Five uncontrollable teenage boys commit a terrible crime. As punishment they are handed over to an anonymous sea captain, who takes them as his captive crew on a sea voyage to a distant island. There they encounter strange, hazardous wildlife, as they struggle to evade the captain’s clutches and find a way to escape back home.
Sometimes a synopsis really is not going to cut it. Shot in a combination of black and white and colour, aggressively surreal and wilfully transgressive, writer/director Bertrand Mandico’s feature debut is a real head-scratcher. Those who prefer to avoid talk and depictions of sexual assault should give the film a wide berth: the wayward youths at the film’s centre are introduced gang-raping their high school teacher – it is obliquely presented but difficult to sit through – and there is a threat of sexual violence weaved in and out of the story that follows. Complicating matters is the fact that all five teenage boys are played by women: Vimala Pons, Mathilde Warnier, Diane Rouxel, Pauline Lorillard, and Anaël Snoek. The film does little to hide this fact beyond hair-styling and costuming, leaving the bulk of the work in creating this crude, rebellious adolescents to the cast. They do a fantastic job, not only presenting as very convincing teenage hooligans but showing starkly different personalities at the same time. They are hardly sympathetic, but they are tremendously watchable.
Sam Louwyck makes a particularly strong impression as the Captain, a gruff and predatory antagonist with a strange resemblance to Motörhead singer the late Lemmy Kilmister. He tortures and demeans the boys in his care, and keeps the coordinates for his mysterious island tattooed onto his penis. The character gains some depth and shifts his status during the film’s second half, when he rejoins an anonymous woman on the island – and the film grows particularly surreal.
Scenes sometimes inspire bursts of laughter at how ridiculous they are. Others feel genuinely threatening: an early ritual court scene sees an advocate swell in size compared to his juvenile clients, eventually towering over them as he pleads his case. The jump from monochrome to colour, and obvious sets to location shoots – part of the film was shot on Reunion Island, unsettles and inspires a little confusion.
It is visually arresting and enormously creative, but what does it all mean? The boys are periodically overcome by a force they call “Trevor”, which compels them into acts of sexual violence. The mysterious island upon which they arrive smells like oysters and is covered with exotic fruits. Some are like hairy passionfruit. Others are penile fruits that eject a sweet creamy juice when pulled or suckled. To stay on the island is to be changed by it as well. It all feels rather like somebody’s very specific and bizarre sexual fetish: it is hard to sit through the movie without somehow feeling touched by it, but unless you have a sexual interest in sailors played by boys played by girls surrounded by vegetation shaped like sex you are probably just going to feel lost.
It’s an oddly charming sort of lost, mind. Bertrand Mandico may have made one of the most pretentious and silly art films of recent years, but it has a delightful self-awareness – and occasionally pops out at the viewer in a sudden moment of transcendence. It’s weird, ridiculous, but incredibly watchable.
The Wild Boys (Les Garcons Sauvages) will tour Australia from 5 March as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2019. Click here for more information on this and other French language films screening this year.