Following The Wild Boys and After Blue, Conann marks the third feature-length project from prolific shorts filmmaker Bertrand Mandico. Many are still not convinced long-form fits his intense and imaginative style, but what’s certain is that Conann makes one heck of a watch. Part of the self-contained cosmos of Mandico’s explosive vision, this new film is a provocative tale of endurance and self-discovery inspired by the fantasy character Conan the Barbarian (or the Cimmerian). Mandico takes the figure of a sword and sorcery hero––obviously interested in his pulp magazine origins––and fashions a timeless, iterative narrative of phantasmagoric fluidity… and glitter.

Conann is framed by a first-person narration, that of Rainer the hellhound (Elina Löwensohn in impressive dog-faced costume), who roams the netherworld and is suspiciously attracted to the main protagonist, however antagonistic he may appear. But the hero is Conann, a queer rendition of an otherwise masculine symbol, who is also destined to find her death at the hands of her future self. These interactions between past and present selves bring together most of Mandico’s regular collaborators to play Conann at different ages (in progression, those are Christa Théret, Sandra Parfait, Agata Buzek, and Nathalie Richard). Starting from age 15 (portrayed by Claire Duburcq), Conann learns that everything in this world amounts to degrees of cruelty, and the more you surrender to your barbaric side, the better off you’ll be. Imagine this conceit but in gorgeous, superimposed images where blood and glitter coexist and flow abundantly; where swords are much more than a phallic symbol––here they suggest queer liberation––and you have the basic ingredients for Mandico’s latest. 

But this is far from it. Digging deeper into the many conceptual labyrinths this film offers, it may seem too heavy for many a viewer. Yet all its images are exceptionally tactile, shiny, soft, dreamy: soaked with fever dreams, where the blood shed by Conann in her different stages of life glows with its own force (in the black-and-white parts of the film, especially). Mandico is an experimental filmmaker, yes, but what he offers is always fun: his genre subversions––the intentionally schlocky feel of his aesthetic––and a sense for the profound amount to a spectacle that doesn’t shut you out. On the contrary, the surfaces of his films are so inviting that it’s perfectly reasonable to want to hold, to linger as you slide toward the pit of hell with Conann.

“Embrace yourself,” Rainer says to Conann, and he means it rather literally. In every changeover between ages 15-35, the main character has to first learn to love herself, then die by her own hand. Often the act of love is quite obvious––a hug, a kiss, even a French kiss––and mixes eroticism with adoration, and makes a good case for the metaphorical transformations people go through in their own life. By abstracting barbarism as a credo for this life and the one after (indeed, this word is overused to a comic extent in the film), Mandico is frank about the ambivalence of being human today. Even if the characters are given pronouns, and Rainer has a dog’s snout, we’re never supposed to know who they really are. What we know for sure is that Mandico loves them––thus he constantly frames them in beatific close-ups that look angelic in the film’s wide-screen format. As for the moral of this story? There is always a part of one’s journey that feels mythical: Mandico takes this truth and swells it to a fascinating extreme, to the point where symbol and reality fuse into an unrecognizable third entity. 

Conann premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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