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Two in the bush

A slasher flick with a French twist, plus the bird man of San Francisco


There's a story I heard long ago about a particularly outrageous circus sideshow attraction. I don't remember the promised spectacle, but in any event, what happens is that ticket-buyers are let in one at a time to see the fantastical attraction. Upon seeing it, and realizing they've been suckered, the patrons walk out wearing mysterious smiles and don't utter a word of warning to those still in line.

This is how I feel about High Tension, the slasher movie that opened last Friday. While I won't give away the particulars of the ending, the film's final revelations made me feel like one pissed-off sucker, and I feel compelled to offer this word of warning. My bruised feelings are unfortunate, because I certainly found myself wanting High Tension to be good, for it's no ordinary ax-murderer movie. For one thing, it's a French ax-murderer movie. And for another, it's a lesbian ax-murderer movie.

The star of the film is the lithe and wonderfully-named beauty Cécile de France. De France has a close-cropped, Jean Seberg haircut for her role, and though she doesn't appear to be the most versatile of actresses, she looks great in a part that consists of little dialogue and many looks of sexual yearning, abject terror and "you go" determination.

De France, who appeared as one of the multicult denizens of L'Auberge Espagnole from 2002, here plays Marie, a young student who travels with her friend Alex, the decidedly hetero object of her desire, to visit Alex's family in the southern French countryside. The early minutes of this brisk flick, which clocks in at about 85 minutes, establish the unbalanced relationship of the two women, with a frustrated Marie finally calling Alex a "slut." Things begin to go haywire at the tranquil country house after Marie inadvertently spies on Alex taking a shower. As fans of teen slash know, no illicit sexual desire goes unpunished--and sure enough, as Marie masturbates in bed, the ax-murderer shows up. In a scene reminiscent of In Cold Blood, a baseball-cap wearing handyman proceeds to hack up the sleeping farm family and kidnap Alex, while Marie eludes his attention and stows away on the truck. (Those who have endured the work of French art-terrorist Gaspar Noé will recognize the killer as the actor Philippe Nahon, who appeared in similar roles in I Stand Alone and Irreversible. )

What follows is a not-bad thriller, though only a scene of Marie hiding in a men's bathroom truly qualifies as a white-knuckle moment. De France, rather expressionless in the early going, becomes a knockout action heroine as she resolves to save her damsel from ax-borne depredation. In the end, it's the intensity of her performance and the depth of her feelings for the (rather undeserving) Alex that propels this film forward. The sympathy we feel for Marie comes in welcome contrast to the usual slasher flicks, in which the assorted frat boys and dumb blondes function as no more than blade fodder, and the heroine is--now notoriously--signified merely by her sexual restraint.

The strengths of High Tension derive from its director Alexandre Aja's appreciation of the golden, drive-in age of horror, typified by the work of Craven and Carpenter. Aja isn't yet 30, but he's sufficiently impressed Hollywood with this film that he's been given the keys to an upcoming remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Despite his obvious and studied fondness for 1970s Americana, Aja has made a film that is weirdly bi-cultural. With his film's mise en scéne of lonesome two-lane roads and desolate rural gas stations, High Tension also retains the flavor of such European road thrillers as The Vanishing and Red Lights.

The dialogue is mostly dubbed but, oddly, subtitles pop up from time to time. According to the film's press notes, the film's distributor Lions Gate wanted to dub the entire film to avoid alienating the core teen market for this film. When the dubbing proved to dilute the film's sound design, however, a compromise was reached in which the subtitling takes over during the largely dialogue-free second half. By this time, of course, audiences ideally would be so invested in the story that they won't care, or even notice, that they're reading the dialogue.

Even if High Tension is deeply flawed, it remains a quite watchable thriller and one that brings a welcome breath of French sexual sophistication to a mostly American genre. High Tension nearly succeeds in living up to its title, and thanks to the strength of de France's performance, the film's utterly awful ending doesn't completely sour us on the experience.

A new documentary that couldn't be more different from the engaging but slight Mad Hot Ballroom opens this Friday. While the kiddie dancers of Marilyn Agrelo's dance competition film are indeed charming, the film is less interested in their interior lives than it is in giving us ready-made inspiration. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a different animal altogether, a film about a gentle and seemingly unremarkable man who has drifted his life away on unrealized musical ambitions. But when the middle-aged and homeless Mark Bittner begins tending a flock of wild parrots in one of San Francisco's more alpine neighborhoods, he finds a key to the rest of his life.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is one of those magical films that seems discovered and nourished, rather than planned and executed. It manages to be tenderly sentimental yet resolutely wide-eyed in the face of nature's implacable ruthlessness. Life, death and rebirth are the subjects of veteran nature photographer Judy Irving's instant classic, which bears more resemblance to West Coast hippie literature and the Buddhist-inflected films of Asia (such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring) than anything produced in America in recent memory--which includes the ineffable but surprisingly popular I Heart Huckabees. It is also an intimate, marvelously-photographed bird movie that answers the most frequent criticism leveled at Winged Migration. Unlike that celebrated avian flick, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has engaging human and non-human characters and a story that has a beginning, middle and end.

But for all of its beauty and the agreeable Zen-beatnik outlook of Bittner, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is most emphatically not a warm bath in gauzy naturalism. Life is fragile, both for humans and birds alike. While Bittner freely acknowledges the risk of anthropomorphizing the birds--natives to South America who seem to have escaped California captivity two decades ago--his intense involvement is unavoidable. His favorite bird is Connor, an outcast in a flock of cherry-headed conures because he is a lonely representative of a subspecies of blue-crowned conures. Shunned by the other birds and mateless for years, Connor nonetheless exhibits kindnesses to weaker and smaller birds that are being bullied. As Bittner describes the bird and we look at Irving's gorgeous 16mm images of him, his own identification with Connor becomes heartrendingly obvious.

In addition to the noble Connor, we also meet the wounded but fervently attached duo Picasso and Sophie, cranky Mingus and the remarkably fertile Olive. But the transformation of Mark Bittner becomes the film's real subject and surprise, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill features a delightful ending that is every bit as deserved as the ending of High Tension is outrageously contemptible.

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