“Let me tell you about the days of high adventure.” If your first impulse upon hearing this line from Conan the Barbarian was to giggle and go, “heh, high,” then have we got something for you. While you don’t necessarily need to be high to watch Bertrand Mandico’s She is Conann—and to suggest it can only be enjoyed or appreciated while on drugs denigrates a rowdy, curious slice of experimental cinema—it certainly won’t damage the experience should the viewer be a slight bit elevated. This seriously has future cult-fave midnight movie stamped all over it.All of this is to say that She is Conann is a wild-ass time. Fantastic and hallucinatory, Mandico tracks a gender-swapped version of the iconic barbarian through various stages of her life, across multiple realms, played by numerous actors, and taking big, big swings along the way. The film dives into the river of memory and traces her path from days of old to 1990s New York City to the ethereal planes where she rules the afterlife. All the while accompanied by her narrator, sidekick, occasional antagonizer, lover, and more, Rainer (Elina Lowensohn), who also happens to be a weird dog creature. (Fans of Dark Angel may note striking physical similarities to the character Joshua from season two.) The plot sort of follows the narrative you know: She’s kidnapped as a child, rises, becomes a fierce warrior, and eventually a ruler. But, you know, with dreamy, esoteric side quests for love, cannibalism, and a brief stint as a stuntwoman in the Bronx.
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Trippy and heavily allegorical, this is the kind of film you can spend hours dissecting and parsing out. Or you can just cannonball into the river and let the current take you. Stark brutality (she’s forced to eat her own mother, forced to drag a sled piled high with corpses, and there’s blood vomit, body burning, and so much more) jut up against tender moments of quiet tranquility. And there’s plenty of prophecies, oracles, destinies, spirits, and righteous vengeance to go around. Not to mention a cadre of female warriors, horned-up barbarian ladies with armored nipple horns that are also eyes and somehow organic, who take Conann prisoner.
The design is off the charts, with intricate, elaborate sets and costumes that both ground the film and create an overarching free-from-the-bonds-of-time fantasy sensation. Gorgeous black and white photography captures it all, occasionally bleeding into color, usually to punctuate instances of violence. Everything is vaguely smokey all the time, and hazy uncertainty informs the edges of the frame, both literally and metaphorically. The score morphs from off-kilter minimalist aural atmosphere to 80s-style synth pop to classical needle drops.
She is Conann is definitely not a movie for everyone, but for those with an inclination for cinematic strangeness, check this one out posthaste. Steeped in violence and occasionally very, very gross (there’s a dinner scene near the end…shudder), you can endlessly dissect and scrutinize, but you may be best served by simply sitting back and letting this envelop you and melt your brain a little in new and interesting ways.[Grade: B+]