By Keri O’Shea
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m something of a fan of post-apocalyptic cinema: give me a filmmaker who can show us some unpalatable possibilities for humankind’s future via a dramatisation of just how frail our structures and norms are and, in an odd way, I’m happy. The opening scenes of Cord (2015) are low-key, but the wintry, deserted landscapes – the lone voice on the radio – all clue us in to the bleakness which is to follow. However, director and writer Pablo Gonzalez, here in his first feature, has an ace up his sleeve. Here, there are no walking dead, no nukes, no rampaging gangs; instead, the threat which must be contained is sex.
See, in a world where there is no healthcare, sex has become mythologised. Deemed a severe health risk and something to be avoided at all costs, people have begun finding other, less risky ways to get their rocks off, hence a raw sort of technology of masturbation has emerged, with gadgets and devices which can be fitted directly to the body. One of the people able to engineer these contraptions is a man called Czuperski (Christian Wewerka), who one day receives alongside one of his ‘regulars’ a young woman, Tania (Laura de Boer). Women are clearly few and far between, so after he gets over his shock at seeing one, Czuperski offers Tania something different: he has, he tells her, invented something different, something superior, something which will bypass the body altogether. After some deliberation, Tania agrees to undergo the procedure. The operation is brutal, but successful – pitching ‘surgeon’ and ‘patient’ into a toxic, symbiotic relationship.
When I agreed to review a sci-fi movie which took sex as its theme, I have to say I was expecting something altogether more gaudy, even titillating – as other films have been. Indeed, some publicity materials refer to the film as ‘erotic sci fi’, but nothing could be further from the truth here. It’s sexual, true, but never erotic, and Cord deserves ample credit for managing to make its subject matter so disturbing and unnerving. Here, sex is treated as a disease, something queasy and all-controlling, and everywhere it appears in the narrative we’re reminded of that fact. The act itself – whether via tubes and wires or more traditional means – is dubiously consensual at best, and the procedures which people undergo in the pursuit of pleasure are pretty gruesome too, so Cord never makes for easy viewing. Of course, our framing narrative recedes somewhat as the film progresses, so what we’re left with is a dysfunctional duo; an addict (I think that’s a reasonable comparison) and a control freak, who are never going to give each other an easy time of things.
Despite being punctuated by grisly intervals, though, Cord is largely a very understated movie. There is almost nothing by way of contextualisation about what in the hell’s happened, only some exterior shots of snowbound landscapes (which do enough, however, to give us a sense of the characters’ isolation). There are only really two characters in the film, which adds to the claustrophobia, and as things progress the linearity begins to disintegrate. I’m not sure we benefit anything from seeing a man crap into a glass bowl, incidentally, but that at least makes the point that this isn’t sci-fi as you might know it. If I was to draw any comparisons, I’d say that in some respects it resembles Hardware: the interiors, the noisy soundtrack, the flesh-meets-metal and the general aesthetic are all there, as is the plot-lite approach. How a prospective audience will deal with all this remains to be seen, but as a psychological, almost art-house science fiction film, it certainly deserves to be appreciated by those who can respect these unusual features as strengths. (At just over an hour long, it doesn’t fit the mold for a feature length, either.)
One continuity error aside, Cord is an accomplished and oddball debut feature from an interesting writer/director, plus a welcome new chapter in dystopian storytelling. It’s a risky business, having such a small cast, but strong performances help to sustain the film throughout and there are an abundance of neat ideas here. Gonzalez is definitely one to watch, and I look forward to seeing where he goes from here.
Cord is out today – 28th March 2016 – in Colombia, and hopefully coming soon elsewhere…