Cannes 2024 review: The Hyperboreans (Cristóbal León & Joaquín Cociña)

The Hyperboreans is an extraordinary achievement that is intentionally unsettling and sometimes even quite terrifying.”

One of the most peculiar and controversial figures of the 20th century was Miguel Serrano, who became one of the most vocal Nazi sympathizers of his time despite spending almost his entire life in his native Chile, intending to spread the violent and hateful rhetoric throughout South America as a means to realize his own bizarre political and philosophical ambitions. Considering how he is not widely known outside of the region beyond those who have a particular interest in history, it is clear that his endeavors were mostly unsuccessful and trivial at best. However, his life is the subject of The Hyperboreans, a fascinating and offbeat dark comedy written and directed by the filmmaking duo of Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña. They follow up their acclaimed debut The Wolf House (as well as returning from a brief sojourn working with Ari Aster on Beau Is Afraid) with a semi-biographical account of Serrano’s life as told from the perspective of a young actor endeavoring to tell his story through a series of disjointed moments in which she is the primary performer. A peculiar deconstruction of history from a unique point of view, and one that is as accurate as it is unusual, The Hyperboreans is defined by layers of artistic ingenuity, flourishing into a delightfully perverse assault on our senses, evoking only the most visceral reaction from an audience that may not know what to expect when stepping into this film, other than a strange and unforgettable voyage into the darker side of history.

It was the acclaimed American writer and patron saint of peculiarity Thomas Pynchon who famously asked the question “why should things be easy to understand?”, which has been appropriated as the outline for countless works that fall outside the artistic status quo. Only the most creative of individuals know that confusion is a powerful artistic tool, and that plunging the audience into a state of absolute bewilderment can often have exceptional results. Working alongside Antonia Giesen (who delivers one of the most exceptional performances of the year so far), the directors employ many fascinating tactics throughout The Hyperboreans, crafting the film around a very clear mismatch of logic – they approach the plot from a stream-of-consciousness point of view, focusing on telling the story in a manner that is as non-traditional as possible, in the hopes of underlining the more subversive elements of how they view the real-life subject as well as his legacy. The film exists in the ambiguous space between reality and fiction, not placing too much credence on historical accuracy, but also never being too liberal when it comes to the more unconventional elements. This is present in both the narrative framework and the visual style, both of which are carefully curated in a manner that blurs the well-maintained boundary between a recognizable version of reality, and one that is entirely uncanny. The Hyperboreans is unorthodox and subversive right down to the smallest and most inconsequential detail, which evokes a sense of genuine disorientation and chaos that  León and Cociña expertly exhibit as they voyage through this very unconventional and daring narrative.

Part of the success that León and Cociña have enjoyed over the past few years as their work becomes gradually more recognized is their refusal to adhere to conventions. The life and times of Serrano could have quite easily been made into a traditional historical drama, but the directors chose to dismantle nearly every expectation and tell the story in their own unique manner. This is present in the narrative, but it’s the execution of these ideas that truly highlights its ingenuity. The Hyperboreans takes the form of a one-woman show, consisting of a single actor being surrounded by disembodied entities that come together to portray the major characters in this account of Serrano’s life and his legacy. Blending live action with stop-motion animation, the directors push the boundaries of their craft, creating a visually arresting film which takes on a distinctively nightmarish appearance that looks like nothing the viewer has ever seen before. Making use of different artistic instruments and media to create this unconventional vision of reality, there are major echoes of German Expressionism and Postmodernism scattered throughout the film, embedded into every frame. Much like the plot, there is rarely any clear reason as to why the directors chose this particular approach, and ruminating on their artistic decisions provokes more questions than it does answers, which is precisely the state in which the directors wish the audience to remain. The combination of many different visual and artistic styles draws our attention to the concept of artifice as a veneer for the past, a means to tell a challenging story that doesn’t give credence to the despicable subject, but rather examines his legacy in a manner that is both daring and visually very striking.

Making sense of a film like The Hyperboreans is a fool’s errand and almost contradictory to the spirit of the film and its off-kilter perspective – there is certainly a method to the madness, and the narrative does flow in a manner that is logical enough to be credible, but the overall experience is designed to stir debate, whether philosophical or psychological. Crafted as an unconventional reconfiguration of the traditional historical drama, particularly those that claim to have something of value to say about their subject, the film presents an entirely new kind of metafiction, being as much about the subject as it is the creation of the film itself. It employs numerous layers that can be challenging to penetrate but lead to some extraordinary insights into both existentialism and artistic expression. Acting as a disquieting voyage into both a very specific moment in history and the contemporary human psyche as we confront the past, the film takes a bold approach in how it combines many different moving parts (both narratively and in terms of the visual style – the animation itself is beyond stunning) into this deeply unconventional jumble of ambitious ideas. Enveloped by layers of peculiar humor and existential dread that play on our emotions and most carnal curiosities, and driven by a genuine sense of artistic bedlam, The Hyperboreans is an extraordinary achievement that is intentionally unsettling and sometimes even quite terrifying. The process of telling this story involved dismantling logic and presenting it in a manner that can only be appropriately labelled as purely radical and unquestionably provocative in terms of both form and content.