The Wild Boys feels like the film that would have been made if Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away had been directed by Dario Argento.
The feature-length debut of acclaimed French short film auteur Bertrand Mandico, The Wild Boys feels like the film that would have been made if Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away had been directed by Dario Argento. Alternately stunning, repulsive, dreamy and despicable, it doesn’t tell a story so much as provoke. It’s more than successful in this regard, though it is hard not to wonder how Mandico’s unique filmmaking skills would have worked on a more traditional narrative.
The “wild boys” – who are actually played by women – are privileged, 1900s schoolboys on the Indian Ocean island Réunion who violently rape their teacher while under the thrall of a chaotic entity known as TREVOR. As punishment, they are sent off on a boating voyage under the watch of a crude and creepy captain who is known for his ability deal with misbehaving youngsters. Eventually, they head for an enchanted island, where the boys’ gender begins to change.
The real star here is Pascale Granel’s cinematography. The 16mm camerawork is lush and dreamy, but even more notable is the restrained use of color. Much of the film is black-and-white, with the occasional burst of glitter-hued blues, pinks and greens to signal when the boys are under magical influence.
Shakespeare is an obvious influence; Macbeth is overtly referenced while the plot draws significantly from The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. The Lord of the Flies is referenced as well, and the more violent aspects of the film bring A Clockwork Orange to mind. Yet though he is clearly and enthusiastically referential, Mandico’s unique voice is singular. Everything, from the wild, operatic synth-rock score (by Pierre Desprats), the gender-flipped casting, the abundance of sexual imagery and aforementioned cinematography combine to create a strikingly original experience. Mandico is also helped by excellent performances by Anaël Snoek, Vimala Pons, Diane Rouxel, Mathilde Warnier and Pauline Lorillard. These actresses convincingly play privileged boys, sneering abusers and, later, sexually-free island nymphs. Their work here is versatile and remarkable.
For such a stylized filmmaker, Mandico is pragmatic in his decision-making, and manages to smooth some of the film’s sharper edges without causing too much offense. Chief among these are the scenes of sexual violence. First of all, the gender-switched casting does make some of the scenes more palatable, though this will cause the viewer to question why it is that having female actors rape and kill is somehow gentler to observe. Second, the sexual aspects of the film are treated with satirical abundance. Bodily fluids launch forth in buckets, genitals are engorged and in-some cases obviously prosthetic and the choreography is heavily stylized, removing any hints of realism from the more violent encounters.
Still, though the film has a progressive feel due to the casting as well as the trajectory of the story, The Wild Boys is still guilty of heavily objectifying women. This, combined with the relative incoherence of the narrative, makes it hard to truly decode Mandico’s specific point, if he even has one. However, the questions that he raises, particularly in transforming these violent male offenders into women, are thought provoking.
Though some of the questions Bertrand Mandico raises with The Wild Boys could have been asked in a clearer and more considered manner, the curious and provocative nature of the film makes for an engaging, bewildering experience. It’s an intelligent film, one that takes its predecessors seriously maintaining a bold uniqueness.