NATURE MORTE: French – translation – STILL LIFE – noun: A representation chiefly of inanimate objects, as a painting.
How many films demand your attention? How many films necessitate a voyeuristic gaze on details so fine that they’re nearly transparent? How many low-budget digital productions go traipsing through two continents filled with sado-masochistic imagery, sapphic seduction and hard-boiled intrigue to solve a gruesome murder mystery? NATURE MORTE redefines the word elaborate bending what could have been a simple thriller into a complex “who done it” where every answer leaves more questions than could ever possibly be revealed.
Oliver Davenport (Troy McFadden) is an author and art expert who has just finished a book on notorious serial killer John Stephensen (Romain Roll). Stephensen murdered ten people; painting portraits of each of the deceased embellished in their blood. As Devenport prepares for the publishing, he is approached by the French police and informed that they have acquired a new painting and that it has been authenticated as an original Stephensen work. Now, Davenport will travel from France to Thailand and back to London trying to determine if John Stephensen is alive, dead, or not truly the brutal psychopath everyone believed him to be.
British Filmmaker Paul Burrows debut feature NATURE MORTE declares in its tagline the promise of “Art, Sex, Death, Love”. This parade of associations not only describes the underlying principals at work in the film, it defines the film as a new entry into the long and inglorious lexicon of Eurosleaze epics.
Burrows art is a retro-masterpiece hung proudly on the cinematic walls of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. In so many ways NATURE MORTE wears its homage sharply on its sleeve—pot-boiling everything from 1940’s film noir and 1960’s Hammer Films to the rash of French and Spanish trash operas of the 1970’s into a stew of garish imagery and old world charm. Amazingly, for a film that is so deeply entrenched in the past, Burrows film feels every bit of the digital revolution. In fact, Burrows film far exceeds the recent forays of Franco (SNAKEWOMAN) in terms of using digital filmmaking to tell new tales. Much of that success is attributed to two key factors:
First, Burrows film is wildly ambitious, filming in the UK, France and Thailand. Most digital mavericks, even Franco of late, tend to set their films in singular locations to save on the cost of moving a crew around. Burrows treks 6,000 miles to tell his tale, taking the film from the gothic late-night streets of London to the sun drenched shores of Ladang Geta, Thailand.
The second and most important factor is the cinematography by Ryan Godard (Thailand) and Gwynn Clark (London). Rarely, if ever, do ultra-low-budget filmmakers manage to make the blacks and whites of their color films so absolute. At times the noirish flares were so stark that the film felt as if it were a series of silver gelatin prints compiled and photographed with a master’s eye. The difference between de-saturation and over-saturation in the varying set pieces also emphasizes the artistic design of the film—an aspect that never wavers even as the story moves all over the map. And, therein lies the challenge of NATURE MORTE. While the film is gorgeous and visually stimulating, it is intellectually disconnected and dense. It’s vague in a manner that would make David Lynch uneasy. The ending is open for an interpretation that absolutely makes you question the film that you just finished viewing even as it tries to tell you who did it. It demands your attention and never offers easy answers. If you’re thinking about leaving the room, sipping your soda or eating a bag of kettle corn, consider this, averting your gaze to something as simple as your alarm clock may leave you irretrievable lost in Burrows surrealistically sapphic nightmare world—trapped in the beauty of the image but missing a key moment necessary to clue you into the plot.
Paul Burrows has crafted a film that in turns will marginalize its viewing audience and divide them. There are those that absolutely worship the production and those that simply damn it as incoherent and self-aggrandizing. For my money, I see Burrows as the microbudget amalgamation of Jean Rollin and Georges Seurat—obsessed by beauty an death, as Burrows film moves from inception to conclusion we are taken further and further from the details of the story. It’s only at a distance that we can see the film as whole and not just a series of multi-colored celluloid dots. NATURE MORTE will stay with you for days and it’s that kind of perspective and distance that the movie requires for you to truly appreciate it as art.