ON REGION ‘A’ BLU-RAY, DVD and DIGITAL PLATFORMS: NOW, from SEVERIN FILMS
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Bernard is a music conductor who’s mentally unstable. As he wonders around town with the head of a Saint Bernard dog in a bag, he retraces events from his life and tries to work out what led to his condition….
When our webmistress Bat offered us a screener of something called Saint Bernard, I distinctly remembered hearing about a film several years ago that was a headf*** trip inside the head of a crazy orchestra conductor, a film that didn’t seem to get properly released. However, I assumed that this was a different Saint Bernard, presumably about – well – a Saint Bernard that was hopefully very dangerous indeed. I have a weakness for killer animal flicks you see, especially if the animal is man’s best friend. Well, there is a Saint Bernard in this film, kind of – it’s found as roadkill by our main protagonist who’s called Bernard [what else], and who picks up its head and carries it down the road, after a while grabbing a bag from what seems like the sky [yes, I’m warning you already that it’s that kind of movie] to put it in. From here on, he just won’t part with it. When a woman dressed as a prehistoric person grabs it, he won’t let her have it even though she’s just given him no strings attached sex. Then she’s ran over by a lorry driven by a no-legged man, and her own legs are 90% severed. The driver pours a load of salt over the gore and then buggers off. Just a bit of surreal madness and savagery maybe, in the Alejandro Jodorowsky vein though seemingly without any real meaning – but what the driver says is interesting for at least two reasons. “One hand on your cellphone, one on your lipstick”. It’s a typical but well warranted jab at those folk today who are so preoccupied with their phones that they don’t know what the hell’s going on around them. But it also tells us what has really happened, without taking us away from the viewpoint of Bernard, a person who continually sees things which aren’t really there. Some woman was walking across the road, and was too preoccupied with her phone and lipstick to notice the van speeding towards her.
The fact that I’ve even mentioned the name of the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a true artist who I consider to be an absolute genius but also somebody who I admire so much as a person, in conjunction with this movie, should suggest how much I admired it, but hopefully it’ll also warn you that it’s just about as far from the commercial mainstream as you can today and yet still get your film released. This is not a film to watch to relax to. It certainly has a premise which will interest many and which could have been handled very differently – an extremely disturbed man tries to work out why he is that way. But the way Saint Bernard is done, it doesn’t function as a proper narrative at all, consisting more of a series of seemingly random happenings that on the surface make little sense. I can see some viewers giving up after 15 minutes. However, if you’re the type who, for example, cheered whilst watching Holy Motors, excited and thrilled by the fact that people were still making films like this, films designed to screw with your head and not make it easy as to what it was all about – then Saint Bernard will be very much up your alley. Saying that, its dreamlike – no, positively nightmarish – approach all but conceals the fact that – actually – Saint Bernard is actually about something, unless I’m completely barking up the wrong tree. It’s crammed full of bizarre goings-ons, some of which I couldn’t connect with the film’s main theme at all, but it seems to me to be largely about trauma, and a particular kind of trauma. It’s about one poor guy desperately trying to reach into his past to make sense of the present, and to work out why he’s so awfully, terribly screwed up. I found it rather moving – but then I’m the kind of guy who is moved by Eraserhead, who finds Santa Sangre to be so incredibly sad and touching. By now, you’ll know if you’re going to be game for this film or not. Me personally, there are times when I like nothing better than this sort of thing – and then the next day I’ll watch Commando for the 100th time.
We open with a chicken’s carcass about to take a skydive, before an incredibly effective main title sequence that begins with pages of music and then evolves into a series of other details that, as I think about it [there’s a lot to think about in this film, yet you can just let the madness wash over you if you want instead], might be telling the story of the childhood of Bernard, a childhood full of promise but tragically ruined. Bernard is seen running down a street before breaking into a room in which he sits, clutching his doggy bag in terror, while as narrator he tells us: “oh man, it didn’t used to be this way, life used to be pure and simple”. It’s as if he was able to live a ‘normal’ life for a while until something snapped. The first of many brief flashbacks to his childhood appears. Bernard had an ability to make musical sense of sounds, and was able to turn this talent into being a youthful music conductor. However, the adult Bernard is now a complete and utter mess. After waking up with loads of alarm clocks stuck to his head, he wonders around a town, which sometimes seems to be Los Angeles, and sometimes Paris, struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs which may clue some viewers in as to what has caused all this. In one scene, he walks through a landscape of rubble, which could very well be the rubble of his life, seeing as it’s full of bottles, pipes, pills and so forth. There’s a wooden frame leading down the middle, and Bernard walks across it like a tightrope walker, showing how precarious his life is.
