Per the author, “I watched several Michael Haneke films, back to back, one evening. A brilliant director, but not exactly light entertainment. The bleak, disturbing world of the director was hard to shake. I felt like I was trapped inside the films. What if someone was, I thought.”
by P.R. Dean
The lights came up abruptly. Audience members shifted in their seats and whispered in shocked voices. No one laughed. After a moment someone stood up, and then one by one people rose to their feet, adopted a neutral expression, and waited patiently for those in front of them to move.
Leon felt oppressed by the harsh fluorescent light. The world of the film, with its deep shadows and French vowels, still clung to his sensibilities.
He hunched down in the seat and shaded his eyes against the glare. His hand was shaking.
He’d wanted to leave the moment the credits began to roll but Hayley had glared at him as though he was transgressing some long-standing film festival behavior code. What did it matter? Dozens had walked out during the screening.
Part of him wanted to curl up into a ball and not think about anything, the other part just wanted to get out of the cinema and go somewhere else. He was being ridiculous. He knew that. Overreacting. Just tired, probably. His eyes felt gritty. He’d been out five nights in a row, he had to work in the morning, and he had an overdue assignment. Had he even had a shower this morning? He couldn’t remember.
He lowered his hand and opened his eyes when he realized the cinema had grown quieter. There were a dozen or so people still slumped in seats, but most had left. The tail-end of the queue was shuffling towards the exit.
Hayley was staring into space and giving no indication she was ready to leave. Her face appeared drawn and pale. The pimple on her forehead stood out. Her hair looked greasy. When he touched her on the arm she flinched, and, after looking around, snatched her bag from the floor and stood up.
Leon shrugged into his backpack and followed her down the row of seats and into the aisle.
The line came to a stop when they were several meters from the door. Leon let his chin rest on his chest and stared at his feet. One of the first things he’d noticed, in an unnerving moment, was that the film’s victim wore the exact same Puma trainers he did. Very popular, millions-of-pairs-sold-all-over-the-world trainers, he reminded himself.
The queue edged forward. He lifted his head and looked at the pink ends of Hayley’s hair tangled across her black jumper. He could just see the contour of her bra strap and imagined the skin indentations that would remain if she removed it. She hadn’t looked back once since they got up.
They’d been sort of going out for three months. Hayley was okay. He suspected they both put up with each other because they couldn’t get anyone better. Not necessarily the worst basis for a relationship, he thought. At least crushing disappointment wasn’t waiting around the corner.
They finally made it through the door. Wall-height posters for the “Cinema of Cruelty: Europe’s New Extremists,” lined the corridor that led to the foyer: Benny’s Video, Irréversible, Anatomy of Hell, then Crybaby.
“What, the John Waters teen film?” he’d asked. Hayley had looked at him like he was an idiot. “There’s no hyphen in the title. It’s a film by France’s preeminent female director.”
The Crybaby poster showed the stretch-denim clad legs of the three young thugs. A hand, hanging beside a thigh, held a blood-spattered vodka bottle by the neck. The photograph had been taken from knee height and just visible between the legs were a foot, a patch of denim, a fold of black t-shirt, and an arm with the wrist flopped against a length of pipe.
In a sense, the poster misrepresented the film by its focus on the prone victim and the anonymity of the thugs. One of the striking and unsettling aspects of the production was the way the stream of put-downs, arguments and trivial banter was foregrounded while the vicious and casual brutalization of the victim took place mostly off-screen. The victim was never fully visible, never spoke. His presence was indicated through brief, shadowed, extreme close-ups, splatters of blood, and various, wordless sounds of anguish and distress.
It was like, thought Leon, how people drinking and arguing around a table will shred a cigarette packet or tear a coaster into strips or punch holes in a plastic cup with a fork. Except it wasn’t a coaster and it wasn’t a plastic cup, it was a human being.
The film opened in near darkness with the three crashing around, shouting, laughing, talking. Then the lights came up to reveal the dim, color-faded interior of a derelict building scattered with the detritus of modern society. There were so many shots that featured branded packaging in association with blood and vermin that it was like some weird anti-product placement.
Leon realized he was staring at the forearm resting against the pipe low down on the poster. In the middle of an argument, that had nothing to do with the victim, one of the characters had lifted a booted foot, made some emphatic comment, and stomped.
The camera had followed the boot. The bone broke with a crunch, the victim screamed, and moments later was heard throwing-up. “Oh, gross,” said one of the characters, and then continued, “and anyway, guitar bands are boring.” Cut to a hand at the edge of a pool of vomit just as someone in the cinema threw up, so there was a weird verisimilitude.
