Cosmotropia de Xam, the writer/director of the “arthouse horror” film DIABOLIQUE, has managed to remain something of a mysterious figure. This is a pretty impressive feat for someone who runs a label (Phantasma Disques) that consistently sells through limited editions of cds, vinyl, cassettes and DVDs in addition to releasing feature-length films that have scored theatrical dates all over the world. Phantasma has built up its fiercely loyal audience over the last few years by consistently delivering beautifully packaged objects, and Cosmotropia de Xam’s films seem to have grown in ambition along with the size of the label and its audience. DIABOLIQUE was the first film released by Phantasma on professionally duplicated DVDs, which the label explained was made possible directly by its fans’ support of previous releases. With its follow-up film MALACREANZA: FROM THE DIARIES OF A BROKEN DOLL popping up on independent screens worldwide, horror fans are sure to wonder just what DIABOLIQUE is and what Cosmotropia de Xam means by “arthouse horror.”
As one would probably suspect, Xam’s “arthouse horror” aesthetic is mostly concerned with imagery and atmosphere rather than coherent narrative. In the world of DIABOLIQUE, vampires exist and hide among humanity in densely-populated urban areas. They use a milky liquid they regurgitate called Esmakra to control humans, on whom it works as a powerful narcotic. The film follows The Vampire (Aura) as she attempts to seduce and subjugate The Girl (Agnes Pándy) with the assistance of The Mysterious Man (Günter Schickert, later played by Martin N). Part of this process involves putting The Girl into a mysterious place called The Mute Room that breaks down its inhabitants’ perception of time and space, located near something called The Street of Weeping Houses. Once The Girl is under control of The Vampire, she will be another pawn helping them make their way in the human world.
That all may sound more or less like a coherent narrative, but the structure of DIABOLIQUE is considerably more abstract than any plot summary might suggest. Most of the film is made up of footage of the characters in different settings and some familiar locations, such as the iconic subway tunnel and apartment building from the end of Zulawski’s POSSESSION. The minimal story moves forward only through a German voiceover track that occasionally blurs with the film’s soundtrack (the narrator, Aura, also performs with Cosmotropia de Xam’s musical project Mater Suspiria Vision). The focus here is squarely on presenting the viewer with strange and unsettling imagery, and the film frequently succeeds on those terms. Xam has a talent for striking imagery and an eagerness to experiment with various photographic and color effects. Paired with the film’s constantly pulsing soundtrack, the film’s imagery careens from time-lapse shots to psychedelic color tints and stark black and white, and while the lack of a strong narrative occasionally makes this frustrating, there’s almost always something interesting to look at during the film’s 60-minute running time.
DIABOLIQUE is certainly an intriguing introduction to the film work of its writer/director. It is the sort of film that flaunts its influences proudly, but combines pieces of the familiar in interesting new ways. This is a surreal nightmare, infused with strong visual influences from Zulawski to Jean Rollin to Japanese horror manga, set to a score that moves from pounding 80s-style electronics to 70s prog and psychedelic rock. As it is, DIABOLIQUE will definitely appeal to horror fans who prize atmosphere and imagery over all else, but anyone looking for a strong narrative hook to accompany the images will be disappointed. In other words: Adventurous horror cinephiles only need apply.
DIABOLIQUE is available on PAL Region 0 DVD directly through Phantasma Disques (http://phantasmadisques.bigcartel.com) and is also now available in the States through import disc store DiabolikDVD.com.
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