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Fantasist, The

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Release Date: 
Dark Comedy
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Directed by: 
Robin Hardy
Moira Harris
Christopher Cazenove
Timothy Bottoms
Jon Kavanagh
Bottom Line: 

Robin Hardy's "The Fantasist" (as it introduces itself in the opening titles) is a very strange film. Normally, that probably would have been enough to get it some modicum of a cult following over the years since it first gained a very limited theatrical release in 1986; but the film had the unique misfortune of being its director's first follow-up feature in thirteen years to what is — perhaps — the ultimate cult British horror film, "The Wicker Man": itself an incredibly odd mixture of folk musical and disquieting pastoral macabre (remembered by all who have seen it for, if nothing else, Britt Ekland in the buff, Christopher Lee in a dress, and Edward Woodward on a bonfire).  "The Fantasist's" unusual, off-kilter mixture of prosaic comedy and psycho-sexual exploitation cannot help but baffle and disorientate; Hardy's quite daring but hopelessly misconceived attempt to wrong foot the audience with a bizarre hodgepodge of gialli-like tropes and gentle rom-com conventions would be a tough act to pull off at the best of times; but with the weight of thirteen years of expectation on its back, this fragile edifice was bound to crumble, and the few who had seen "The Fantasist" before this belated DVD release from UK label Network makes it widely available, had not exactly garnered it with the most flattering of reputations! But although there can be no cult revival (the film is  a brave attempt to do something different and off-the-beaten-track with the thriller genre, but it falls flat on its face far more often than it triumphs) it does still provide enough material to prove that Hardy is actually a talented  filmmaker and that "The Wicker Man" needn't have been the one-off fluke it appears to have become in the light of the director's  subsequent faltering career.
Patricia Teeling (Moira Harris) is all set to take over the running of her family's farm in rural Island - or so her mother and father (Ronan Wilmot and May Giles) believe: there is consternation in the rustic household though when Patricia informs them that she plans to move to Dublin for a year to teach, before she makes use of her newly acquired agricultural degree and settles down to farming life. Her parents express worries that she will be corrupted by 'big city ways', but the young woman is eager to experience all that life has to offer away from the strictures of her parochial family and their predictable way of life. Patricia soon makes friends with her new flat-mate in Dublin and also quickly finds herself with at least two new male suitors: a fellow school master called Robert Foxley (John Kavanagh), and Danny Sullivan (Timothy Bottoms): the American, struggling-writer-husband of the married couple who live in the flat upstairs. Meanwhile, a maniacal black-gloved killer is stalking the women of the city, but not before regaling and charming them with phone-calls full of tender romance and enticing eroticism! After winning them over, the killer pays them a daytime visit, whereupon he slashes them to death, leaving their nude bodies arranged in the same position as a particular painting that he seems to be obsessed with: Girl Resting by Rococo artist, Francois Boucher. When Danny's wife is discovered by Patricia — murdered in the same fashion as the other women, she also comes to the attentions of the killer, as well as the investigating police officer, Inspector McMyler (Christopher Cazenove), who is convinced that Danny is the maniac. He is also convinced (correctly) that Patricia is covering for her charming American suitor, whom she had previously caught making filthy phone-calls (although the writer insisted they were to his own wife!), while Patricia herself remains torn between her three male paramours and the increasingly enticing phone-calls from her potential murderer!
Based on the novel "Goosefoot" by Patrick McGinley, "The Fantasist" veers wildly between extremes of cute whimsy and unexpected sleaze. Initially, it comes over like a quirky romantic comedy of the sort championed by Bill Forsyth in the eary-80s: a succession of oddball characters turn up to do their turns one-by-one, much like realist, feel-good flicks such as "Gregory's Girl" and the like; and bubbly Moira Harris finds herself  wooed by several men, each with rather unusual peccadilloes (played — at first — entirely for comic effect), like some bubble-permed Irish Bridget Jones! Teacher colleague Foxley seems to have some weird fetish for balloons and having his tummy rubbed, while excitable American, Danny Sullivan, wears a succession of bad woolly jumpers and insists on testing his dowsing skills by hiding coins in Patricia's underwear! Patricia seems to deal with all this strange behaviour with good-humoured tolerance; something which starts to mark her out increasingly as being a bit odd herself as the film progresses. Meanwhile, her police inspector protector, McMyler, limps around throughout with a wooden leg! With a cast full of such quirky, unrealistic characters and an apparently light & breezy tone, it comes as something of a shock when, early on, we witness a murder scene that wouldn't look out of place in the sleaziest of early-70s gialli! A woman is stripped at knife-point and then stabbed to death by the traditional black-gloved killer in a very lurid fashion. Things get stranger when it appears Patricia seems to be getting off slightly on the killer's peculiar phone-calls, and her conviction that Sullivan is innocent begins to look very naive considering his strange behaviour and his own penchant for crank phone-calls.
This attempt to meld such diametrically opposite genres is nothing if not brave but the tone of the film becomes increasingly uneven. The strange, quirky yet always unfunny dialogue and Patricia's unrealistic notions of romance make it very difficult to connect with the on-screen events in any other than a very superficial way. Even though one can appreciate Hardy's skill in creating such a persistently odd atmosphere, especially by contrasting events in the foreground with clues and strange characters or events taking place in the background of a scene, one never really feels entirely engaged emotionally with the film. Hardy seems to be aiming for a kind of Polanskian absurdist air of paranoia, but this is decidedly the Polanski of "Frantic" rather than "Rosemary's Baby"; only when we reach the very climax of the film when Patricia, with her girl-next-door innocence, is tricked into the lair of the Killer and forced to strip and have sex with him in order to escape his clutches, do all the elements click into place, and the film reaches a crescendo of unnerving, tense eroticism mixed with an almost Lynchian comic strangeness (the killer insists on playing 'pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake' on Patricia's bare buttocks!). The rest of the time the tension is apt to flag somewhat as the comic vignettes take-over and dilute the thriller aspects . American actor Moira Harris manages a convincing Irish burr and her transformation from sweet-natured home girl to sexually voracious victim is unusual and disturbing, while Christopher Cazenove's charming, one-legged Police inspector is a likeable creation. Timothy Bottoms gets the short straw, forced to play the most ludicrous, unbelievable character and unsure whether to pitch it as purely comic or slightly menacing. The film is interesting experiment with some nice flourishes by its director, but ultimately it's a mess.
Networks furnish the film with an adequate anamorphic widescreen transfer. There is a lot of grain in places but it eventually settles down into quite a nice, if soft, transfer. The mono audio track is clear and free of noise. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

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