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Human Flowers of Flesh – first-look review

There’s something wholly intoxicating and immersive to German filmmaker Helena Wittman’s awesomely-named second feature, Human Flowers of Flesh – a towering, teetering and exquisitely-wrought puzzle box whose every shot invites the viewer to play a game of cool subtextual interpretation.

And if that sounds like arduous work, it really isn’t, as there’s implicit drama that emanates from the edits, the framings and the mussy texture of the (mostly) 16mm images, where the form itself is integral to any meaning you might glean. It’s a film which asks the question: what am I? Can you guess? And in its slowburn and gorgeously opaque narrative, one which is powered as much by literary, political, geographical and biological digression as it is the unspoken desires of its core cast, you can transpose the feelings and ideas that fit the best, and then work from there. To each, this is a personal journey of mind, body and soul.

As it’s such a tough one to describe, I’d say it’s a bit like German experimental filmmaker Angela Schanelec remaking the 2003 seafaring epic, Master and Commander, in that it is set primarily on a boat which is sailing from Marseille to Corsica in the name of an ethereal and intuitive expedition instigated by unsmiling ship’s captain Ida (Angeliki Papoulia).

She oversees a crew of men, some surly, some wide-eyed, each from a different country across the globe. Most if not all of the few dialogue scenes in the film are delivered in a different language – and in some cases, multiple at the same time.

Despite an interest in studying and preserving the collected flora and fauna of the glistening Mediterranean, Ida charts a course for one-time French Legionnaire headquarters Sidi-Bel-Abbes in Algeria upon happening across a base and hearing the siren chant of a marching song. What actually drives her mission remains unspoken, even among her crew. Yet as with the arc of the film itself, she is pulled by the natural magnetism of adventure and discovery. As much as Human Flowers of Flesh presents itself as an art film, it also deconstructs and dismantles the conventions of the seafaring epic, not least the inherent claustrophobia and interior reflection that comes from wide-open spaces.

In between the spartan exchanges and enthused poetry readings by the crew, Wittman leans on sun-bleached atmospherics, and her primal images and percussive sound design capture the eerie tranquillity of life on a schooner. Wittman (who also worked as cinematographer on the film) intersperses the “action” with a series of emotionally enervating and hypnotic shots of the sea and waves lapping against the shore, lulling us back and forth into a dreamstate befitting of this strange voyage. There’s something of an anti-precision to her framing, where everything is just a tiny bit off, where you have to work to understand what you’re looking at and why – it all feeds into Wittman’s minutely-calibrated and all-enveloping cinematic challenge.

At various points, there are references to the colonial-questioning works of Claire Denis (quite a literal and fulsome nod to be honest) and the layered and temporally-exploded literary and film output of Marguerite Duras (her 1952 novel, ‘The Sailor from Gibraltar’ is quoted). It’s hard to know whether these are straight-up homages, or lighthouses on the coastline to illuminate our paths. Though considering the film’s immersive continuum of images and ideas, it’s likely going to be the latter.

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