“Stupid slut. I hate you!” a jock yells, leaving his beguiling band geek lover by the side of the road.
The geek-slut-tease in question, Carolyn Harper, fires back, “I hate you, too! I hate you with all my heart right now!” She is still in full, feather-hatted regalia, and suddenly bleeding profusely from the forehead. The jock has stolen her glasses, which glow ominously like the C-shaped cut she scratched into his forehead mere moments ago.
Soon after, Carolyn dies and her body disappears, with no explanation offered for either event.
So goes the pre-title sequence to “Signature Move” director Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin,” a multi-festival selectee with the aesthetic and feminist confidence of a Judy Chicago retrospective and overall coherence of an Ansel Elgort interview. “Knives and Skin” begs the question, at what point does experimentation give way to irrelevance? It deliciously refuses to offer an answer.
As much as “Knives and Skin” even has a plot, here it is: Carolyn (Raven Whitley) goes missing. Her mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) and friends Joanna (Grace Smith), Charlotte (Ireon Roach), and Afra (Haley Bolithon) are left to navigate grief, friendship, family, and love in the wake of her loss. The film plays these themes out in a series of nonsensical human interactions, including sexual mishaps and failed flirtations. A dissatisfied housewife throws a meat/raw egg bomb at her husband’s van. Another dissatisfied housewife has sex with a clown who is not her husband. Joanna makes iron-on shirts that say things like BRYN MAWR, AUDRE LORDE and JOAN OF ARC. Afra pulls items out of her vagina and gifts them to her girlfriend. And mesmeric a cappella performances of songs like New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” split it all up.
The “Riverdale” and “Twin Peaks” comparisons are inevitable here, given the juvenile dialogue, missing girls, electronic score, and neon lighting, but “Knives and Skin” is a more coquettish, acerbic shadow-projection of its predecessors. It is a satire and reinvention of dead girl media, a modern “Feminine Mystique” that does not howl so much as shrug and sigh. Its wronged women are passively dissatisfied by men and sex and life in general, doll figurines in a Middle America town where the only solutions are to escape or die.
“Knives and Skin” is nothing if not visionary: high-femme art direction from wardrobe designer Kate Grube and production designer Adri Siriwatt blend with daringly unhinged performances (standouts include Grace Smith as jaded teen Joanna and Marika Engelhardt as an unraveling Lisa) in a noxious, fourth-wave cocktail. It does not go down easy, not because the material exploits its abundance of female unhappiness, but because it is a two-hour experimental film in need of savvier editing. For all its aesthetic pleasures, the film plods on aimlessly, feeling more like a stroll through an incredible film art exhibition than a connected whole. Its stories, though joined by female ennui, speak to each other about as clearly as its socially inept characters. It is a demanding work likely to leave even the gamest viewers cold. It is also, somehow, great.
“Knives and Skin” presents an unsettling mix of girlishness, macabre, sweetness, and despondency best encapsulated in a nail polish color sported by one of the characters: Rotting Corpse. Its humans are alien, its script is bizarre, its visuals are gauche. But this so-wrong-it’s-right feminine dirge puts the “fun” in “funereal.” [A]