Any contemporary example of extreme cinema, loaded with shocking imagery and structured in an unconventional manner to keep the audience on their toes, has one fairly sizeable obstacle to tackle: cinema has seen more than its fair share of extreme, indecipherable, shock-heavy fare over the decades. As such, while We Are The Flesh is specifically designed to defy straightforward explanation, I still feel like I can sum it up easily enough: if you felt that Refn’s The Neon Demon or the final act of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem were just a little too linear and sedate for your liking, and didn’t feature nearly enough explicit sexual content, then this might be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you think that sounds like 80 minutes of audio-visual torture, well, that’s just what you’ll get as well – and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is what writer-director Emiliano Rocha Minter is aiming for with his feature debut. Whatever your proclivities, this is not a film you can passively sit through; but just how great an impact it’s likely to have may vary according to how easily shocked you are, and/or how receptive you are to the near-constant use of shock tactics.
I find it intriguing that official summaries of the film describe it as taking place in a post-apocalyptic scenario, as – while We Are The Flesh certainly deals with ‘apocalyptic’ themes – there’s almost nothing in the film which directly suggests society has fallen, largely because for the bulk of the film it takes place in a single, interior setting with only three players. The opening scenes introduce our unnamed lead (Noé Hernández) who seems at first simply to be a slightly imbalanced middle-aged vagrant, taking refuge in a dilapidated building. However, he is soon joined there by two others in need of shelter, twentysomething brother and sister Maria Evoli, and Diego Gamaleil as Lucio (the only character given a name, so far as I can recall). Allowing them to stay, the man of the house immediately puts the siblings to work constructing some sort of abstract, experimental theatre stage out of wooden beams, cardboard and tape; but one of many things which beg the question “what the hell are they doing that for?” in this film. However, as time passes and a strange bond forms between the older man and the sister, it becomes clear that he expects more from his new tenants than just their stagecraft skills. Well, okay, ‘becomes clear’ isn’t really the best way to put it, as by and large it’s all clear as mud.
It’s no accident that I’ve mentioned experimental theatre a couple of times, as – whilst We Are The Flesh clearly invites comparison with the work of Ken Russell, Gaspar Noe, Lars Von Trier and perhaps David Lynch – it feels heavily indebted to abstract, avant garde stage work rooted in Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. This is a format in which conventional storytelling is of no interest whatsoever, and the name of the game is confrontation, bombarding the audience with overwhelming noise and visuals in the hopes of getting them back in touch with the primal being within, the aim being a genuinely psychedelic experience. (Actor Hernández is said to have started out in experimental theatre, and it certainly shows in his intense, in-your-face performance.) My main issue with this sort of material is that, more often than not, it all sounds so much better in theory than it actually winds up being in practice. Not wanting to put it too harshly, but one person’s soul-bearing, courageous experimentation is another person’s pretentious horseshit. Writer-director Minter is tackling ideas familiar both in experimental theatre and horror – the underlying animal nature of humanity, and how societal breakdown/imminent death invariably leads to the breakdown of social mores – and there’s no denying that his efforts are fairly striking. However, another key problem with material of this nature is that it generally seems to hinge on the assumption that it will present the viewer with something they have never seen before, and – as I think we’ve established – this isn’t necessarily the case here.
The one key aspect that puts We Are The Flesh firmly in the shock category, and out of more mainstream venues and platforms (horror specialists Shudder are currently the only streaming site to host it in Britain), is its use of hardcore sexual content. Admittedly, this is still something which is not too commonplace in cinema – I recall being quite taken aback by the uncensored erections in Under The Skin, mainly because that had been passed as a 15 – but even so, given how instantly accessible porn is nowadays, does it necessarily carry quite the same shock value anymore? Also – and this is a more general complaint than anything too specific to this film – why is that almost every instance of real sex in art house cinema is utilised specifically for shock, in a dark, troubled context? Please stop me if I’m saying anything too out of the ordinary here, but I’ve always been of the impression that sex is, y’know, really quite nice. If we’re going to have real sex in movies, would it really be so wrong to show it in that context? (Although admittedly this is the case in Shortbus, and I suppose also in Noe’s Love.)
All things considered then, We Are The Flesh really wasn’t to my liking; but again, it was clearly always intended to polarise opinion, and doubtless there will be those who warmly embrace its bad trip, boner-heavy vision. I imagine I’d have had more patience with it if it hadn’t constantly seemed so desperate to impress me with how crazy and shocking it all is. When a film’s key reason for being is to shock the viewer but it fails to do so, it’s more or less inevitable that it’ll just wind up annoying and boring.