“I’m not in denial anymore,” says Daniel (Arben Bajraktaraj) to Nathan (Hugo Dillon) very near the beginning of Pandemonium. Nathan has just awoken lying in the middle of an isolated road that snakes through misty mountains, unable quite to believe that he has emerged unscathed from an accident that has left his car overturned metres away in a ditch.
Daniel – who was riding the motorbike that is now under Nathan’s car, and who returned to consciousness some time before – knows better. He breaks it to Nathan that neither of them has in fact made it, and that this liminal space, where the snow is starting to fall and the already muted colours are quickly turning pure white, is the afterlife.
Nathan takes some persuading – but when two doorways appear magically from nowhere, one emanating, to those attuned to hear it, the music (’harps and trumpets’) of Heaven, the other the endless screams of Hell, Nathan realises not only that he is dead, but that his previous life has been judged – and though he denies it, Hell is where he is headed.
Everyone is in denial in writer/director Quarxx’s latest feature. Nathan insists that a past killing was an act motivated by mercy, but his exclusion from Heaven suggests that he is deceiving no one but himself. And once he enters the grey Fulcian limbo of Hell, and crawls past the various bodies that litter the place, their stories, too, are full of denial.
In a fairytale-like narrative (complete with princess, mansion, ogre and oven) that forms the centrepiece of Pandemonium, nine-year-old Jeanne (oddly named Nina in the credits, and played by Manon Maindivide) conjures a monster from a magic cave (Carl Laforêt) to blame for the psychopathic atrocities that she herself has clearly committed in her family’s home, while in another story, inattentive mother Julia (Ophélia Kolb) refuses to accept that her bullied daughter Chloé (Sidwell Weber) has killed herself.
Even the supernatural beings that supervise Hell are not entirely straightforward. “There is no other place than here, after death there is only Hell,” Nathan’s robed psychopomp Norghul (Jean Rouceau) may insist. “Humanity is evil by nature and must atone for its sins.” Yet we know that the third victim involved in Nathan’s accident, little Alice (Eowyn Personne), was able to pass through to a different place. Perhaps it is Alice’s tender years that save her – not that youth is a guarantor of either innocence or entry to Heaven, as both Jeanne’s story – and her ultimate location – suggest.
While Norghul speaks of Hell for the most part in absolute terms, as a place of eternal, inescapable suffering, occasionally he hints at loopholes, and the possibility of redemption. “It depends on your wrongdoing,” he will say, “but most of the time it is eternity that awaits you”, adding that everlasting torments await “most of you.” Asked by Nathan, “Is there nothing but despair here?”, Norghul will reply, “Nothing for you anyway, I’m afraid.” All these pronouncements, whether confident or cagey, will be undone by events – and even the brutish demon Billy (Albin Jensen), in all his evident irredeemability, will be reduced to childish entrancement by the sound of a lullaby.
Like Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, like Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, like Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), like Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), like Mark A.Z. Dippé’s Spawn (1997) and like Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018), Quarxx’s feature is a work of catabasis, mapping out the barren landscapes of the Underworld to chart the more shadowy contours of the human condition, and to set our petty strivings and sins on a much broader cosmic scale.
Pandemonium is a dark and grotesque (divine) comedy, whose elliptical, episodic nature only adds to its jarring dislocations. Here Hell is everywhere – as above, so below – and yet somehow hope too endures, as death can lead, however arbitrarily, to rebirth, in what might itself be an eternal return. Meanwhile, the unsettling qualities of Quarxx’s infernal aesthetic prove undeniable.
Pandemonium has its North American première at Fantasia 2023