While I’m a strong advocate of booing at the theatre, I very rarely practice what I preach. Conte d’amour, however, inspired me to heartily boo at the curtain call, for the first time in my tenure as critic here at The Globe. I fear it was a mistake, though; it may mean that the Swedish video-artist-turned-director Markus Ohrn and his merry band of macho exhibitionists actually got under my skin, and it will probably only encourage the target audience to get a ticket.
Conte d’amour – the title is French for “love story,” but it’s mostly in German with English surtitles – is a three-hour live-video performance inspired by the true-life horror story of Josef Fritzl. That’s the Austrian monster who secretly kept his daughter captive for 24 years, raising incestuous children with her in the cramped confines underneath the house where his “regular” family lived.
At first, Conte d’amour is a fairly literal depiction of a man (Jacob Ohrman) with a similar double life. On an elevated platform, we see him dancing around with rag dolls, feeding them chips and cola, before climbing through a hidden passage down into an underground lair to care for and abuse his daughter (Elmer Back) and their two sons (Anders Carlsson and Rasmus Slatis).
This basement world is, fittingly, blocked off from direct view by an opaque plastic sheet and visible only to the audience via video projected on two screens above. The performers take turns operating the cameras down below to show us snippets of what’s going on.
At first, what we see are shadowy close-ups of the father feeding his children Big Macs and Coca-Colas, but soon enough, the lights are turned on – and we get a good look at his brood. One of the boys is played by Anders Carlsson, who is also the writer, and who speaks in a high, pinched Elmo voice throughout. We first spy him wearing a diaper under his American Apparel tights, and rubbing a green dinosaur toy against his perineum. “I want to play Thai girl with daddy,” he says, then pulls his eyes into slits and speaks in fake “ching-chong” Chinese.
This is where I would have left had I been in attendance as a civilian, and many around me did. But let’s give Conte d’amour the benefit of the doubt, for a moment: In this subterranean dreamscape (film being the medium of the subconscious), Ohrn and Carlsson are trying to depict Fritzl as merely the logical extension of the patriarchal impulse. They’re saying, in essence, what’s that different about him and the average nuclear family where the father brings home the bacon? Or, in an international context, between his desire to trap and raise a family in his image and Western colonialism?
And now let’s let the doubts back in. From an intellectual standpoint, I’ve rarely seen a less rigorously thought-out show. As an example of contemporary colonialism, the creators reach for Médecins sans Frontières, of all organizations. At one point, the father orally violates his children with a thermometer while yelling about AIDS, malaria and Doctors Without Borders, before putting on a black mask and shouting “ouga-bouga” while pounding his chest.
This is the topsy-turvy political world where one of the world’s most admired charities is mocked as neo-colonialist, by actors who think imitating racist caricatures is some sort of radical artistic statement. The endless McD and Coca-Cola references, meanwhile, feel like stumbling upon a decade-old copy of Adbusters at the dentist’s office. And the skewering of white-picket-fence patriarchy (there is an actual white picket fence around the stage) couldn’t be less relevant to our society today. What scattershot insights there are, are delivered with so much detached irony that they do not register in any meaningful way.
To say the aesthetic is dated would be unfair – it’s been touring since 2010, after all, when hand-held cameras and karaoke interludes weren’t quite the cliché they are now. But ultimately, using a real tragedy as an excuse to show an audience close-ups of your crotch and naked bum for hours is putrid. There are plenty of long, lingering close-ups of the actors’ handsome young faces, made artfully ugly here. This is a bunch of vain grown-ups in hipster hairdos playing at Where the Wild Things Are, that’s all it is.
Andreas Catjar’s compositions and sound design are excellent, though, and Bäck, as the mother in a Pink Panther dress, croons wonderful cracked-out renditions of Lionel Richie’s Hello and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart.
When I was at the Festival d’Avignon in 2012, Conte d’amour was the “petit scandale” of the season. That French summer festival is the kind of place where the more walk-outs there are, and the more boos are reported, the harder it is to get a ticket the next night. I couldn’t get one, anyway, so I’m glad World Stage brought Ohrn’s artistically and morally bankrupt monstrosity to Toronto for me to boo at home.
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