By Aaron AuBuchon
Writing about films helps me remember them, as the details of so many evaporate quickly after the credits roll. I found Carcinoma to be a lot of things, but none of them was easily forgettable. In fact I’d imagine it sometimes leaves viewers in its wake wishing they had a tool that would let them gouge out the parts of their brain that makes memories. But though I’m writing this with the intention of it being read, I’m not really writing this for you, dear reader. I’m writing this for me, so that I can work out the complex series of emotions I have been feeling in the face of the ongoing replay of sound and image from this film in the theater of my mind. Oddly, one word keeps cropping up when I examine how I felt about it: transcendent.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is an ugly, disgusting film; but I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might already know that. One doesn’t usually stumble into director Marian Dora’s work accidentally while innocently searching for lighthearted family comedies. Dora is know for confrontational work, and while I can’t judge the rest of his oeuvre (this is my first time visiting his dark, painful, poopy world), this one’s pretty confrontational.
I purposefully didn’t say “extreme,” because while it certainly is extreme, that word carries such a heavy cultural burden that it almost collapses under its own weight. Edgelords beware: this is not the “extreme” you’re looking for. When I say it’s confrontational, I mean that it seems to confront some of the most basic human ideas about embodiment: what does it mean to have a body, and what does it mean to be mortal? How do we factor sense pleasures into a bodily experience that is unpredictable, into a body that will eventually wither and that will invariably experience agony? What do we do when we find out that dignity is an illusion that only holds if circumstance and luck hold as well?
I have read a number of plot and story synopses about Carcinoma, but none really capture its essence any more than one could capture the essence of being punched in the mouth by quoting the conversation that led up to it or carefully describing the room in which one was punched. But, since you may have landed here innocently, having never heard of the film, I’ll tell you briefly what it’s about: a man is diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and pretends it’s no big deal, delaying treatment until the cancer has spread to his entire digestive system and has grown outside of his body as well. The film details his attempt to alternately ignore/ incorporate the tumor into his zany sexual escapades, either with his self-absorbed wife or later on his own. Over the course of the film, we see him do quite a lot of shitting, and then (spoiler alert?) he dies in a puddle of his own shit and blood.
But, critically, the experience of Carcinoma isn’t to be found in the story, at least not directly. Instead, the power can be found it its implications- both for how we individually live in our human bodies and about how our society views how we live inside them. Because Carcinoma manages to mingle the usually unthinking embrace of sensual pleasures with our very focused horror concerning co-located bodily functions, the details of which we repress personally and culturally. It blurs the boundaries (which might be illusory anyway, as it points out) between “healthy” and “sick” bodies. It asks us to examine why we might find one thing alluring and another abhorrent, while mostly confronting us with sounds and images that fall into the latter category.
Unlike many other films in the “extreme” category, this one manages to space out the horror and disgust by inserting gorgeous banalities, poignant irritations, and meaningful gaps where literally nothing happens. It has an emotional pace that allows the viewer to recover from the horrific images, take stock of what just happened, and, if they’re sensitive at all, prepare for the worst. Because it’s coming.
A warning: this film contains the death of real animals. I have an uncompromising position about this: any director who kills or tortures an animal to make their metaphor work deserves a punch in the face. Some directors deserve having several of their teeth knocked out for what they do to animals (I’m looking at you, Deodato), but here Dora simply films some rodents being fed to a snake. So maybe Dora can keep his teeth (at least in this case- I’ve read about what he’s done in other films that might earn him even more than a few teeth knocked out), but he still deserves a punch, and the audience deserves to know about this content so that they can avoid the film entirely if they’d prefer not to embark on that voyage. That said, and I never thought I’d say this: the rodent (some have called it a bunny and maybe it is, but it sure seems to have a rat-like tail) taking his last breath really is strangely poignant. Of the thousands of critters that are fed to snakes every year, I doubt any has also managed to have their death telegraph something meaningful to humans. Not that it matters to the rat/bunny being squeezed to death to make that point one bit, but there it is. Like everything else associated with this film, I am walking around with very complicated feelings about this.
Earlier I mentioned transcendence, and that could confuse people who watch this dark, uncompromising and intensely scatological film with its agonized ending and (understandably) see the movie as the exact opposite of transcendent. In fact, it seems to sort of wallow in the world’s shit and then die there. It can be read as a very pessimistic film, but the more I reflect on it, I didn’t come away from it feeling pessimistic at all. Instead, it strikes me that the decisions made by the main character are where the agony in this originates; and the point I took away from it is that we have a free will to see the world differently and to act differently. Nothing is presented in the film as initially inevitable; but denial creates inevitability, with its attendant agony and finality. His world is presented as dark and uncompromising, but I think that this is because of who we’re following; it’s not the world that’s wallowing in darkness, it’s the character(s). And the cinematography and editing, which help make this point (and were also done by Dora, making this one of the most honest-to-god auteurist films I’ve ever seen), are gorgeous to behold, even if what’s being shot and edited isn’t.
Author and podcaster S.A. Bradley talks about the concept of “horrible/beautiful” in his podcast Hellbent for Horror and defines the term in his book Screaming for Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy:
When an image is horrible/beautiful, it is disturbing, brutal, even repulsive, but it also taps into something that makes you keep looking. Maybe you look in disbelief. Maybe you look out of morbid fascination. Perhaps what you see is so rare and so unusual that it has a weird beauty.Bradley, S.A.. Screaming for Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy (pp. 22-23). Coal Cracker Press. Kindle Edition.
This film is horrible/beautiful personified… at least for me. Perhaps the latter won’t be obvious to everyone, thanks to the often-unrelenting nature of the former. But to those with the orientation to it, you might find yourself lightened by its weight and darkness. Paradoxical but possible- I know, because that’s what it did for me.