Cannes 2016: The Transfiguration review


★★☆☆☆
A public bathroom. Noises are coming from one of the stalls. Sucking and slurping sounds. A man takes a peek underneath and makes a quick exit, assured that something unsavoury is going on. However, it's revealed that Milo (Eric Ruffin), a black youth in Queens who believes himself to be a vampire, has claimed another victim. Showing at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard strand, David O'Shea's debut feature The Transfiguration is a low-fi vampire movie, a film about a troubled youth, or indeed both. Milo is a bullied loner at school, nicknamed "Freak". Having apparently done something nasty to some dogs which has raised flags, he receives counselling, though it doesn't seem to have had much affect.

Milo writes in his notebook, collating vampiric lore and marking a calendar to regulate his feeding. Unfortunately, it isn't as if he really has a taste for it. Following an attack, he vomits up all he's drank and it's obvious he hasn't made the transfiguration of the film's title. In a perhaps foolhardy piece of meta-cinema, it's revealed that Milo also keeps a cupboard packed with VHS tapes of vampire films, name-checking arthouse classics such as Nosferatu to later cult hits like Martin and the multiplex fodder of the Blade trilogy. The glaring omission pointed out by a girl he soon befriends, Sophia (Chloe Levine), is Twilight. His response - "It looks unrealistic" - is an insight into his strange view of reality (and his inconsistency, given the aforementioned Blade trilogy).

The origin story of Milo's fascination is unclear. His loner status and possible psychopathy may be contributing factors. His mother slashed her own wrists, a trauma shown in dreamlike flashbacks. Milo is mostly left to mull and mope, wandering his neighbourhood of Queens, travelling on the subway and watching internet videos of slaughterhouses when not screening from his extensive video collection. He is nominally looked after by his older ex-army brother who spends most of the time sitting on the couch watching terrible television. It's in these very details that The Transfiguration stumbles. Why would the brother watch daytime TV? Why does Milo have video tapes? The tone is mournfully serious and this contrasts with the inherent silliness of vampires. Milo, with his glazed expression and apparent absence of affect utterings, is a compellingly dour presence but doesn't prove quite enough to prop the film up alone.

The slowly developing romance between Milo and Sophie involves desultory dialogue - "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" - and that archetypal trip to a funfair that's appeared in sp many films. Perhaps one of the motivations for Milo's obsession is the structure it gives to his life. He writes his rules down fastidiously and the days marked on the calendar give him something to look forward to beside the regular beatings he gets from the drug gang that rules his neighbourhood. The introduction of Sophie into his life gives him a possible alternative to blood-sucking. Herself a troubled youth, she befriends him after he observes her self-harming. However, when she discovers his notebooks, Sophie is understandably spooked. O'Shea works hard to find a denouement which will tie up all the loose ends and lend The Transfiguration suitable pathos. Sadly, one can't help but wonder if it would pass muster and be included in Milo's video library.

The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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