Home Tech She Is Conann is a glamorous fever dream about finding beauty in barbarism

She Is Conann is a glamorous fever dream about finding beauty in barbarism

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Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is so deeply rooted in the golden age of cartoonishly hypermasculine pulp fantasy that it’s hard to imagine a bold, feminist take on the character. But Altered Innocence’s new film She Is Conann, from French writer / director Bertrand Mandico, takes the classic Conan myth to new heights with its mind-bending visuals and story of how humanity’s capacity for violence transcends gender.

Set in a shapeshifting world where time and space morph in a chaotic, dream-like way, She Is Conann tells the story of how an unassuming young girl goes on to become a legendary barbarian after her village is ransacked by a band of bloodthirsty marauders. At 15 years old, Conann’s (Claire Duburcq) fate seems all but sealed after her mother is murdered and she’s enslaved by Sanja (Julia Riedler) — a vicious warrior who stalks the land in search of vulnerable targets to hunt for sport. But with nothing but her own life left to lose, Conann chooses to embrace the currency of her world — grotesque barbarism — in order to save herself. In making that decision, she inadvertently sets into motion events that go on to shape the course of human history.

In She Is Conann’s most basic plot beats and its depiction of a nightmarish world where sexualized ultraviolence is the norm, you can see flashes of John Milius’ testosterone-soaked 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But rather than simply trying to subvert Howard’s hypermasculine creation with a story centering women characters, She Is Conann taps into one of the most fascinating aspects of the original Conan mythos to stunning effect.

Before Conan was a fully realized person, the barbarian was merely the past life of another character featured in “People of the Dark” — Howard’s 1932 short story originally published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man discovering the existence of his previous incarnations. She Is Conann takes the idea to the next level by introducing Conann not just as an ordinary singular girl but also as an older woman (Françoise Brion) taking stock of the many lives she led on her way to becoming an icon of war and destruction. 

Fifteen-year-old Conann is just one piece of the puzzle, and her terror speaks to how she’s at the very beginning of her epic. But that fear gives way to something more complex and dangerous as Conann meets the demon Rainer (Elina Löwensohn) and her own 25-year-old self (Christa Théret), who must literally murder her past counterpart in order to move forward into their shared future. 

Instead of chronicling Conann’s life in a traditionally linear fashion, She Is Conann zeroes in on these pivot moments of self-annihilation / realization as a way of exploring the many different forms that barbarity can take. This is all long-forgotten history to the elder Conann — an ethereal woman wandering the depths of hell in search of her memories. But it’s all new and terrifying to the film’s younger Conanns, who enter the film as representations of specific decades in which the titular barbarian truly established herself as a force to be reckoned with.

Through Anna Le Mouël’s production design, you can see how She Is Conann came into shape as a film after Mandico spent time cultivating ideas for other Conan-focused projects at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers. Especially in its opening act, as the elder Conann’s first finding herself in the underworld, the film feels like an abstract stage play meant to evoke the sense of shock that can come with looking back at the arc of one’s life. The film’s play-like quality makes its brutal, beautiful transitions from one Conann to the next easy enough to understand as a metaphor for the barbarity of destroying one version of yourself to become another.

But while She Is Conann presents the decades of Conann’s life as vignettes, they are each so richly textured that it’s hard to imagine any of them being as powerful without cinematographer Nicolas Eveilleau’s ability to highlight their intricate details. Despite its gory portrayals of disembowelment, She Is Conann is often a shockingly beautiful film defined by an exquisitely high-fashion aesthetic that costume designer Elise Cribier-Delande brilliantly uses to explore the many facets of Conann’s identity.

No two Conanns are exactly alike, but they are all women whose desires — for vengeance, for understanding, for other people — ultimately drive them to be the best at what barbarians do. As She Is Conann hurtles toward its conclusion, Conann herself becomes an increasingly fascinating and macabre figure, but it’s the film’s ideas about what barbarism looks like that are most inspired. Though it might be hard to imagine depictions of murder, cannibalism, and war as poetic things of arresting beauty, that’s the mode She Is Conann exists in, and it’s a sight to behold.

She Is Conann also stars Sandra Parfait, Christophe Bier, Karoline Rose Sun, Holly-Rose Clegg, Yuming Hey, and Anna Raisson. The film is currently scheduled for a limited number of theatrical screenings in various cities across the US, but the film is also available to preorder on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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