Sufferosa (2010)

This is one of those efforts which suffers from the comparison with what we expect it should be.

Somehow, the digital age led a lot of people to experiment with new art forms, although few of them have been particularly successful.  I can remember Scott McCloud in his graphic novel, Understanding Comics, envisioning comics wrapped around a virtual cube the reader would have to navigate around.  When I read it, all I could think of was how long it would take to refresh every time one turned a corner – or, for that matter, made any movement along the flat faces.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we really won’t see any amazing new digital art forms any time soon – unless, perhaps, you count the sudden, organic emergence of the modern videogame, with its emphasis on storylines, its often cinematic “cut scenes”, and its somewhat limited interactivity within the larger context of a preset story.

Sufferosa was one of the first lengthy attempts to create an interactive “movie.”  It comes as little surprise to me that it strongly resembles one of those videogames like Myst, where you wander through a strange land and try to solve puzzles and find clues.  Only, in this case, there are no real puzzles to solve, no clues to gather, and it seems more like some sort of Art installation at a big art museum.  In fact there is very little actual “movie” in this interactive movie, as a very large part of what’s here is a montage of stills, animated still photos, still photos with added effects or faux static, or just plain still images with no movement in the frame.

Other sections seem more like a music video, with surreal imagery and often jarring switches in musical styles from “room” to “room”

Nor is the dialogue synchronized with the film.  Not ever.  I suspect that the Polish director, Dawid Marcinkowski, made it this way so that he could easily transform the Polish original version into English without having to shoot additional footage.  The final effect, however, is to distance the audience from the events, as if they were taking place in some other world.

Which may, of course, be part of his intent.  After all, he credits the strange Sixties surreal fantasy film, The Saragosa Manuscript, as one of his main influences.

Despite the talk about the three alternate endings (one of which is very arbitrary, and if I’ve correctly identified the third, it can hardly be called an ending at all) the “play” here is decidedly linear, with only a few minor options that have any real consequences.  The only other real nod to “interactivity” are the infomatics that pop up throughout the story, giving us far more background about the events and characters than we can absorb.

And I should note here that I found one major computer glitch which made it very difficult to reach the final level of the “film.”

The story involves a detective whose attempts to locate the missing Rosa Von Braun have led him to the mysterious scientist, Professor Von Braun, who runs a sinister rejuvenation clinic for extremely wealthy clients.  He is kidnapped and wakes up in the clinic, and wanders about, talking to the guests and learning its terrible secrets.  There is a group of feminist commandos, a journalist who has been imprisoned there and experimented on for years, and, in the most moving section of the story, the aging actress “Norma Desmond” (Polish star Beata Tyszkiewicz) explains why she won’t undergo rejuvenation.

But, despite the Film Noir- inspired background and plot, there is nothing here for the detective to solve, with the final level in the story the most disappointing as there are no options, only a single, straight path to the end.

Sufferosa draws heavily on Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, which also featured a detective trying to find Professor Von Braun and his daughter (it comes complete with a picture of Von Braun almost identical to the one Eddie Constantine carries around in the earlier film).  Like Goddard’s film, Marcinkowski’s features little actual SF imagery or gadgetry, and for all the talk about rejuvenation, we never see any part of the process except the store rooms full of “clones”.

All in all, this is a triumph of style over substance, despite a few interesting and thoughtful comments on aging and death.

But it is a stunningly beautiful “film”, with a lot of uneasily memorable images, and by turns intriguing, bizarre and unsettling.  It is seriously let down by its unsatisfying ending, and it never quite manages to be the interactive mystery its prologue seems to promise.  Yet it is quite entertaining in its strange way and repays further exploration of its sinister clinic.  I found myself, after I’d made it to the end, returning to explore sections I’d missed.

Which does tell you something about it.

Just don’t expect to play interactive detective, that’s all.

(To explore Von Braun’s clinic, visit the official site here)

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