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Across three feature films—2017’s “The Wild Boys,” 2021’s “After Blue (Dirty Paradise),” and now “She Is Conann”—French filmmaker Bertrand Mandico has proven his artistic devotion to three things: Poetic dialogue, iconoclastic gender-bending, and glitter. With “She Is Conann,” the writer-director reinforces this fantastical architecture with a clear, propulsive story arc, and the result is his best work to date.
It’s a simple arc, but that’s all you need when there’s so much else going on. The film traces the life and loves of barbarian queen Conann, from the moment she’s thrust into a life of violence at age 15 (Claire Duburcq) up through her ascension as an aged matriarch. Every 10 years, she enters a new phase in her life, each played by a new actor: At 25, she’s a braggadocious warrior (Christa Théret); at 35, a love-drunk stuntwoman (Sandra Parfait) flung through time to a soundstage version of the Bronx circa 1998. 45 (Agata Buzek) is her most sinister, Nazi-coded age, while 55 (Nathalie Richard) brings the movie to its grotesquely tongue-in-cheek climax.
Throughout Conann’s multiple incarnations, one character stays consistent. Rainer (Elina Löwensohn)—a tribute to Fassbinder? Wouldn’t be surprising—is a perverse dog-faced oracle in a studded leather jacket who follows Conann all of her life, documenting her with his Instamatic camera and delivering some of the film’s juiciest lines. (“Blessed are the necrophiles, never betrayed by their love,” he remarks, surveying a pile of corpses left in warrior Conann’s wake.) Rainier serves as narrator, taskmaster, and all the Christmas ghosts wrapped up into one, reminding Conann of her commitment to barbarism (i.e., hatred and violence) and making sure she evolves when she needs to—even when she wants to stay still.
In this film, “barbarism” is a female trait. Rainer is the film’s only major male character, and he’s played by a woman, Mandico regular Löwensohn. So it follows that the film’s free-flowing sexuality is Sapphic in nature: One of Conann’s phases is dominated by her all-consuming love affair with Sanja (Julia Riedler), name slightly altered but still red. Beyond the textual lesbianism, however, “Conann” is more broadly queer-coded. There’s the glitter, of course, and all of the tall, sculpted women with broadswords. But the rough edges on the film’s fantasy aesthetic—it’s elevated above DIY, but not quite studio-level polished—also lend it an outsider feel that places it in the firmament of queer art.
The production design, by Anna Le Mouël—a first-time collaborator with Mandico who also worked on “Saint Omer” and “Orlando: My Political Biography”—goes through phases as well. Early scenes are full of long, tangled hair, gorilla-like fursuits, and ragged fake snow, while Conann and Sanja’s NYC apartment epitomizes the “cocaine decor” look. The cinematography is also changeable, switching from black-and-white to color when Mandico and Nicolas Eveilleau—who’s worked with Mandico for years, but steps into the cinematographer role here—deem it appropriate.
“She Is Conann” is also surprisingly gory, in a pointedly stylized way. The film takes the whole “barbarism” thing very seriously, splitting corpses in half and reaching into their sockets to pull out bloody, beating hearts to snack on. Although it’s a diversion from the main storyline, the film takes a welcome detour into self-reflexive satire towards the end, with an extended scene where a group of artists is given a choice between cannibalism and poverty. The meal they’re offered is disgusting even in black-and-white—the “corpse” looks like it’s made out of barbacoa and tinned ham with olives—and even grosser in color. But boy, do they look good eating it.
Mandico’s always had a strong sense of style, and the consistency with which his vision translates across multiple films and crews suggests a strong authorial hand. It’s not the most narrative- or character-driven vision; even here, the actors are largely props, like the set dressing that surrounds them. But there’s something about the savagery of “Conann” that’s freed the director to really go there, birthing a ferocious, fabulous Athena out of his splitting forehead.
Elina Löwensohn as Rainer
Julia Riedler as Sanja La Rouge
Claire Duburcq as Conann 15 ans
Christa Théret as Conann 25 ans
Sandra Parfait as Conann 35 ans
Agata Buzek as Conann 45 ans
Nathalie Richard as Conann 55 ans
Françoise Brion as Conann Reine
Christophe Bier as Octavia
Karoline Rose Sun as Ultra Lux
Audrey Bonnet as Cimère
Holly-Rose Clegg as Uma Porn