THE AMBIVALENT BODY: ON THE SHORT FILMS OF MONIKA K. ADLER
By Robert Smart
In Chernobyl of Love, we encounter yet another female victim of love gone wrong. Once again Adler herself plays the lead role as the romantic female suffering a profoundly singular “meltdown” after her male lover rejects her.
Chernobyl Of Love 2The film opens with a Close Shot of Monika’s fingers digging into a hole in the side of her dead lover’s head, apparently murdered at her hands. A male voice whispers portentously on the soundtrack, “I am death,” repeated twice over shots from two different angles of the methodically plucking fingers extracting gray matter out of the open skull, initiating the periodic irruptions of a diabolical male voice overs that punctuate key junctures in the film.
Chernobyl consists of a fairly simple counterpoint, alternating between one world and another, the indoor world containing the numbed Monika sitting with her murdered lover lying across her lap in a kind of morbid Pieta, absently gorging herself on her ex-paramour’s brain and the outdoor world in which a kind of symbolic double for Monika’s wounded soul, (played by Sasha) staggers around a constellation of derelict buildings and the primordial forest that surrounds it located near the actual site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor – a man-made wasteland as stand-in for spiritual wasteland. As metaphorical proxy, the double enacts the protagonist’s tortured descent into emotional and spiritual hell, her pilgrimage through the stages of suffering, transfiguration and ascent. She writhes and runs, and sobs out her thwarted love, clinging to the need for connection, to fragments of memory. Monika’s naked psychic avatar’s face is concealed throughout, primarily with a piece of orange fabric, manifesting her as yet another of Adler’s naked universal bodies.
The subtitle for the film is Drink the Blood of your Sin, which, again, coupled with the compulsive brain-eating, suggests a kind of black communion. But whose sin is it, his or hers – or both? Is she drinking blood and eating flesh as penance or devouring the one who committed the sin against her – or both? We are again confronted with two opposed though simultaneously viable possibilities, the irresolvable ambiguity, that characterizes Adler’s work.
There is no need to choose which world is “real” as both worlds are just as likely to be phantasms, nightmarish projections of the protagonist’s insuperable emotional anguish, a parabola of interpenetrating metaphors for the overwhelming crisis of rejected love, both the fury and the despair of her cast off ardor manifesting in these dual allegorical projections. Both themes have their own distinct developmental arcs that reflect and amplify each other, events in one realm redounding in subtle and elusive ways in the other.
Her consumption of her lover’s body is accompanied by both music and imagery drawn from the Catholic religious tradition, thus reinforcing the motif of communion. The communion in this case has a decidedly terrestrial, corporeal and neurotic tenor, the dead lover both martyr and adversary, whom she simultaneously punishes and attempts to hang onto by incorporating him into herself so that they might never be separated.
Chernobyl Of Love 1The Double’s purgatorial ordeal follows its own distinct trajectory, moving between the despoiled industrial enclave replete with moldering accoutrements – rusted spoon, knife, containers – of a bereft domesticity becoming uncanny as it corrodes and the forbiddingly uninhabited and primeval forest that surrounds it. At all times she is intimately engaged with the earth, her suffering poured out onto the cold waste ground where she literally writhes and sobs out her pain, whether she is agonizingly chanting “I love you,” to her departed lover or running unsteadily up a lonely tree-lined road before collapsing into the dirt or most provocatively clutching a gristly animal fetus–reminiscent of the pathetic offspring in David Lynch’s Eraserhead or perhaps one of Chaim Soutine’s grotesque animal carcass paintings – which she rocks with frantic possessiveness, her ample breasts offered for succor that the lifeless carcass is incapable of accepting. A hole dug in the ground awaits this unformed body but the distraught woman is unable to let go. If not literally a lost or aborted child then this raw flesh is certainly symbolic of their lost union’s potential to come-to-fruition; now never-to-be – and nearly impossible to relinquish for this very reason. These travails are accompanied throughout by a mixture of religiously inflected music or female vocalist adult contemporary melancholia.
