Cannes 2018 review: Ultra pulpe (Bertrand Mandico)

Less than a year after having been one of the sensations at the Venice Film Festival, where his first feature film Les garçons sauvages earned much praise, Bertrand Mandico comes back to his preferred short film format with Ultra pulpe in a special screening at the Critics’ Week. A large part of the cast of Les garçons sauvages stayed on to work with the French director on Ultra pulpe: Elina Löwenson as the main character Joy, accompanied by Pauline Lorillard, Vimala Pons, Nathalie Richard, and Lola Créton, who was the narrator of Les garçons sauvages  and appears on screen this time.

Rather than telling a story Ultra pulpe follows a thread, inspired by the act of inventing and telling stories. Each sequence takes place on the set of one of the pulp movies directed by Joy (hence the title), skipping from one genre to the next: a post-apocalyptic future, a horror with monsters or ghosts, eroticism, a science-fiction set on Mars… The structure of Ultra pulpe mimics the pattern of Russian nesting dolls, as each new person encountered by Joy becomes immediately, through a simple cut, not only the star of the following movie presented on screen but also its prey. In a manner which is at the same time captivating, playful and clear-headed, Mandico symbolises throughout Ultra pulpe the dual nature of cinema, an art form where actors – and especially actresses – are equally celebrated and consumed. One sentence summarizes it harshly: “Cinema is a monkey who fucks his muses, blinded by the spotlights”.

Mandico shows cinema as it is, in all the beauty and the cruelty of its connection with real life, which makes it so fascinating and unsettling to us, the audience. The director takes on a similar position with his own Ultra pulpe, which he puts on the fence between luxury and vulgarity, and between the celebration and the manipulation of reality. The full name of its protagonist is Joy d’Amato, after the real Italian filmmaker Joe d’Amato (here we return to the main theme of Les garçons sauvages: girls taking the part of boys). Joy is a fantasy depiction of Joe, as she makes exactly the kind of outrageous B-movies he directed by the dozen – some of his titles are even explicitly quoted (the horror/pornography crossover Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, for example).

At one point, one of the characters of Ultra pulpe declares, “It’s beautiful, but I don’t quite see what it is aiming at”. This is an obvious and witty wink given by Mandico at his own practice of cinema, in which aesthetics rather than narrative is the leading force. Ultra pulpe is truly as beautiful as a movie can get, with its continuously stunning explosion of colours (coming after the black and white cinematography of Les garçons sauvages) intensifying in a glorious eighties fashion each and every shot of the film. As for being shallow and not really going somewhere, Mandico found the perfect way to dodge this risk by making his movie about the thing he knows and loves the most: other movies. In Ultra pulpe meta-cinema fits Mandico’s cinema like a second skin, and creates a state of trance out of its succession of marvellous and monstrous, sultry and scary visions.