American Translation

American Translation


Reviewed by: Chris

Do you like to feel inspired, entertained or educated by a film? Those are my usual benchmark categories and I’m not sure which one American Translation fits into. The story is straightforward: Aurore, the kept daughter of a rich American, falls in love with a freewheeling and attractive young Frenchman (Chris) only to discover he is a psycho-sexual killer. The viewer is seduced by photogenic young stars, convincing acting, a throbbing soundtrack and plenty of sex. But the real pull is Pierre Perrier’s character, the handsome killer. The movie is largely a portrayal of how he becomes excited by the struggles and death-throes of his victims, whether throttling them slowly, or beating them to death. “He asked me to strangle him, you know...” A nod to the dangerous practice of erotic asphyxiation used by enthusiasts to heighten orgasm. Ah, that makes it all right then.

Our killer is a helpless victim of his urges: the girlfriend (played by Lizzie Brocheré) is helplessly in love with him. His passion, his confidence, his ability to dominate her. And then she becomes his confidante, the one he can trust, the one who gives him a chance, the one who thinks she can somehow ‘change’ him.

Copy picture

Even before release, I can hear British censors crying foul – not for the amount of sex but for the insidious sexual violence. The BBFC is fairly liberal, but categorically states, “Sexualised violence or works which glorify or glamorise violence will receive a more restrictive classification and may even be cut.” Since much of the extended nudity involves (non-violent) relations between the two young lovers, perhaps it will scrape by. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, for instance, was passed without cuts because the rape scene contained little in the way of overtly sexual images, whereas Ichi The Killer had scenes of sexual violence censored, as did Baise-Moi, in which scenes of violent penetration were removed.

That the mind of Chris is well-portrayed without such graphic detail is a compliment to directorial skill; but the other question is, how far should art be able to push boundaries for the responsible viewer? Reading a sanitised version of Marquis de Sade is worse than not reading it all. If Noe or Breillat felt the use of graphic sexualised violence was required to give us a window into the visceral reality of such horrid acts, should such respected directors be censored? And how do we justify a film such as this that seems to have merit but is also very distasteful?

The question, for some, will hinge on whether it is a true work of art or simply pornography of a low kind (an argument that raged both ways over Baise-Moi). With American Translation, the lines are not clear cut. It might not be the masterpiece of the decade, but its horrific and tantalising portraits carry more weight and credibility than, say, the shock value of films such as Brown Bunny and, by means of moralistic ending, avoid the token approval given to sexualised violence in Breillat’s masterpiece A Ma Soeur! (which was cut for video release).

Many readers will have realised at this point that American Translation contains nothing of interest for them, and they may well be right. If you find the psychopathology of the sexual killer interesting, check it out. But be warned it lacks the entertainment value of, say, American Psycho, the originality of Antichrist or the sheer, sad, iconic appeal of sicko movies such as I Spit on Your Grave. It is neither sexploitation nor trash aesthetic. It gives us an insight into the mind of a deranged young man but, whatever one thinks of films of sexual violence, there is no overarching point, such as in A Ma Soeur’s exposing of the traps of conventional heterosexuality. It tells us nothing we do not already know – yet it at least says it quite colourfully.

As a serious film, American Translation is not original enough to stand out further than a ripple of the festival circuit. The theme is well-worn, and there is an absence of secondary themes to keep us interested. Long sequences have nothing more than a vehicle being driven to a blaring soundtrack, or lazy, extended shots of the two lovers’ bodies. If you fell asleep in Brown Bunny or 9 Songs, be warned this has only slightly more caffeine in it, and most of that comprises violent excess. There simply is not enough going on plotwise, even if it is a reasonably fascinating psychological study.

The title stems from the fact that Aurore’s Father doesn’t speak French and Chris doesn’t speak English. She therefore has to translate and try to stop them beating each other up. One could say she is caught between two worlds that don’t really translate very well. Most men in the film seem to have, or have had, at least some homosexual attraction to Chris. Attractive young male prostitutes loiter conveniently waiting to be bumped off (sometimes it takes quite a while for them to die). Aurore is besotted, but she would have to be almost deranged to save Chris’ life when one victim, after several minutes of strangulation, manages to grab a weapon. There is no background story to suggest that she fantasised about Bonnie and Clyde as a youngster: how exactly does this respectable, if pampered and smitten, young woman become such a willing accomplice?

One of the finest moments in the movie is when Aurore asks a policeman to cover her ears so she won’t hear Chris’ screams. As the sounds block out, we realise that blocking out reality has been the only way she can cope. Delicate viewers may wish to cover more than their ears.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2011
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Young love has never been so menacing.
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Director: Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr

Starring: Pierre Perrier, Lizzie Brocheré, Jean-Marc Barr

Year: 2011

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: France


EIFF 2011

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