Fantasia 2012: ‘Excision’ Cut the Heart Out of My Chest
Written and Directed by Richard Bates Jr.
There were two films at Fantasia this year that took me on trips that I didn’t want to go on. The first was the winner of Fantasia’s Satoshi Kon Award for Achievement in Animation The King of Pigs. The second was Excision. Both films are about outsiders in high school, bullying and school as hell. The difference is that The King of Pigs announces almost from its opening frames that this will not be a pleasant journey, while Excision promises a disturbing dream of a journey, only truly turning nightmarish in the final twenty minutes.
To put it another way, I quite enjoyed the trip that Excision was taking me on, until I reached its destination and I hated that arrival so much that it made me hate the journey – made me reevaluate and hate the entire film.
Because I can’t really explain why without discussing Excision’s shocking ending…
HC SVNT SPOILERS
The protagonist of Excision is Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), the outsider’s outsider. Scarred by acne and a herpes cold sore that she got from her Dad (Roger Bart) when she nearly drowned, Pauline is considered a freak by her classmates and her teachers (who include Malcolm McDowell, Matthew Gray Gubler, Marlee Matlin and Ray Wise as Pauline’s principal.) She refuses to hide her intelligence or change her appearance to fit in, preferring to let her freak flag fly proudly.
Pauline’s anti-social behavior has drawn the ire of her Mom (Traci Lords), who makes Pauline take counselling with their reverend (John Waters). The only person in Pauline’s life who accepts her without judging is her sister Grace (Ariel Winter). Pauline’s relationship with Grace is complicated. On one hand, Grace is the perfect daughter, interested in the same things that her mother is interested in, packaged like a Martha Stewart art project. On the other hand, Grace is slowly dying of cystic fibrosis and will eventually need a lung transplant. So Grace is the favourite daughter and is constantly being used as a counter-example to Pauline by their Mother. On the gripping hand, Grace never does that, accepting Pauline for what she is and participating in Pauline’s bizarre activities, like lying down in the driveway so that Pauline can draw a corpse outline in chalk.
Despite not believing in God (or claiming not to believe in him), Pauline has extended conversations with him in a very Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret way. She also has incredibly vivid masturbatory fantasies (where she has perfect skin) involving blood, surgical mutilation, blood, corpses, blood and well, blood. Pauline’s non-sexual fantasies also involve blood and surgery; she has aspirations to be a surgeon and is already studying towards that goal.
Deciding that she wants to lose her virginity, Pauline chooses the boyfriend of the prettiest Mean Girl in her class and propositions him. Telling her mother that Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is picking her up for a study group, Pauline enlists her mother’s help in looking good for the boy, indulging her mother’s dreams of playing dress-up with her daughters. The ensuing sex scene is in turns funny, awkward, erotic and disturbing; Pauline has timed the encounter so that she is on her period, which turns Cronenbergian when she has Adam perform oral sex on her under the covers – turning him literally into a blood-sucker.
While Adam is perfectly content to keep his mouth shut about the encounter, disturbed about the way that Pauline used him as a vessel for her sexual fantasies, Pauline uses it as a petty form of revenge against her chief bully. The ensuing feud escalation (interspersed with the cotillion that Pauline is forced to take part in) ends with Pauline indefinitely suspended from her school. This happens to coincide with Grace taking a turn for the worse.
Up to this point, Pauline emerges as a flawed, but believable outsider. Sure Pauline is prone to dramatics, what teenager isn’t? But she is smart, knows what she wants and goes out and gets it. What makes her scary to others is that she chooses to be a freak, chooses to control her own sexuality. In a way, her story feels like it could be the secret origin of Jennifer Lynch or Jovanka Vuckovic or Montreal’s own Maude Michaud – a story that can only get better.
And Pauline certainly makes the noises of someone who wants the story to get better, taking responsibility for the actions that got her kicked out of school, making a pledge to being nicer to her sister and (re)dedicating herself to her surgery dreams to help if not Grace than people like her…
Which is when the doors on the subway train snap shut and we find out that we are actually riding on The Midnight Meat Train; when Pauline goes all Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, takes advantage of her mother being out of the house to drug her father with paralytic tea, chloroform her sister, and chloroform/kidnap the bratty teen across the street, so that she can perform a lung transplant on her sister in their garage…
And I started hating the film.
I am not saying that the film doesn’t lay the foundations for a tale of mental illness, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to see. And by making it a story about mental illness, the film invalidates everything positive that it said about accepting your place as an outsider, owning your sexuality, believing in your ability to be great.
I thought that the film was about the strange girl in black in the corner of the classroom growing up to be the next Jill Thompson or Mary Lambert or Kathy Reichs. I didn’t want it to be the story about her being a disturbed victim of an undiagnosed mental illness.
I liked loved Pauline enough to believe in her capacity of greatness, but what I saw as greatness, Excision meant to be madness. Excision cut the heart out of my chest… and broke my heart.
– Michael Ryan