If you want car chases, blue aliens or Brangelina, stop reading now – this film is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want an exposition on the means and methods of theatre-practitioner Antero Alli’s school of Paratheatre, well, actually this film might not be for you either. However, if you are fan of arthouse cinema, the colourful works of Kenneth Anger, or the nightmarish delirium of Lynch’s Inland Empire, then this low-budget film might just be the ticket.
Through a series of flashbacks, combined with video-diary and archive footage, the Invisible Forest follows a period in the life of theatre director Alex (played by actual director Antero Alli) as he leads his theatre company into a forest to engage with his ‘paratheatrical’ method. During this time he is repeatedly confronted by the bizarre ghost of surrealist French playwright Antonin Artaud, who attempts to instruct and enlighten Alex on the principles of his Theatre of Cruelty, the central theme about which this film revolves. In a sumptuous and Luciferian ‘heart of darkness’ narrative the director, Alex begins to question himself, while about him, his troupe externalises expressions of the strange mythic breakdown he is undergoing.
At first glance this film appears too clumsy to be pretentious. Then a double-take occurs and one realises that the film is far from clumsy, and certainly not pretentious in what it seeks to deliver. It is undeniably naive on certain cinematic qualities that, in their own way, serve to draw us towards the meat of what is important to the film: the exploration of certain metaphysical ideas through a practice of, performance; living mysticism in the body of expression. It is in the cinematic naivety that some of refreshing vitality present in live performance, really shines through. It is raw, it is impulsive, and it is rarely crystal clear. And therein lies the spirit of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
I shall be honest – and try to set a precedent by this. Watching it with a critical eye it is easy to shoot holes in this film. So why did I find myself enthralled, buoyant and persistently impressed by The Invisible Forest?
Like some of the most powerful films, it is precisely because it is not a ‘straight-forward watch’ that it begins to creep inside you. It soon appears the apparent problems with the The Invisible Forest, or with my relationship with the film, are reflections of its deliberately discordant elements throughout. So, rather than list the things I like about this film, I am going to consider what appears to be its problems, and why I actually like them.
Perhaps the first thing one notices when watching the film is the discordant and jarring use of different cameras and film. Whilst the clear visual difference between Super-8 and digital Hi-Def is unashamedly brutal, and not a happy marriage. Each camera type is wed to a different narrative thread, allowing us to visually distinguish these strands, that we can both maintain an awareness of the continuity of each strand, whilst giving us the distance to contrast one against the other.
It is during my consideration of this juxtaposition, that Alli’s character, Alex, describes the work he and his troupe are engaged with: to juxtapose discordant monologues and dialogues from Shakespeare, in an exploration of collision and coincidence. This is essentially what is being paralleled by the camerawork: content and structure exploring a key tenet of Artaud’s 2nd manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty:
“These means, consisting of differing intensities of colour, light or sound, using vibrations… bringing tonality into play, can only achieve their full effect by using discords.” – Artaud
It fast becomes clear that not only is this film being used as a medium for the direct, in-character, discussion of ideas, but is, as a medium, being used to explore the connotations of Artaud’s ideas, pitching divergent elements against each other to create a vivacity through constrast and sensation.
Through the juxtaposition of film mediums, we cannot help but be made aware of the presence of the camera, and consequently, the cameraman. Such awareness recalls certain jaw-dropping twists in Lynch’s Inland Empire, and Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, with whom this film shares intellectual and sensory sympathy. In both films, as with Alli’s Invisible Forest, we are brutally reminded we are watching a film, and yet in all three there is a continued seduction into the world of the film, creating a unique tension between immersion and dissociation.
This tension and juxtaposition is taken further in the realisation much of the footage we are watching appears to be extracted from archive footage of Alli’s real-life troupe engaged in rehearsal, exploration and experimentation.
The barriers between fictional narrative and apparent real life are blurred. Is this life-imitating-art, or art-imitating-life-imitating-art? The answer to this conundrum leaps out from the pages of the manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty: “… there will be no distinctive divisions, no gap between life and theatre.”
Antero Alli’s performance during the therapy scenes is radiant. The subtlety in the largely improvised performance is utterly convincing. Are we watching Alex the fictitious director, or Alli’s the actual director? And this seems to be the crux of these parts in the movie. The film is a strange Schrodinger’s Cat, occupying two mutually exclusive states at the same time: it is both real and fictitious. Alex is the creation and extension of Antero: Life and Theatre are the same thing. It’s all real; it’s all made-up.
Not all of the performances are as beautifully ambiguous as Alli’s. Again the jarring juxtaposition forcibly confronts us, insisting we do not forget we are watching a fictitious film about a troupe of actors, played by a real troupe, who are at times acting, at other times that are acting not-acting, whilst at other times they are just plain not-acting. This juxtaposition is no where better exemplified than when a Luciferian character (James L. Wagner) amidst the boughs of a tree, rants and raves about the void in a most outrageously overly-theatrical fashion only to reach the end of his speech and, pausing, allows a transformation to cross his face that speaks of a sublime vision of reality, so touching, so authentic, it might have only been made possible by contrast with the previous melodrama of the scene.
Furthermore, we are not seeing the portrayal of training as we might expect to see in a Hollywood montage, but footage of real people, genuinely engaging with the work. In this space, so closely identifiable with the Invisible Forest from which the film takes its name, in which non-linear space the film is set, we are continually assailed with layers of ambiguity and discordance, with Artaud’s vision for theatre and its essentially aggressive means, being launched upon us. We cannot be a simply passive viewer, but must become embroiled in personal reflection and interpretation. Again and again, any apparent naivety only serves to reveal the authenticity of the intent behind these facets of Alli’s work and ideas.
Following in Grotowski’s path, and in a strange sympathy with Esoteric and Occult traditions, much of Alli’s work and the training of his actors is not concerned with the staging of shows for the entertainment of an audience: it is about personal exploration and development of the actor and their body into a tool for personal initiation. As we watch the film, we must bear in mind this very quality is inescapable for those performing within the film – much of what we are seeing is real people engaged in real training.
The film is the performers equivalent to the magicians grimoire. It is a vehicle for the explication of ideas that are useful to the actor exploring the metaphysical application of this artform. It encodes and encapsulates essentially aphorisms dealing with the location of the self in the world, and the medium of acting or performance as a means of instigating and realising transformative actions. Like the best magical grimoires, they are largely inaccessible without the reader, the magician, investing something of their own time and energy: this is the diabolic pact. Nothing of this films intrinsic value is given freely; it must be worked at by the viewer; it requires attention, acceptance and reflection. And in engaging with that work, we are in a way becoming complicit in its mission, and the pact is signed.
It is not the film of an accomplished filmmaker, and I am not sure it’s supposed to be working towards that end. This is not a filmmakers film, exploring the territory of cinematic possibility – it is not concerned with that. Rather, it is an idea-driven film depicting individuals exploring themselves through performance. It is a rare insight into the performative and theatrical – paratheatrical – attitudes, physicality and meta-physics of an ostensibly live genre, audaciously captured on film with remarkable sensitivity.
The Invisible Forest, and other films by Antero Alli are available on DVD from Antero’s site.
You can check our interview with Antero Alli on our podcast here.