MONTREAL — A singular introduction to “a place where magic still has currency,” Richard Stanley‘s L’Autre Monde is part documentary about a storied region in southwestern France, part first-hand testimony of the paranormal, and part psychedelic head trip. It’s all entrancing, though, and even viewers who walk out unsure what they’ve seen (they’ll have plenty of company) may well want to share the experience with friends. It has “Cult Movie” written all over it, and for once that flavor isn’t affectation but the result of perfect sync between filmmaker and subject.
Stanley, the director of indie genre titles including 1990’s Hardware, starts this film in front of the camera. Speaking portentously in a shadow-filled room, he looks at us as if we’re across the campfire and says “This is the story of the strangest thing that ever happened to me. I don’t expect you to believe me…”
The filmmaker reports that he first visited Montsegur more than two decades ago, researching a documentary on the Holy Grail. He describes a visit to the ruins of the fortress there, a full-moon nighttime hike in which the atmosphere suddenly turned “electric” and he encountered a woman — not a ghost — who hadn’t been there an instant before.
Stanley and his companion Scarlett Amaris (interviewed separately for the film) returned countless times over the intervening years, hoping to have the experience again. Spooked by his studies into wondering if the woman walked through a portal in time, he went so far as to have his teeth fixed — lest he meet her again and get stuck in the dentist-deprived Middle Ages.
There is an eerie payoff to this ghost tale, but before delivering it Stanley shows the extent to which he is not alone. Montsegur, Rennes-Le-Chateau, and Bugarach are chock full of lore, from the kind of unsolved Catholic controversies that lead to Dan Brown bestsellers to much stranger, more fascinating mysteries of the occult.
“The Zone” is the realm of people like Uranie, a skin-and-bones hermit (and, whether he realizes it or not, outsider artist) who, when he’s not tacking Lucio Fulci posters and torn-up dolls to fenceposts, will pull down maps to show how every strange geological feature around here aligns to the tangle of pentagrams and hexagons he has drawn on them.
In this area, even a middle-aged square who looks like he should be on the golf course might buttonhole you to share tales of mini-UFOs he calls “Orbs.” Take a look at his photo album, why don’t you: Laugh at all the lens-flare he thinks is evidence of ET; then feel the hair on your neck rise when he pulls out a video that is harder to explain away.
Another video in the film has a more startling effect, and in response to a question from The Hollywood Reporter, Stanley freely acknowledges what the film doesn’t explicitly say: As it appears to be, the footage is “essentially a recreation” of the story being told at the time. But L’Autre Monde is no mock-doc horror film masquerading as scientific inquiry. Stanley interviews scholars and historians along with his stranger subjects, and makes a point of showing tale-tellers like Uranie (a one-of-a-kind character, who gets the screen time he deserves) in moments that allow us to look askance at his insights.
Yet so many people have unexplained tales to tell, and so many — like Stanley himself, who insists he believes every word of what he’s saying — seem sane or mostly so. A rational person is left with the impression that this is not a rational corner of the world — that it’s a place that merits the kaleidoscopic effects, superimpositions, and other visual tricks Stanley uses so judiciously in this gorgeously photographed, mood-altering film.
Production Company: Metaluna Productions
Director: Richard Stanley
Screenwriters: Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris
Producers: Fabrice Lambot, Jean-Pierre Putters, Caroline Piras
Director of photography: Karim Hussain
Music: Simon Boswell
Editor: Pat Tremblay
No rating, 86 minutes