The Other Side of the Underneath

The Other Side of the Underneath ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I do not view it as a bad thing that I have had to watch Jane Arden's "The Other Side of the Underneath" three times before I could form a solid opinion. Quite the contrary, I love the fact that this film's complexities run so deep that it requires a great deal of thought.

There is nothing "easy" about this bold work of film art. Born from two of her infamous and controversial London experimental stage productions, "Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven" and "Holocaust: A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches," this profoundly disturbing film goes places to which I've never seen film go before.

A particularly collaborative work, Arden obviously worked closely with her then life partner, Jack Bond. She also was entirely dependent upon the female artists who had agreed to participate in the making of this film.

Decidedly not plot-driven, this film does present us with a protagonist. A young woman "played" by Susanka Fraey is "fished" from a lake where she has attempted suicide. She quickly finds herself in a sort of mental asylum where all the women are dressed in Victorian style nightgowns. Only one person seems to be "in charge" within this madhouse and that is a firm psychiatrist played by Jane Arden herself.

While the film is largely concerned with the Anti-Psychiatry Movement evolved from Jacques Lacan, it is actually far more concerned with the seemingly unbearable rage repressed within the women that takes on an epic level. The strong feeling is that this rage and pain has been individually and universal-shared history of oppression and patriarchal cruelty.

Our unnamed protagonist is forever roaming the corridors, hidden spaces and grounds of madhouse that is truly "mad" and in mortal danger from pain. She along with her fellow inmates are searching through the wreckage of self and shared identity / identities.

There is a constant and unrelenting energy conveyed which is full of menace and danger. Nothing feels "acted" and everything we see takes on an importance that is hard to grasp and often even more challenging to watch. Much of this is to be credited to the genius of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. Ms. Arden was brilliant in securing Sally Minford to join the cast. Minford, a professional Cellist, is ever-present with her young daughter. She composed and performs the music throughout. Clearly skilled, the musical goal here is not beauty or melody but danger and threat.

Esteemed British actress, Sheila Allen, joined in this film production and apparently reprises two of the characters she played on stage. One is a sort of evil court jester who uses a patient as a puppet and torments with mind-numbing insanity. She also morphs into a burlesque stripper from Hell who uses her sexuality and body as a threat instead of an object. Ms. Allen refused the drug experimentation, communal living and left the production after only a few days work. Yet her voice and performance haunt the entire film. ...this is a long way from The BBC or Harry Potter

The production of this long-shelved film is notorious. Most shocking is the fact that there doesn't seem to be any distortion or untruth in its infamy. All of the actresses lived together in their Victorian nighties in the abandoned building serving as asylum for the duration of the filming. All of them were on a constant LSD trip while Arden served as "therapist." Arden did not partake in their shared tripping, but she kept herself drunk on wine throughout.

The film is built around a long sequence that is a sort of support group / open therapy. Tripping out on acid and under the guidance of the project built from the stage productions -- these women have been led to a place while in mind-expansion mode. The melt-downs are intense, horrific and almost unbearable. They were also led into other spaces involving Welsh locals composed of coal miners, gypsies, aging Suedeheads, patients from an actual mental hospital and children from a home for severely stunted children. There was also a black bear hired that got loose and caused some serious havoc. The bear is no where to be seen, but judging from testimonial included on the BFI DVD/Blu-ray -- it most certainly contributed to the truly hysteric horror captured.

As these women demonstrate their emotional pain and personal rages/horrors -- our protagonist is led into a danger game of mirrors, sexuality, psychic death and crucifixion. Sexuality is explored in various ways. At times the female body is shown as an object for men to rape or harm. Other times it is shown as pleasure born from pain and fear. And then it is also shown as something beautiful, pleasing and erotic.

The protagonist's journey feels more ours than hers. We follow her through a house and landscape of pain, horror and sometimes promise to abject confusion. In the end the question of identity and self-acceptance is tossed onto a dirty cold slab of a floor. Is there to be redemption or healing? More likely it is a struggle that has only just been recognized and has a very long way to go.

Intentionally unpleasant and contradictory, Jane Arden created a film that demands your attention. This is less a movie and more of a cinematic experience. Not for the faint of heart, this is a grim and repulsive study of female identity that refuses to let you go.

Strange, surreal, horrifying and raw -- Jane Arden's film floats somewhere between Goddard and Ken Russell, but with an entirely different goal in mind. The horrors she and Jack Bond captured are all the more devastating because we realize that beneath the surface -- what we see is real.


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