FANTASTIC FEST 2023: CONANN is a Queer Fantasy Epic through Bertrand Mandico’s Phantasmagorical Glitter Covered Lens

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Easily one of my most anticipated films at this year’s Fantastic Fest was Bertrand Mandico’s follow up to the surreal lesbian acid western After BlueConann. His latest uses some of the same actors, settings and even characters, from his recent short Rainer, a Vicious Dog in a Skull Valley, that was the story of a stage director (Christophe Bier) producing a female version of Conan the Barbarian during the pandemic. Exploring similar themes of that short – what an artist will endure for their art –  the director makes a pact with the humanoid dog faced demon Rainer, to get his play made and it doesn’t go well as things do when pacts with demons are made. This is the same demon that shows up in Conann, which could be interpreted in two ways –  Conann is the meta theatrical adaptation of said play, or that the character of Rainer has a special interest in this specific subject and that is why he appeared to this particular director as well. 

Conann begins in ancient Cimmeria as envisioned through Bertrand Mandico’s phantasmagorical black and white glitter covered lens. A 15 year old Conann (Claire Duburcq) is taken as a slave by a tribe of all female barbarians after her mother is killed in front of her by their leader, Sanja (Julia Riedler). When Sanja’s leather jacket clad dog faced advisor Rainer (Elina Löwensohn) takes a special interest in the young girl, seeing her as someone who will become the “most barbaric of all the barbarians”, he assists Conann to begin her ascendancy to power, documenting it with his ever present camera, a stark contrast to the more period fantasy medieval surroundings. There’s a lot to unpack here as the film’s first act comes to a close as Conann not only poisons Sonja’s regime of troops, but is then killed by her 25 year-old self. 

While this particular kill easily signifies the death of innocence. Conann’s lust for power triggers a 10 year cycle of reinvention and reincarnation, every 10 years as she continues up the proverbial ladder. The film uses this aspect that each new Conann is played by a different age appropriate actor to explore a few metaphors, the most pertinent and obvious being the sacrifices forced upon a woman of oneself to rise to power in the patriarchy. When Conann finds love, she takes a reprieve from ancient Cimmeria and her quest for power in the Bronx in the late 90s. It’s here the film sheds a bit of its metaphorical baggage and takes on a more intimate and autobiographical point of view. After an accident, this Conann, who is a stuntwoman in this time, is laid up at home recuperating, when she is caught cheating on her significant other. 

Conann is then forced to make a choice by Rainer, between her blood drenched glory still awaiting her, or love, which throws the rest of the film into a downward spiral with the story reaching the depths of hell. Conann’s perversions only grow from there, as the fantasy elements are used to expand or highlight particular metaphorical readings of the story. The film is as dense as it is lush, with each new iteration of Conann telling its own distinct story. You could easily just pull apart the five different Conann’s and derive a meaning for each woman’s life and cause for having to kill herself in continually grotesque and horrific ways. This vicious cycle continues until the film reaches its gut-turning pinnacle set piece that reaches back to the price an artist is willing to pay for his art. It’s here at the culmination of the film, that it shows how truly vicious and grotesque the cyclic nature of Conann’s existence has become. 

Like its protagonist Conann is so much more brooding and ambitious than After Blue with Bertrand Mandico toying with time, narrative and character here in ways that multiply the interpretations of this tale the more you gaze into Conann’s infinite abyss. The visceral and captivating story is one of love, regret and art and the price paid for all three. It’s not a particularly easy pill to swallow, or pleasant to look at, but that’s kind of the point here, nothing is pleasant, and nothing is easy as it seems. My only hope after viewing Conann is that Bertrand Mandico has something equally or more impressive to cap this fantasy sci-fi trilogy off with, because bringing these two together could easily make this a queer work for the ages.

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