One of the most common explanations for the appeal of scary movies (because wanting to watch terrible things happen to people does demand some sort of explanation, let's face it) is that they allow us to deal with unpleasant feelings and ideas from a safe distance. Regardless of what's happening on-camera, we know there' s a camera and a crew and actors and thus what we're watching is a work of fiction. This makes it safe and okay.
(Okay, sure, there are exceptions like The Bunny Game, where the violence is unsimulated, but there's still a director and a crew and everyone involved knows that they're making a work of fiction - to be glib about it, it's still a movie, just with much more demanding stuntwork.)
This idea of distance is important. Conventional film generally uses a third-person perspective, where the audience are unseen observers. We see what is happening, but we aren't directly involved. It's this very removal that makes breaking the fourth wall effective - calling attention to the artifice calls attention to our role in the film's events. We're watching, and in fact what's happening on screen is for our amusement and entertainment. In Blue Velvet, Frank Booth turns around to look at Jeffrey Beaumont and says "you're like me", but he doesn't look at Jeffrey, he looks out at the audience, directly implicating us in his sadism. Even found-footage films don't escape this idea of distance because the idea of the camera is even more explicit than in conventionally-shot films.
Maniac is a supremely unsettling exercise in getting rid of distance and the sense of safety that goes with it.
As the movie opens, we're watching two young women leaving a club. They say their goodnights and go their separate ways. We continue to follow one of the women as she attempt to hail a cab, getting harassed by a man who wants her to come party with him in the process. It's a brief but nasty moment, full of predatory sexism with the thinnest veneer of politeness and manners possible, and we watch the whole thing play out from some distance away. As the man looks like he's not going to take no for an answer, the woman gets away, but something worse happens.
A voice, apparently from nowhere, says "leave her alone."
Maniac is, basically, a slasher movie shot in the first person. Sure, this has been done before to one degree or another, but my (admittedly limited) knowledge of slasher movies suggests that usually there's something there to maintain distance - an eyehole vignette effect to make it look like we're seeing the world through the mask the killer wears, for example. There is none of that here. We see everything the killer sees without any way to mediate it. We are right there as people are dying, and we don't have the luxury of looking away.
And what a point of view it is: The killer, a pale, twitchy young man named Frank, is a tangled ball of stunted sexuality and Oedipal conflict, glued together by migraines. He works as a restorer of antique mannequins, and lives in the back of his shop. Because we see the world through his eyes, it becomes pretty evident pretty quickly that Frank's relationship with sanity is really, really tenuous. He meets a woman through an online dating service, and on a dinner date with her, his anxiety is visualized - we see other people as he sees them, all staring at him in mute judgment after his date asks him a question, time slowing to a crawl. When it all becomes too much and he starts to get a migraine, his vision goes blurry and shaky around the edges, and he hallucinates blood running down his date's face. His sick lurching to the bathroom to choke down some pills is ours. We are essentially trapped in Frank's perspective, looking out from behind his eyes.
It's a queasy, claustrophobic, unpleasant feeling to have to see what he sees and not be able to look away. We are strapped into his experience of the world, up to and including the fear and desperation on his victims' faces as he murders them. It functions as a bracing antidote to slasher movies - like the film is saying "oh, you like seeing people stalked and brutally murdered? Okay…HERE." It's the "oh, you want to smoke? Here - smoke a whole carton!" approach to giving us what we think we want. We're along for the ride as Frank finds women, stalks them, kills them, scalps them, and takes the scalps back to his apartment, where he staples them onto the heads of mannequins who intermittently seem to come to life. We're never made completely privy to how Frank ended up the way he did, but increasingly vivid episodes of hallucination sort of tell the story - his father was out of the picture, his mother brought home lots of strange men (sometimes not even bothering to bring them home, instead entertaining them in alleyways), with little Frank watching. A fractured logic springs up through these episodes - the blurring of lines between mannequins and people, women in general and Frank's mother, Frank as he is now and as he was as a child. He was broken early on, and nobody was able to put him back together.
(Interestingly, the movie does break the first-person perspective in just a few places - on a couple of occasions when Frank kills, and in the rare instances where he's able to make a a human connection. What at first seems like an irritating break with the conceit instead seems like it's saying that it's probably really hard for Frank to really recognize that those two actions are separate things, that one is not a substitute for another).
It's tempting to dismiss this movie as a sensationalistic spin on the slasher genre - it's a remake of a film of the same name from 1980, and although it's set in present-day Los Angeles, it feels as scuzzy and menacing as the original, set in New York City. The city, huge and expressionless, is empty when Frank's victims need other people the most, and the rare daytime scenes are shot with an overabundance of light and color that contrasts with the grimy darkness in which most of the movie is set. The score is mostly analog synthesizer, which works with the cinematography to give it a feeling of something closer to Taxi Driver or The Warriors than Friday the 13th. So it'd be easy to file it away as an exploitation homage and leave it at that, but there's a lot here to think about once you get past the horrific violence.
It's a movie about one man's utter disintegration and the human cost of that disintegration, but in using first-person perspective, it also serves as an exercise in seeing and being seen. There are a lot of shots of Frank in reflection, so we see him as he sees himself, as we see others as he sees them and how others see him via their reaction - usually obvious fear, though not always. We're introduced to Anna, a young artist who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Frank, when she comes to his shop to photograph his mannequins for an exhibition. We first meet her with her camera up in front of her face, acquiring images and a point of view in as aggressive a way as we do via Frank. The long lens is almost a weapon.
Along with gaze, projection also becomes an important theme throughout - Frank projects his mother onto other women, a trip to the movies with Anna (to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, of all things), ends in a hallucination of Frank recalling the death of his mother shot in the style of a silent movie, as he projects himself into the images projected onto the screen. Anna's installation features a series of mannequins Frank restored, with her own face projected onto the blank faces of the mannequins. What we see, what other people see, what we wish to see in others, what others wish to see in ourselves. This is a lot to take on for a movie about a dude whose mask of sanity is held on by dental floss, but it helps immerse us in a nightmare, where there's a secret vocabulary of imagery providing the underlying rhythm for a life spiraling rapidly out of control. As the movie progresses, Frank's point of view becomes increasingly less and less reliable, and there's not a lot we can do about it. We're aware that there's a watcher, there's someone being watched, that something's being projected and that someone's doing the projecting. This is what film is, but it's presented in a way that makes us question the whole act of watching and projection, and makes us question what we're trying to get out of it.
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