedication to the short suggests something like an ethos, a case of development consciously arrested in the adolescent phase. It is hard, after all, to imagine that someone with drive and the wherewithal to complete more than two dozen shorts over the span of two decades couldn’t get it together to make a feature if he wanted to.
The Wild Boys is a supremely assured piece of craftsmanship, evincing an active creative engagement and ample imagination in every minute of its nearly two-hour runtime, but for all the maturity of the command on display, there is little about it to suggest it was made by an artist who was trying to put adolescence behind him. After an in medias res opening on the beach of an unidentified tropical isle at night that introduces Tanguy (Anaël Snoek), a hermaphroditic castaway boasting one developed feminine breast and an intact male member, a female narrator introduces the tale of “Tanguy and the wild boys.”
With one of the film’s many toggles between black-and-white and color imagery, we are at the beginning of that tale, a scene that fairly brims with cruel pubescent energy. We re-encounter Tanguy in the company of four schoolmates, wearing leering, dead-eyed papier-mâché masks and matching suspendered schoolboy outfits that not-coincidentally recall Alex and his Droogs. Identified as a gang of would-be actors, “rich, defiant, uninhibited, and in love with their literature teacher,” they have an awfully strange way of expressing that love, seen giving a spirited reading from Macbeth with the object of their affections (Nathalie Richard), before the role-play goes suddenly wrong. United in thrall to a homicidal trance under the influence of an external being they refer to only as “Trevor”—the evocation of the name brings with it a glimpse of a lapidary costume jewelry mask floating against a field of India ink black—they lash their middle-aged instructor, nude, to the back of a white steed, splash her with a circle jerk fountain of spilt semen, and send her galloping to the grave.
The setting is the Isle of Bourbon, the present-day Réunion, east of Madagascar, sometime around the turn of the last century—but perhaps more to the point, the film lays its scene in the perpetual present of vicious youth. As in the Clockworks of Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick, the skate parks of Larry Clark, or the clubhouse fiefdom of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the innocence and raw energy of adolescence here is unhampered by morality, with all the potential for savagery that that implies. Tanguy and his beardless boy friends, Romuold (Pauline Lorillard), Hubert (Diane Rouxel), Sloane (Mathilde Warnier), and Jean-Louis (Vimala Pons), stand trial for their transgressions, and while escaping imprisonment, they are served with another, novel punishment. They are given over to a hulking Dutchman called only the Captain (Sam Louwyck), a dedicated disciplinarian of at-risk youth who specializes in taking disobedient boys out to sea and bringing them back—if he does bring them back alive, something his program doesn’t guarantee—as docile model citizens, like the frizzy-haired teen rapist he’s introduced leading about on a leash, trained to sing for company with a castrati’s soprano lilt.
From here The Wild Boys plunges into the unknown, firstly aboard the Captain’s vessel, then on that distant isle, identified as the Île des Robes (“Isle of Dresses”), where we first encountered Tanguy. But though the film takes place largely in plein air and in real locations, this doesn’t mean that it has much truck with the naturalistic. Artifice and excess seep into nearly every scene, in style, performance, subject matter, setting or, often, a combination of all three. In the courtroom, Mandico uses rear projection in order to make the prosecuting magistrate stalking behind them loom ever larger until he looms titanic, even as the camera pulls back to reveal in the foreground two “statues,” bronzed actors nude but for scanty leaf loincloths, standing stock-still. Later we’ll encounter an even stranger outsized symbol of adult male mastery, the Captain’s massive, freely brandished cock, a tattooed hunk of rubbery flesh that looks like a dead, ink-dotted moray eel. A maximalist to the core, Mandico has a natural enmity towards both an inactive camera and empty screen space, and when he isn’t stuffing the frame to bursting with whorls of fog, fleecy feathers, thickets of exotic foliage, bits of rigging, and the glisten of paillettes, seawater spray, or paralyzing sap, he takes pleasure in setting images within images: a fist glittering with jewelry clenching a revolver, for example, framed by the outline of the mountainous Île des Robes. A tempting point of reference might be Guy Maddin, and while this gets at the clearly concocted nature of Mandico’s movie, his inspirations are more libidinal than film-historical—one might catch a whiff of James Bidgood’s hothouse Pink Narcissus (1971) in the delirious color passages that punctuate and pierce the film.
The most obvious of Mandico’s stylistic gambits is that switching between monochrome and color footage, the motivation for the changes as difficult to pin down as the film’s other polar back-and-forth, passing the storytelling baton between a male narrator (Tanguy) and an unidentified, omniscient female voice (Lola Créton). The shuffling together of contrasted formats is just one boundary the film collapses—it is a hotchpotch work, as implied by the early invocation of Macbeth’s witch’s brew recipe. With the appearance, very early on, of a canine apparition wearing the face of the Captain, an anthropomorphic nightmare image, it is evident the separation between man and lower animal life is not so distinct in this world. Animal and vegetable matter likewise are confused: once in the custody of the Captain, the boys’ diet consists exclusively of scrotal fruits, replete with coarse pubic covering. Arrived on the island, they take nutriment fellating phallic outgrowths on a native plant that excretes a gooey white nectar, and take connubial pleasure from laying with vegetative partners who willingly part mossy thighs for them.
