RV!: The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) Dir: Tom Six Date Released: April 2010 May 2010 Date Seen: May 1, 2010 Rating: 4/5
If Tom Six never made the sequel to The Human Centipede (First Sequence) that his debut feature's title threatens viewers with, it would only serve to confirm my understanding of what makes First Sequence so playfully demented. It's nice to know that after a second viewing, I still find the film to be gripping, effectively queasy and a small wonder of new pastiche and exploitation cinema. Six announces his perhaps overdetermined control over the film from the start in the simple but effective pan his camera makes on the outskirts of a rather sizable highway. The shot, like the film, is overt in announcing Six's total control over what the viewer is seeing. It's very telling that this is how Six starts the film, immediately trying to impress the viewer with a visually literal and highly overt show of his authorial powers. The frequent mood swings that will come later in the film are deliberate. There is an intelligence to the film's shallow but deliberately frustrating direction. And now that you've presumably seen the film, I can go deeper into explaining how Six accomplishes that. Spoilers ahead. Duh.
To start, I think one has to address what I'm now more sure than ever is a deliberate shallowness to the film's narrative, tone, structure, aesthetic and acting. There isn't a coherent context that the film's events can be understood within. They do not exist in any kind of cogent history beyond a tentative allusion to Japanese kamikaze pilots and Nazis, which sadly does not a WW2 allegory make. Dieter Laser's Dr. Heiter is distressingly unreadable. Laser camps it up mercilessly and yet remains a serious threat not just because he has some supremely disgusting plans for the film's central three victims but rather because his motives cannot be understood beyond a point.
Beyond his clipped but disjointed speech, the only things that shed light on Heiter's character is his house's distinguishing fixtures, of which there are very few. The conspicuous black candles on his dining room table and the ultrasound mural behind his couch are the only signs that somebody has ever lived in there. It's spacious and lit with an ominous and ubiquitous fluorescent lighting throughout, from the fuzzy white that simulates natural lighting in the bedroom to the baby neon blue of the downstairs laboratory's medicine cabinet. There's a swimming pool with a rather large fresco featuring ridiculous Romanesque figures frolicking about but apart from that, the place could have been rented for the weekend and nobody would know but Heiter.
Heiter's dialogue and actions are even harder to parse. He's a very cartoonish villain, wielding his rifle from outside his bedroom floor-to-ceiling windows like a boy playing at being a soldier one moment, then enjoying pasta and canned tomato sauce the next. Without any understanding of where his abnormal behavior comes from, apart from the knowledge that he's previously experimented on his beloved "three-dog," the viewer isn't privileged with any insight into his psyche.
By making Heiter so flamboyant and so vile in his single-minded preoccupations, Six is knowingly pushing the viewer to ask for things he won't give them. There's no stabilizing explanations here, no ideological intent to justify Heiter's actions and hence no way to know what's really going on. The fact that the movie could effectively end halfway in, after the centipede is created, shows you that what the viewer is seeing is not motivated by a totally coherent narrative. We get the breadcrumbs that Six gives us and we only get that if and when he feels like giving them.
Six's nigh-tyrannically self-assured grip extends to the way he treats the human components of the eponymous centipede like playthings that he's emotionally invested in. We know that Six cares for the two American girls, or at least sympathizes with them enough to give them that crucial scene where they clasp hands, a scene that feels all the more poignant and significant the second time around. But beyond that, they are characters whose fates are irrevocably sealed. Their lives are now inexplicably headed towards a weird and very demeaning fate. There are two scenes that suggest these kids never had a prayer and they're not coincidentall the film's pivotal escape attempts. Here Six shows how well he can draw out tension and the extent of his film's pessimism. He can't help himself from frustrating the viewer. The scene in the pool and the one where the Japanese guy kills himself perfectly showcase Six's central preoccupation with anticlimaxes. That is what the centipede is, not a fetish to be feared reverently but rather an anti-climax, a grotesque menace that is realized midway through the film. Any narrative momentum in the film ultimately directs the viewer off a series of cascading cliffs.
That cycle of anticlimaxes is also central to understanding what the centipede represents, specifically what little it says about the disintegration of communication between total strangers. In light of the way the film ends, I couldn't help but focus on the way characters interact with one another in the film. Sympathy for these poor mechanicals is obviously generated by situational peril but I can't ignore the wisp of humanity, that potential for good expressed when the two Americans hold hands, in the film. I've never seen the ugly bimboish quality that so many did in the Americans, especially not before their first encounter with Heiter. They're under duress and very, very on edge. But never unduly ugly, never to the point where we can disavow the validity and humanity of their nervous reactions.
What the centipede does is force a group of estranged people to work together, to physically rely on one another as they do in the second escape attempt. Heiter's experiment is positioned as a regressive exercise meant to see if its participants can regain a lost part of their humanity, forcing them to see beyond their own immediate needs and to understand and appreciate their reliance on others. The disappointing end result of that trial by fire speaks to a damning cynicism that explains the film's constant need to throw the rug out from under the viewer. Because there is no hope nor any understanding to be found in The Human Centipede (First Sequence) after that final precipice, making the title's hint of further sequences all the more bleakly funny. I look forward to a sequel but I don't expect nor do I really need one.