Tuesday, 18 March 2014

What's it like to rot alive?

I'm fascinated by the concept of rotting alive, of maintaining consciousness while your body slowly decomposes. This is why, as soon as I read the plot of the movie "Thanatomorphose" (2012), at a nearby struggling Movie Studio, I knew I had to watch it. Then, when I googled it, I found out about a more recent movie, "Contracted" (2013), based on the same idea. "Contracted" is the better movie, but "Thanatomorphose" is more philosophically ambitious. 

We figuratively say that someone is already dead when they are divorced from their own lives, trapped in a mindless routine, and they don't have the inner strength to make any meaningful changes. Their alienation is an absolute fact, their minds cannot spin any more narratives about themselves, their center of narrative gravity becoming a point of vague, constant anxiety.  

We say that these people are overwhelmed by life, pounded into submission by the external world, raped and strangled, stripped even of the luxury of suicide. 

Exploring this metaphor artistically implies taking some liberties with regards to what is scientifically possible. Obviously, from a materialist point of view, the mind will have to disappear once the body dies and the structure of the brain crumbles. So the artist, for the sake of his creation, should have to make use of the dualistic principle that the mind and soul are separate from the body. However, depicting the process of putrefaction as realistically as possible adds to the vividness of the artistic product. 

I don't remember the main character in "Thanatomorphose" having a name, so I'm just going to call her Rose, after the name of the actress. Samantha is the main protagonist in "Contracted". Both women go through an existential crisis. Rose is affected by a sense of malaise. She no longer finds pleasure in her sex life, in her relationships, or her artistic work (she's a sculptor). Her body's decomposition is triggered by a persistent, deep-seated sense of alienation and unhappiness. Samantha's sickness has a more precise cause. Although a committed lesbian, she isn't happy with her female partner, Nikki, and ends up having unprotected sex with a guy at a party, thus contracting a venereal disease. Ooopsy! The guy is a necropheliac, so —a fitting but unscientific consequence — the disease Samantha contracts is decaying of the body while the mind stays awake and witnesses the spread of the gangrene. Ooops again!!

Rose and Samantha start by feeling cold and somewhat stiff. Green and brown blotches appear on their bodies for unknown reasons. Then they start pissing and shitting blood and their nails fall off. An especially effective addition to this list of symptoms is Samantha's eyes turning red and then one of them turning milky white. Just like the cum which infested her body, right there on her face, impossible to ignore, the sight of her morbid weakness.  

When we're not strong, all of us, male or female, run the risk of becoming mobile cum-dumpsters, swallowing the salty, alien will of those around us, our bosses, our friends, our families, our gossipy neighbors and co-workers. We end up squinting at the world through a viscous curtain of fermented semen. And that seed's bloom is filth and decay. 

Both Rose and Samantha first react by trying to hide the symptoms of their putrefaction from themselves and from others. Rose keeps applying make-up, although her face is covered with dark spots and her teeth are falling out. Samantha starts wearing sunglasses and a tuque to cover her bold spots. 

At the same time, the gods Eros and Thanatos show up to meet the two rotting victims. The women are overwhelmed by a sex drive coupled with homicidal tendencies. They both end up violently murdering their partners, Nikki and Rose's abusive boyfriend. In an especially disturbing scene, a cadaveric Rose is playing with her worm-infested clit while fantasizing about stabbing her boyfriend repeatedly. Also, Samantha, although in a rough shape, manages to seduce a male friend of hers. When he penetrates her, he moans with pleasure that she's so "wet", but when she pulls out he realizes her pussy was crawling with worms which now want to burrow into his penis. The guy runs into the bathroom screaming. 

While Samantha slowly turns into a zombie and goes after her annoying mother, Rose maintains her lucidity till the last moments, when she's reduced to a bag of bones and there's no muscles left to articulate her screams. This is why I think "Thanatomorphose" is the more original, philosophically challenging movie. Rose doesn't turn into a zombie, but holds onto her identity in an extreme situation, and this contributes to the emotional punch of the movie. By contrast, witnessing Samantha turn into a zombie makes the viewer not care about her as much. 

Both movies are very graphic and hard to watch. But they both miss an important phase of the putrefaction process: bloating. A few days after death, "the gas produced by the proliferation of bacteria exerts more and more pressure on the body's outer wall, causing a dramatic ballooning effect that nearly doubles the corpse's volume. Of course, the abdomen is particularly infected given the large quantity of bacteria there, but other regions are also affected, notably the head: the eyeballs are pushed out of their orbits, the lips swell and the tongue hangs out." (Death: The Scientific Facts to Help Us Understand It Better, by Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras) Adding this aspect to the movies would have made them even more graphic, gross, and gut-churning. That is, it would have made the films better and more realistic. 

Picture from www.shutterstock.com
The two films also miss another crucial point. The greatest fear triggered by the realization that one is rotting alive is not that one is dying, but that one is already dead. For some reason, assuming the dualism between mind/soul and body the body didn't catapult the soul out to the heavens at the moment of biological death, but kept it caged inside its ruined fortress. The thinking subject is still there, brooding, observing, expecting, fearing, trying to scream for help. Neither of the two movies managed to capture this horror of being forever paralyzed inside the dome of one's own skull. Will the soul facing an empty eternity try to escape inside its memories or its dreams? How long before it will surrender to insanity? How hard will it have to prey for the blessing of nonexistence?

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