These indulgences, it transpires, are key to the Captain’s rehabilitation plan, a sort of semester-at-sea Ludovico treatment whose crucial ingredient is exposure to the hormone-altering plant life on the island, meant to dilute laddish rowdiness with a tincture of the milk of human kindness—to make men of them by, ever-so-slightly, making women of them. This finely tuned recipe gets mucked up, however, when the kids, rather than returning to shipboard life, mutiny and head back ashore for more. As they glut themselves on the tropical bounty, the film crosses one final barrier—those who live in fear of spoilers should read no further—that of gender. Under the mysterious influence of the isle, the boys grow gradually effeminized, developing breasts and then, finally, shedding their useless male genitalia. The principal roles, as a keen reader may have noticed, are in fact played by young women in drag, and as the boys linger on the island, the feminine figures that have been hidden beneath their schoolboy attire become increasingly evident, and are finally bared to the equatorial sun. (In its vision of gender-bending evolution set against a backdrop of the primordial sea, The Wild Boys shares more than a little with 2018’s Diamantino, by Daniel Schmidt and another short form partisan, Gabriel Abrantes.)
Everything, it seems, is malleable in the world of Mandico’s film—and along with a sort of cavalier awfulness encouraged by raging hormones, an indeterminate malleability is one of the key features of the transformative period of adolescence, defined by its very absence of definition. The Wild Boys finds something both terrible and exhilarating in the indeterminate quality of youthfulness, of that period that the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz exhorted, typifying as the “green,” or not quite ripe. The possible influence of Gombrowicz may be detected in Mandico’s movie, with its indelible image of marauding boys in menacing masks—a key symbol of societal imposition in Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke—while Mandico has been outspoken in his adulation of another expatriate Pole, Walerian Borowczyk, an innovative animator-cum-pornographer/fantasist. Borowczyk is even the subject of one of Mandico’s best-known shorts, the 2011 bizarro biopic Boro in the Box, in which Mandico’s frequent creative partner, the Romanian actress Elina Löwensohn (who appears in The Wild Boys as an associate of the Captain’s) provides a distinctly feminine voice for “Borowcyzk,” depicted as a crudely constructed camera-obscura-like wooden box with a single aperture.
Mandico, like Borowczyk, began his career as an animator, studying at École de l’image Gobelins, and the anarchic influence of the Immoral Tales filmmaker may be found in Mandico’s live-action works’ commitment to the transgression of boundaries and upending of hierarchies: both depict a sexuality that does not limit itself to homo sapiens objects of desire, and both confuse and complicate the traditional relationships and visual priority between animate and inanimate objects—recall those stripped “statues” in the courtroom. Distinct to Mandico is perhaps his particular interest in what writer Henri de Corinth, describing Mandico’s films, calls “intersex objects”—years before the miraculous transformations of The Wild Boys, he had Löwensohn play a man who unexpectedly develops breasts in Souvenirs d’un montreur de seins (2014)—though his filmography suggests other artistic precedents for this predilection, in particular the subject of his 2010 short The Life and Death of Henry Darger, concerning the Chicago custodian and outsider artist who depicted his cherubic, unclothed Vivian Girls as transgendered, either/or entities.
The defiance of definitions on display in The Wild Boys has, in fact, been defined quite precisely by Mandico—the eighth of the twelve points in his 2012 “Incoherence Manifesto,” a sort of filmmaking operations manual that Mandico co-signed with Katrín Ólafsdóttir, asserts that “Films must be hybrids containing at least two genres.” (The Wild Boys, to take one example, contains a dash of juvenile delinquent drama, a splash of 1930s jungle movie, and more than a soupçon of softcore.) Other points in the checklist call for the use of in-camera special effects and expired film stock, the banishment of any “realistic effect,” and “a deep and fragile cinematography.” The exact meaning of this is anyone’s guess, but it can be said that The Wild Boys, shot in Super 16 with a palpable grain to match the black sand of the Île des Robes, is a delicious, visually hedonistic piece of work.
Mandico is an artist aiming to overwhelm, and his fondness for grand-gesture manifestos—earlier this year he co-signed another, titled “FLAMME,” in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma—belies a taste for publicity, though most everything else about his practice seems designed to place and keep him at the margins of even the already marginalized festival and “art” film scene. He swears fealty to outsider masters like Borowczyk and Darger, and has toiled for years in a short and moyen métrage (medium-length) mode that defies traditional methods of commercial distribution and exhibition. But this had begun to change even before the full-length leap of The Wild Boys—in France his shorts Prehistoric Cabaret (2013), Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante?, and Our Lady of the Hormones (both 2015) have been packaged together to tour cinemas under the title Hormona. This dedicated refugee from contemporary film culture has been discovered by that very culture—maybe it’s not coincidental that his debut feature ends with rapacious outlanders dropping anchor on the heretofore uncharted and unspoiled Île des Robes, bringing with them the opportunity of a passage back to civilization for the boys-become-women. A fuchsia dawn greets their new adventure, an invitation to a bright and uncertain future. Where do they go from here? Where does Mandico? All we know is the delirium of the journey, no sentimental education or passage into adult wisdom—though that was never, precisely, the point—but a transformation all the same.