Was that a mole beside the wrist bone? That’s what he’d been trying not to look at, or looking at and trying not to think about. He glanced at the mole on his own wrist before bending down, but looking closer only revealed a field of halftone dots. He was seeing things that weren’t there.
When he straightened and turned around, the corridor was empty.
Hayley was waiting just inside the foyer. “I was about to come looking for you.”
People were standing in small groups in the foyer and out on the street, but there was none of the usual earnest discussion. Instead, they huddled together with the camaraderie of disaster survivors and spoke in hushed voices.
“They’re having a Japanese fortnight in May,” Haley said. She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. Leon glanced at the promotional material. “They should use the word cinema, not theater,” he said.
“Some of these older cinemas were live theaters once. This building is new, but the original Regal around the corner was a theater before it became a cinema.”
“But it’s not the building, it’s the use,” Leon said. “Show a film, it’s a cinema. Put a boxing ring in the center, it’s an arena.”
“Fill it with water,” said Hayley, “it’s a swimming pool.”
Leon laughed and began moving towards the exit doors across the room. For a brief moment he’d forgotten the experience of watching the film, but several stills from a display near the door threw him back into the horror of it. His heart rate increased, his neck and arms became clammy. I’m just in a hyper-sensitive state, he thought, panicking about everything. He should go home and sleep. If he went straight home, he could just squeeze in eight hours. And eat something. His blood sugar might be out of whack. That’s probably what it was, actually.
As they stepped out into the cool, moist air of the street, Hayley said, “You want to come to mine?”
“Okay,” Leon said. He was trying to decide whether it was cold or not. “Was the guy in the film wearing a jacket?”
“You never saw him, really.”
Well, you certainly didn’t, he thought. At the crucial moment, at the absolute help-me-here moment he’d glanced in her direction and she was looking down at her phone.
“A t-shirt I think. Just an ordinary t-shirt,” Haley said.
Yes. A black t-shirt like the one I’m wearing, and a pair of jeans, and the same trainers. That meant if he put his jacket on, it would break the cycle. He would no longer be wearing the same clothes as the guy in the film. He levered his thumb under the strap on his back pack.
“You could sound a bit more enthusiastic.”
“I said, do you want to come to mine, and you said, oh-kay. Like I’d asked to borrow money.”
“I didn’t say it like that.” Leon said. Cinema patrons were drifting down both sides of the street. There was a car park around the corner and a taxi rank several blocks straight ahead. A few people had found parking spots out front and were climbing into their cars as though they were stars leaving a premiere. It was darker outside, he felt slightly less vulnerable, and the cooler air was drying the sweat and refreshing his thoughts. Perhaps in a few minutes he’d be laughing at himself for overreacting. He imagined explaining the experience in his tutorial group: After one hundred and twelve minutes, I was primed to believe the most preposterous things. I was seduced by the irrational. This is the power of cinema. The sublime power of cinema. Thoughtful faces nodded at him. Would his classmates know sublime meant awe inspiring? Probably not.
“What?” Leon turned in Hayley’s direction.
“I said, are we just going to stand here?”
They began to walk along the street. He’d been going to do something and now he’d forgotten what it was.
“That was very meta,” said Hayley.
“The very first subtitle was, ‘Belmondo’s an actor not a gangster.’ And someone answers, ‘It’s the same thing.’”
“Who said, ‘you have thirty seconds to leave the theater’?” Leon asked.
Hayley looked blank for a moment. “Oh, Gaspar Noe. It was a title card at the beginning of one of his early films.”
“I wonder if anyone did. I mean, it has a certain gleeful cruelty. Throw the most horrific images at an audience for two hours and then be able to say, hey, we told you not to watch.”
“Cinema of cruelty. The new extremism.”
“Though even Noe isn’t quite as grotesque as what we just saw.”
Hayley glared at him. “You’re just shocked that a female director could make a film like that. As though women don’t know anything about horror and cruelty. I’ll bet you’d consider the exact same scene more grotesque if you knew a woman directed it. Because you have a stereotypical notion of women as gentler, more restrained.”
“You weren’t shocked by that?”
“It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever had to sit through. I think my soul’s got blood on it.”
“Not exactly entertainment. Not a date flick.”
She took his arm. “Isn’t it supposed to be cathartic?”
“Do you feel catharterised?”
They were walking slowly. Leon could feel a sense of calm returning. He watched a black van cruise slowly down the street. Images from the film ghosted up in front of his eyes if he let his mind drift. There were many subconscious fears throwing themselves against the door of his mind trying to get out. Footpath, road, car, shopfront, he said to himself. Be in the moment.
