Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SUZIE HEARTLESS (2008) d. Tony Marsiglia

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It isn’t easy to make a film that is designed to be an artistic statement, depict a repugnant social construct and get people to watch it and say they “enjoyed” it. Tony Marsiglia, the director of CHANTAL which was another descent into the heart of cinematic darkness, weaves a tale of even more frightening imagery and creates a character whose experiences may examine one of the bleakest outlooks on life yet. His newest film, SUZIE HEARTLESS is certainly artistically ambitious and it stares unflinchingly at one of the oldest and most depraved segments of our culture, but SUZIE HEARTLESS is not a film that I can say I “enjoyed”, though I certainly was impacted by the sights and sounds I endured.

SUZIE HEARTLESS is the story of a teenage prostitute, whose daily existence we are privy too and follow through a series of gut-wrenching and disturbing vignettes. Told without any appreciable dialogue and in a semi-cohesive fashion that cannot really be called “linear”, we see through the eyes of the main character what she must deal with each day as she fights for survival, turns tricks and interfaces with equally distasteful denizens of her day-to-day mini-universe. Along the way, “Suzie’s” story is punctuated by flashbacks, symbolic reminiscences and traumatic/dramatic glances at her psyche, making this “narrative” very complex and difficult to follow, but for a good reason. Just as the life of a teenage prostitute would be a disastrous mess of emotional decay and physical decline, so too the plot of this film is meant to pattern “Suzie’s” wretched existence and even more desolate psychological state. In place of dialogue, there is a haunting, eerie and disturbing set of incidental musical strains and scores that match the disjointed lurches from one repulsive chapter in “Suzie’s” crawl through misery to the next. SUZIE HEARTLESS may not be an entertaining film, but it is sadistically gripping and there are creative elements that are worthy of analysis.

Throughout this difficult and demoralizing tale there are the constants of the actress Wendy McColm, who plays the title character, and the cinematic direction of Tony Marsiglia. Miss McColm gets the part of “Suzie” right and her portrayal is both accurate and highly unsettling. Her youthful face and trim figure decked out in a jean micro-miniskirt and a red crop-top and fitted with black boots is simultaneously cute, attractive and deeply repellant. What has even more weight are Wendy’s incredibly emotive facial expressions and her distressing eyes that speaks volumes about the torments she continues to endure. SUZIE HEARTLESS is at its best when it focuses on Wendy McColm’s reactions and responses to her environment and the monsters who control and abuse her every step. While there are many scenes that are far too long and explore far too much of the same fare, the general concept is a good one and efforts at execution are sincere, for centering on the eyes and the face of a shattered character is what often made older European exploitation films great, and Tony Marsiglia has the right idea here. He just doesn’t have enough story to stretch over the canvas of debauchery he is trying to paint, causing segments of this film to drag or feel repetitive, even when the subject matter has such an abysmal tone to it one would think you would never grow bored.

What is one of Mr. Marsiglia’s greatest strengths is his use of color in a wide variety of scenes and his constant juxtaposition of color sequences and those that are black & white. There are many scenes where bright hues like those of “Suzie’s” crystal and yet lifeless eyes or her skimpy vermillion top, a heart-breaking azure sky framed by austere buildings or verdant tress, or the bronzed skin and exotic makeup and tattoos of a hooker help propel the emotional content of the film forward where dialogue would normally be the standard vehicle. Camera angles change, the speed of scene edits is constantly in flux, the use of light and exposure are consistently altered and what emerges is something akin to a painter’s palette. There is a heady mix of shades, tints and other combinations, but there is an underlying method to the madness that seems so abstract and meandering. Whether he is focusing on the coltish and overly exposed legs of “Suzie”, the washed out textures of a simple playground or the syrupy slide of blood down a forehead, it is attention to the visual details that help to make this exploration of the cultural macabre work as well as it does.

SUZIE HEARTLESS is a two disc set. Disc 1 has the title feature, an audio commentary with the director, a slide show and a short deleted scene. The slideshow is quite interesting for it serves as almost a picture-format “making of” featurette set to the same kind of unsettling music as the feature film. The photos are of on-screen moments before, during and after production. The end-result is very similar in its emotional force to the movie itself. The deleted scene is also compelling for it is obvious why that segment was cut, for it is not in accord with the tone of the rest of the film and would have felt very out of place in the vast expanse of emotional barrenness that is SUZIE HEARTLESS. Disc 2 has a second feature, Tony Marsiglia’s first film PHOENIX (1995), also referred to as ASHES & FIRE. PHOENIX is an avant-garde film making effort of much the same style in some respects as SUZIE HEARTLESS. It is a black & white flick and it is somewhat more stylishly cast and extravagantly shot, but the artistic elements feel exceedingly forced and bizarrely contrived. The story is choppy and has a “student film” vibe to it. However, it does fit the overall aura of this two disc set. On disc 2 there is another audio commentary with Tony Marsiglia, a lengthy bonus feature with two interviews of cast members from the film as well as a set of audition reels. Finally, there is another thoughtfully constructed slide show. Both sets of extras are well worth your time and are a fascinating look into the background, backdrop and backstory of these motion pictures.

Teenage prostitution is an ugly abscess on the bright epidermis of America’s carefully sculpted image. Just as disease is never easy to look at, but must be observed if we are to fully comprehend its root and method of transmission, so too SUZIE HEARTLESS is not a film that one should go into expecting cheap thrills, reflective analysis or even a comforting documentary-style bio-pic. This is a “misery epic” in the best sense of the term. It is brutal and savage cinema verite and slides down the throat with all the light-heartedness of a sledgehammer to the abdomen. SUZIE HEARTLESS is certainly not the finest film I have ever seen, neither is it the most creative nor the most enlightening. It is an earnest attempt to tell an unrelentingly dark tale, and while doing it no prisoners are taken. For some, this may not be a journey worth taking. For those who like to look into the abyss to see if it stares back, SUZIE HEARTLESS may be just the painful medicine you need.


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