It’s these very themes that are addressed in Éric Falardeau’s debut feature film, the uncompromising and haunting Thanatomorphose; the title of which comes from the French term meaning the ‘visible signs of an organism’s decomposition caused by death.’ The bleak tale of a young woman who awakens one day to find her body has begun to decay, Thanatomorphose not only features staggeringly visceral imagery, but also unfurls as a deeply personal and thoughtful film. Throughout its duration Falardeau poses provocative questions about the human condition, spirituality and death.
The film debuted at this year’s Sitges Film Festival and has already won Best Film at the Spanish Festival de Cine de Terror de Molins de Rei. Since hearing about it several years ago, I’ve been anticipating seeing it. It was worth the wait. Writer/director Éric Falardeau was kind enough to have a chat with me about making Thanatomorphose, its unsettling themes and what inspires him as a filmmaker.
Where did the idea come from for Thanatomorphose?
A few years ago, me and my ex-girlfriend were talking and making jokes about rotting from the inside. At the same time I was working over my Master's thesis about body fluids in gore and porn films. Little did we know that our small talk would merge with my studies. I then started putting ideas on paper and working on the script on an irregular basis - between my thesis, my day job and another film. The script became more and more personal, like a reflection of my inner self and my readings at that time of my life.
Given the low budget and the dark subject matter, how difficult was it to film?
The fact that it is a low budget independently produced film is a blessing. It enabled me to do what I wanted and make it as tough as it is. I didn’t have to compromise over what I wanted to show, or the slow-burn type of editing. For sure, having more money would have made the job of, say, the special effects crew easier, but it would have meant toning down the film. The hardest part when making this kind of film is always how much of yourself you put in it, and how much darkness in yourself you have to get out to get the proper tone and feeling. That requires a lot of energy.
With Thanatomorphose you display quite a singular vision as a filmmaker. What are your primary cinematic influences?
There are many. Of course, there is Cronenberg and Büttgereit. Cronenberg is one of those rare artists who truly elevated a film genre and even got a word made out of his name. I think that speaks of the quality and originality of his work. I truly admire his films and my favourite is definitely Crash. His films define what body and psychological horror are. I’m also fond of existential horror, and in that field Jörg Büttgereit nailed it with only four features. I greatly admire his work. I also love the films of Ozu Yasujiro, Joseph Losey and Dario Argento. Amongst the contemporary directors I’m a fan of Kim Ki-Duk, Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn and Wes Anderson. There are also films that I watch over and over again like Phantom of the Paradise, Angel Heart, Hellraiser, The Servant...
Aside from films, what else inspires you as an artist and informs your work?
Books and music take a lot of space in my life. I drew a lot of inspiration from both of these arts. Books are always my first inspiration when I write a film. Most of the time it is a single sentence that sparks my imagination. For example, my short film Coming Home was directly inspired by Shakespeare’s MacBeth, and Thanatomorphose’s three act structure is taken from the ‘despair theory’ exposed by Søren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death.
|A hint of the distressing imagery in Thanatomorphose|
It was easy. I’d seen the lead actress Kayden Rose in a few short films before and I was sure that she was the perfect person for our main character. I just sent her the script and talked to her about what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. She agreed. For the other roles, we simply went trough a regular casting process.
It’s a very bleak film. The main character seems to accept her state of decomposition and doesn’t really attempt to seek help. I thought perhaps her rotting state was a physical manifestation of her inward hopelessness. What are your thoughts on this?
For me, great horror films always use the body as an excuse to talk about something else, be it our fears or our human condition. I also believe in cinema as an image and sound media: it must make sense by showing things visually with the help of sounds. The body is a great visual tool that shows mental conditions or emotions. Thanatomorphose is about how a girl reacts to a physical state, but that physical state means something. The film’s main emphasis is not on the why, but the how: how she will react to what is happening to her. It is a film about the body as an object, a commodity. How do we treat our body and disconnect ourselves of it in the process. And how do we reconnect to ourselves through our body. It is an existential body-horror film.
|Éric Falardeau on the set of Thanatomorphose|
I’ve read a lot of books, but my main sources were the books by French sociologist, anthropologist, ethnologist, and scholar Louis-Vincent Thomas, who was instrumental in founding thanatology as a science and field of studies. His books are great because they don’t only focus on the states of the decomposition process, but also on the psychological and anthropological ones. Of course, we also relied upon medical pictures of the process. It helped us in designing the rotting look that we slightly adapted for film purposes. Some of the effects throughout the film are deeply disturbing!
How were these created?
It is all the work of our maverick special effects artists David Scherer and Rémy Couture. They did an amazing job on a shoestring budget. Like the film, which is divided in three acts, we designed three styles of make up. They had to create a lot of prosthetics and bodily fluids. Rémy took care of the liquids - blood, pus, etc. - and some prosthetics, while David took care of all the decomposition effects and on-set work. Watch these guys! David Scherer is the new big name in the field. He is the next Savini or De Rossi. Finally, our foley artist Paul Hébert did an incredible job creating the realistic and disgusting sounds that go with the effects.
The music also enhances the sombre atmosphere. What attracted you to the work of funerary composer Rohan Kriwaczek?
I was already looking for mournful and highly atmospheric music before finding Rohan’s records. I stumbled over the Guild of Funerary Violins’ music a few weeks before we started principal photography. Funerary Violin music is hauntingly evocative, powerful, melancholic and solemn. Heavily connected to Romantic music, it offers wonderfully delicate high and plaintif chords. It fits perfectly within the rhythm, aesthetic and topic of the film. The Guild and Rohan’s performance is simply mesmerizing, full of sound and fury. Also, it fits perfectly with the film’s themes: death, sadness, bereavement. What is funny is that when we were doing the sound editing, we placed Rohan’s music and it simply fitted with the images. We almost never had to edit the music to fit the picture edit, it’s as if the music was meant to be there. Kind of spooky.
I’ve always directed live action short films except for my last one which is a stop-motion animation entitled Crépuscule. Mainly, there are two differences between animation and live action: shooting time and acting. It is almost cliché to say that stop motion is a time consuming art. As for the acting, it is strange because you have three different acting ‘persons’: the puppetteers, the puppets, and the voice actors. But on a film with as many special effects as Thanatomorphose it is almost the same. You can watch all my short films, except Crépuscule, over at my Vimeo channel.
What draws you to horror?
Horror cinema is one of the most visual genres. It is all about bodies, textures, organic matters, and its main subject is ourselves. What interests me is the human condition, and this genre allows me to explore it in the most extreme ways.