“I’m taking Japanese animation next semester. Not so depressing,” Hayley said.
“I’ll tell you what’s different about Crybaby.” There was a scream nearby. Leon’s heart slammed against his rib cage, he stopped dead.
“It was a bird,” said Hayley.
“That was a . . .”
“That was a bird, yeah. I hear them at night, at home. An owl, maybe. There’s parkland along the river.”
He tried to breathe. Footpath, road, building.
“What’s different about Crybaby,” he said, taking a deep breath, “is that I can imagine the other examples, I mean other examples of extreme cinema, I can imagine them happening. While we were sitting in there, somewhere in the world someone was being murdered, being raped, being beaten up, yeah?” They waited at an intersection for the lights to change. It was a Thursday evening and the traffic was moderate. “But I can’t imagine three teenagers, torturing, maybe murdering, someone so casually.”
“With such vicious insouciance.”
“Yes, exactly. Good word. So that was exaggerated. Pushed to a kind of limit for cinematic purposes.” Leon realized he was listening for the bird, or any other sudden sounds, to guard against them.
“Hyperreal,” said Hayley. “Baudrillard. The medium of cinema collapses into the medium of reality to form the hyperreal. That’s what I did my tute on. You weren’t there.”
“I was unconscious due to excessive alcohol intake,” he said. They’d been over this before. She kept saying he should be more supportive. Something moved in the shadows and he jumped, but it disappeared when he looked directly at it. The black van drove past going in the other direction.
“I keep thinking that van’s going to screech to a halt and agents with guns pile out and kill everyone.”
“Welcome to hyperreality,” said Hayley.
He liked it when they talked like this. It excited him. Really, the brain is the biggest sexual organ. He turned and kissed her. She leaned against his shoulder as they walked on.
“Big queue at the taxi rank,” Leon said. They were a block away, crossing the intersection.
“Did you notice people looking at you in the foyer?”
“What?” Leon could feel a chill speeding along his veins towards his heart.
“I don’t know why, but you were getting some strange looks.”
It was like a stone hitting a windscreen. His fragile sense of calm shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. He couldn’t move his legs. He’d stepped up onto the footpath and stopped. Ahead were twenty or more people waiting at the brightly lit taxi rank. He had to get as far away as possible. Hayley kept asking what was wrong. How could he explain any of it? He couldn’t make sense of it to himself. He looked down the side street. It was dark and inviting.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. Hayley was hanging on to his arm.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” she said. Her face was thrust forward. Sometimes extreme situations make you see more clearly. She shone with intense feeling and well-meant concern. Hayley really was quite a special person . . . but, but, he couldn’t think about that now. Not this minute. He needed to be by himself. Somewhere quiet, before he lost his mind.
“Please, just tell me,” said Hayley.
“I can’t . . . I don’t even . . . I don’t . . .” the words were all stuck together. And, he thought, it just occurred to him, maybe Hayley had something to do with it all. He pulled away, stepped back. Hayley stumbled. He backed away step by step.
Then he turned and walked as fast as he could down the side street. It became darker as he went. Maybe Hayley did have something to do with it. Some film theory experiment. Like, what did she call it, hyperreality? Splice in some extra images. It would only take a few shots. Was that less insane than other possibilities?
He wanted to see where he was, to look around, but he couldn’t make himself lift his head. He had the overwhelming feeling that if he didn’t look at anyone, they wouldn’t be able to see him.
The street ended at the river. There was an ineffectual street lamp to the right. Directly ahead was a ramp leading down to a ferry terminal that was closed and in darkness except for two pale security lights. Beyond, small boats rolled at anchor on the slick, black water.
Leon turned left and stopped in the shadows behind an old industrial building. There were two ground floor windows with bars and wire mesh, and a door covered in graffiti. He leaned against the wall, closed his eyes and breathed that peculiar mud, oil and decay smell of rivers that flow through large cities. Sweat crawled over his ribs. A violent trembling came and went in his limbs. He wondered if he was having some kind of breakdown.
The silhouette of a barge crept along the river. Somewhere, a young woman laughed. He slid down the wall until he was sitting on the ground.
He’d noticed the clothes early in the film. Fairly generic clothing, admittedly, but still disconcerting, especially when the film itself had put him on edge. Then, towards the end, a single drop of blood landed on a piece of glass, and as the blood trickled, the focus changed to reveal, briefly, for the first and only time, a reflection of the victim’s face.
His face. The face Leon saw every day in the bathroom mirror. Which was clearly absurd. But then, the human brain is programmed to see faces in anything, any stain or smudge. Under psychological duress, for example if you’d been primed by seeing your own clothes, and hadn’t had enough sleep, then you might see your own face in any mottled shadow. That’s all it was. He knew that was all it was.