Bernard, who has repressed something horrifying, doesn’t see the world like we do. Rather, he sees it as a very young child would: larger than life, confusing, frightening. That idea serves as a springboard for a non-stop series of crazy happenings. As I hope I’ve already shown, many of these relate to Bernard’s life and/or serve as steps in his journey to find an answer to his state. Others are just simply childish, such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln playing American football [though without a ball!], and a cartoon-like living turd character named Static Boy who farts and poos on the ground. The latter turns up at a particularly interesting point – when Bernard is about to ‘make it’ with this cave woman, showing how hard it is for him to handle one important aspect of adult life. One can chuckle at, for example, the clumps of barbershop hair that have gathered and entwined themselves into stick figures stalking the streets, but there’s a real dark feel to much of what we see, like a rather Kafka-esque bit at a police station where a boy stamps ‘guilty’ on every form that comes across his desk. There’s mess everywhere, things all over the place are constructed from everyday objects. It’s like being in the world of Def-Con 4 [recently reviewed] all over again. Sometimes I failed to see the symbolism in particular things. The emphasis on wood, which is everywhere, from a structure trapping Bernard to a baby carriage entirely constructed from the stuff, is puzzling. All I can think of is that wood is something that you can make so much out of, which I guess relates obliquely. But the final confrontation between Bernard and a person who turns into a werewolf with musical instruments forming parts of his body should be easy to interpret for most.
Technically things are mixed. A good example is said climactic scene. It features very fine practical effects, but many shots are too dark for you to see much. Maybe this was done to conceal any seams in the effects, but what we’re supposed to be seeing [which clearly bares the influence of Tetsuo] is hardly something you see everyday so realism isn’t really an issue, and things are made more irritating by very random camera movement which is dizzying without enhancing the scene at all – though thankfully its power is still strong. But the effects are mostly very good, despite an odd bit when a maggot with Bernard’s head is first seen in very primitive cartoon form, while the occasional CG addition sticks out like a sore thumb. Overall it’s still a fine showcase for director Gabriel Bartalos. He may not be a name familiar to casual horror lovers, and seems to work mainly on low profile projects these days, but real fans will probably know him for his effects contributions to several Frank Henenlotter films, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Gremlins 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Dolls [a real creepy favourite of mine] – not to mention some Matthew Barney art projects and Leprechaun – which may partly explain why no less than Warwick Davis turns up in this film, sitting atop a large pile of wood! I haven’t seen his other directorial effort, 2004’s Skinned Deep, but I’m now going to very soon and you’ll probably have a review of it to read at some point. I wish that he didn’t resort to ‘shakycam’ so much – sometimes it causes shots to be out of focus – but Saint Bernard certainly reveals a real knack for atmosphere and mood, things enhanced by the incredible sound design that really makes the viewer feel like he or she could also be very very disturbed!
The acting is mostly over the top and cartoonish, though that’s kind of appropriate, while all Jason Dugre as Bernard has to do is stare and look miserable, not really being required to do much more. I personally could have done with him showing a bit more emotion, but this doesn’t actively hamper proceedings. But in the end I was affected enough. Saint Bernard is an unhappy film, full of pain, suffering and anger, but also an admirably uncompromising one – and kind of brilliant in its own way despite some filming roughness which you can probably put down to the low budget. After making a brief appearance at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival, in Spain, it then failed to travel any further, something that must have been a great blow to Bartalos seeing as I feel this was a real personal project for him in which he invested a lot of himself. It’s taken six years for it to be released for home viewing, and at the time of writing this is only in North America, though the Blu-ray is region free. Despite us all supposedly being more closely connected, times are actually harder than ever for movies like this. But I feel that a UK release [any distributor reading this?] will find its audience. I’ll bet my entire DVD and Blu-ray collection [which is huge] that old Alejandro, if he’s seen it, flipping loves it.
BLU-RAY AND DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
*The Making of Saint Bernard
*Limited Edition Slipcover [Blu-ray only]