Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp): a Beautifully Odd Ode to Queer Classics and… DVD Commentaries

Peter Strickland never misses a chance to do something weird. His most recent feature, the wonderful Flux Gourmet (2022), is certainly an oddity but Strickland gets even stranger with shorts. This MUBI exclusive is an eleven-minute pastiche of Pink Narcissus (1971), and (by extension) films like Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) and Rainer Werner Fassbiner’s Querelle (1982). In other words, its abstract, phallic, queer and balances eroticism and melancholy. And, like wider Strickland works, even if it is referential, it is still completely unique.

The premise is the charm here: we watch a film, that is (in fiction) from 1971, and we listen to the director talk about it. It’s a DVD commentary, recorded in 2022, in which our ageing filmmaker reflects on the work he made so long ago. It is also a porno. An arty porno, but a porno none-the-less. His commentary contextualises and demystifies what is on screen, negating a lot of the sheer eroticism but also functioning as a comment on filmic illusion versus the realities of production. His insights into the process make the work seem more real and less real at the same time. The focus is his relationship with the star, the solo male that is the object of attraction in this piece. This story is a sad one and this short does evoke emotion, if more through sheer concept than actual execution.

Perhaps the strongest suit of the film is in how it pushes for a wide definition of art, and how it transcends pastiche. The throwback style is brought into the present by framing it in the way it does, but this also makes it feel timeless. The luxurious production design is revealed to be a façade and this idea of a beautified exterior over something empty is the core of the narration (though, admittedly, the actual film we are watching is perhaps not as interesting as it could be, even if by design). This is a story of loss, of hollow feeling and longing. In expressing this it grapples with the falsity of erotic imagery, and of pornography. This evocative desire, an emotive figure writhing in pleasure, is revealed to be the mere act it is. Cutting through this is really important, a vital positioning that allows the film to critique representation and false projection. It allows the artistry to stay, though. The commentary reveals aspects of craft, the hidden bits of brilliance or sheer resourcefulness. This isn’t just a stripping away, a stark revelation about reality, it is a preservation of the artistic.

This is strengthened by how the commentary itself is able to be artistic. What should be merely informational, and what isn’t seen as ‘an art form’ becomes the key narrative device. We find unexpected emotion, earned pathos, through DVD style commentary and are thus reminded that art transcends traditional boundaries (much like how erotic works can be artistic works, even though many reject this). This work is more than just a porno, that element is taken from it, this work captures a different kind of reality. When we film people, what is presented may be false, but a truth underlines it. This short exposes that truth. It does so on a small scale, and its ideas are better than the expression, but it works. The writing and performance could be stronger, and the arc is a touch trite. The idea at the centre, though, is expressed with real clarity and contains real beauty.


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