He could hear laughter and see the red ends of cigarettes on the ferry terminal ramp.
Stress, tiredness, and a brain like his that was always working, always whirring away at top speed, full of ideas. And imagination. A huge creative imagination like his, always testing new concepts. What his father referred to as his overactive imagination. That’s all this was.
He looked up as the three youths, pushing and shoving, walked into the light. One of them noticed him and they began sauntering in his direction.
Leon’s brain stopped working. He peered blankly out through his eyeballs.
He recognized the three young women of course; the haircuts, the stretch jeans, the bottle of vodka. Taller than he expected. They stood around him speaking French. The one with the close-cropped hair leaned over and dribbled spit onto the top of his head. The one with the eyebrow ring poked him with a stick she’d picked up from somewhere.
For a time he tried to will himself out of existence, which seemed easier than standing up, but eventually he struggled to his feet. He felt like some small animal prodded out from under a log, trembling and quivering. He supposed they would drag him through that graffitied door soon.
But then some primitive spark jolted through his apathy. Why wasn’t he fighting back and trying to escape before it was too late? He attempted to just walk away, but they boxed him in, pushed him back against the wall. He swiveled towards the closest youth and punched her in the stomach, turned back towards the one carrying the stick and kicked out, connecting with a knee. Then he ran.
They screamed abuse but didn’t seem to be following. Leon zigzagged for four or five blocks before stopping for breath. He leaned against the wall, gasping and listening for the sound of pursuit. There was none. The lane he was in was deserted but appeared to be a dead end. The buildings were mostly disused commercial premises.
He crossed to the other footpath and walked along, pushing on doors until one swung open. He felt so tired. He just wanted a hole to crawl into. It was dark inside, and he leaned back against the door until he heard the lock click. The gloom felt more protective than frightening. Eventually he removed his backpack, sat on the floor with his shoulders against the door, and closed his eyes.
Everything seemed to whisper and crackle and shimmer. He was pretty sure he could believe anything right now: astral travel, alien abduction, ghosts, conspiracy theories. How fragile his mind was. Education meant nothing. A little terror and all rational thought was stripped away. But then what did all those philosophers say? Plato, Kant, Descartes, Derrida: nothing is objectively true. Just shadows on a cave wall. He stopped thinking for a while. He hoped Hayley was okay. He liked her better than he’d been admitting to himself. She probably hated him right now.
Grimy fluorescent lights flickering to life roused him. He lifted his head from his chest. His eyes were blurry. Dust floated in front of century-old, stained wallpaper. The building had been gutted and the floor was strewn with rubbish. There was a bench piled with flattened cardboard boxes and packing materials.
He realized where he was just moments before he heard their voices and the three of them clattered into the room. The word “Regal” on an arch was still visible. He’d come in the back entrance, behind where the screen would once have been. One thing he’d completely missed about the film, though it should’ve been obvious: it was set in a derelict cinema. It brought extreme violence inside a cinema, and made a film about violence in the cinema.
The three young women had noticed him now, and grinned to each other as they wandered away from the bench. One of them had picked up an orange box-cutter and was sliding the blade in and out, another was swinging a hammer. Leon was shaking uncontrollably. He’d forgotten to put his jacket on. He should have put the jacket on and then this couldn’t have happened. It was his own fault. It was all his own stupid fault.
The youths were laughing and making comments in French. They looked pleased with themselves, as though they’d found a bag of free money. Or a perfect victim. He felt if he peered through the gloom he’d see people sitting in rows in the dark, watching and expectant.
The teenager with the eyebrow ring knelt and raised the hammer. She had the sweetest smile. The hammer was going to crush the second finger of his left hand. Wherever he moved his hand it would end up in precisely the right place to have the finger-bone crushed and the flesh and bone burst through the skin. He remembered the carefully composed shot. There’d be a yoghurt container in the dust nearby.
Leon knew exactly what was going to happen for the next one hundred and twelve minutes. He knew when he’d scream, and when he’d beg. He couldn’t help it; he began to cry.
About the Author
P.R. Dean is a writer from Brisbane, Australian. He has written plays, musicals, opera librettos, and the occasional short story.
About the Narrator
Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath PseudoPod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.
Scott is an associate editor at PseudoPod starting in 2016, He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets. He become Web Wrangler in 2021, and promoted to Assistant Editor in 2022. He is an invaluable resource for not only his assistance with reviewing stories but also helping to build all the blog posts and ensuring our website and bios are up to date.