As Monika continues to devour her late lover’s brain a female voiceover makes overtly sexual noises, the entire structure of Monika’s cannibalistic interlude structured as one last erotic tryst, the female voice’s ejaculations escalating as Monika eats while an over-lit Close Up of her face instantiates her ascension to a state of transported vacancy. As she licks her fingers with lascivious avidity the camera Zooms in tight on her mouth; this necrophilic consumption and consummation grotesquely parodying past ecstasies.
This orgasmic repast is interrupted by a sudden scream on the soundtrack, the shock of which appears to vault us briefly back to the wasteland, where we glimpse a rosary discarded on the stair, suggesting the loss of faith, the repudiation of God, the rejection of traditional religious belief and conventional morality. We are returned immediately to Monika, seen from overhead. A guttural male voice speaks ominously on the sound track in Aramaic in a manner reminiscent of a demon-summoning incantation from some low-budget horror film. Her spirit is now allied with dark, underground forces; her descent into hell transcending the merely personal to the embrace of a cosmic antipathy. If the exalted emotional state of the romantic idyll has now plummeted to such depths of rage and abjection that Monika has aligned her spirit with hell while correspondingly her naked avatar has been cast out into the despoiled Eden of Wormwood; a formerly idyllic wood made desolate underworld. All the world’s hells are ruined paradises.
Chernobyl Of Love 5After a brief suicidal episode, the double threatening her wriest with a knife while a male voiceover urges her on, demanding a gesture of self-punishment or an admission that she can’t live without him, offering an escape from guilt and loss, Adler Pans to several large fleshy bones lying on the ground near the woman’s feet. It is hard to escape the uncanny suspicion that they are what remain of the cannibalized lover’s body. We are then surprised by the arrival of a big black dog that makes off with the bones and lies down to devour them. A demon at the service of the soul, tasked to eliminate the vestiges of trauma – the dog eats to forget, his predation cycling the present remnants of the dead lover into the past.
A series of shots in a cemetery, headstones and statues of angels, with female voice overs (“Can you keep my secret”) suggest the successful passage through the process of bereavement and mourning while at approximately the same time Monika’s consummation/consumption moving into slow motion and then halting as her face illuminated in Close Up is blanched white by meticulously deliberate over-lighting: It is an apotheosis. Tossing her head with a kind of erotic languor, she pauses to examine the tissue in her hand before carrying it to her mouth, hesitating, nearly surfeited, on the verge of regaining her senses.
Again, we enter the cemetery, zooming in on the marble memorial to a dead child, an echo of the inanimate fetus in the wasteland. The soft female voiceover recurs with the gentle exhortation: “Look into its eyes. It sees what we can’t.”
When we return to Monika she has arrived at the denouement of her cannibal tryst. Like a spent lover she pensively smokes a cigarette, voluptuous and preoccupied. The menacing male voice breaks in again disclaiming guttural Aramaic, ushering in a cacophony of demonic cries and screams: the sounds of hell. The nude double writhes on ground of in slow motion as if afflicted by the demonic choir. The conjunction of events in the two parallel realms, Monika and double, sound and image, suggest that the demons of despair are leaving her, one final irruption before fleeing back into the void. The hellish sounds end as Monika sits smoking, clouds of smoke drifting past her, obscuring her face.
The crisis has passed. Back in the wasteland the fetus is dropped into the hole and methodically covered over with earth, the past and its grief buried. After a subtle Jump Cut flowers are placed atop the grave. The Focus goes in and out on the flowers, alternating blur with resolution: Could these be the eyes of the mourning woman, intermittently overwhelmed with tears?
We are transported back to the cemetery one last time, approaching a colorful to Angel statue, its hand raised in a traditional beatific gesture. A new Female voice, sober and resolved, proclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome free will.” Church Bells Ring. Having lost control, overwhelmed with rage and despair, her consciousness fragmented, swept away by her own internal turmoil, her ability to decide in abatement, she has now, after a period of tribulation, achieved a resurrection of the spirit. It is possible to choose again, to move ahead.
To the sound of church bells Monika is now visible, present in the wilderness once occupied by her double, her back to the camera, carrying an ambiguous and suggestive bag, walking up a tree-lined highway away from Chernobyl, free again and embarking on a new life.