“You do not need to trouble your thoughts. You do not need to remember the past. Failure would be inevitable.”
– Words from “The Sisterhood of Meta- Control” in F.A.Q: Frequently Asked Questions (2004).
In Carlo Atane’s independently-made low-budget 2004 feature, FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions, Europe has become a super-matriarchy and one that “grows stronger every day.”
For the men of Europe, this is not necessarily a positive development.
The less-fair sex is revealed on state-sponsored television programs to consist either of irrational war-mongers or obese, giggling monstrosities.
And worse, men and women are no longer permitted direct physical contact of any type in this dystopian future. Sexual intercourse is a thing of the past. Illegal Internet porn is all the rage.
“You live in a clean society. Avoid physical contact,” urges the State in ubiquitous loudspeaker announcements.
It’s not just the nature of man that the Sisterhood of Meta-Control seeks to control and eliminate, but all of nature itself. “Nature has been abolished,” notes one character in the film, and in France of the Sisterhood, only the Pyranees Nature Reserve remains. Soon, it too will be destroyed by the Matriarchy, along with the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower’s offense?
It symbolizes the phallus, and therefore must necessarily fall victim to what one agent of the Sisterhood terms “architectural castration.” Late in the film, we see the monument and historical landmark destroyed. The message: there is no past. There is just the endurance of the Sisterhood.
A bit slow-moving, even at 82-minutes, and not always well-rendered, F.A.Q. is one of the few science fiction films to come out of Spain in recent years. The film boasts a cheap, digital look, with poorly achieved green screen effects (especially one lengthy scene in front of the Eiffel Tower). Furthermore, the brooding, lugubrious characters don’t exactly enhance the audience’s sense of identification with this fictional world. F.A.Q. is a movie of many startling ideas — perhaps too many — but the story is not shaped or molded in a coherent way, which gives film a pretentious and occasionally unintentionally comic feel.
Everything living is lethal
The totalitarian-minded edicts and acts of the Sisterhood are just one piece of F.A.Q.’s
odd, ponderous, tapestry.
In human terms, the film tells the tale of a man named Nono (Xavier Tort), and the woman he serves, a scientist named Angeline (Anne Celine Auche). They share a mutual physical attraction that neither one really dares to enunciate or express, at least in this repressive world.
When Nono — a sound specialist – records the sounds of Angeline’s heart beating, her less-than-romantic reply to his overture is only a callous: “your intentions are ethically unclean.”
Two men from the resistance — in the porn industry, no less — visit Nono and attempt to recruit him to record the sounds of nature before Nature itself is destroyed. The dissidents hope to store the recorded sounds in an archive for some future generation.
Nono has no comment about this task or his role, but continues his work, nonetheless. There is some talk about Nono being “special” because he can see beyond the reality of the Matriarchy, into another reality all-together. In some ways, he seems an idiot-savant, and is mostly silent. Others impress their perceptions of Nono upon him, but he generally shows little reaction to any provocation.
Later, after Angeline dies from exposure to lentils at the Nature Reserve (!), Nono wanders onto a porno movie shoot, and inadvertently draws the forces of the Sisterhood to the scene. Both Nono and the resistance fighters/pornographers are captured and tried before the State in what is likely the film’s most powerful scene. In a darkened room, before a brick wall, the accused stand in a line and are made to beg for their lives, and announce how they could effectively punish themselves rather than face the punishment of the State. One prisoner offers to immolate himself before the end of the year. Another offers to open his own belly with a spoon, before the next year.
When one prisoner cannot decide how he should punish himself, the State steps in, obligingly. The man will have his testicles fed to red ants.
Nono is spared such a grim fate by the State itself, which suspects that he must possess some latent talent since the resistance movement was so interested in recruiting him. Nono is taken to the Home of the State’s Number Three, and offered a life of luxury and safety should he submit to the Matriarchy’s will and share what he knows of this reality “beyond” the Matriarchy.
As before, Nono has no comment, and his silence is interpreted by his new masters as resistance.
The ending of the film involves Nono seeing Angeline again, on an Internet porno movie this time, and then walking — literally — into that reality, and kissing her passionately. This coda could be read as a metaphor for life after death; as a self-reflexive acknowledgement that all the faces in the film inhabit two realities (their own, and that of the actors making the movie) or perhaps it is simply commentary on the necessity of physical connection in human travails; and such contact only occur in the pornography of this particular dystopia. Frankly, your guess is as good as mine.
While watching the film, my wife had some suspicion that F.A.Q. was making a misogynist argument; showing how bad things could be under female domination. I can see precisely why she felt that way, but I didn’t entirely agree. I think the point of the movie is that when any singular force (sexual, religious, or governmental) gains total control over life, corruption is inevitable and inescapable. In this case, that single force just happens to be female in composition. But certainly, the final scenes reveal how the members of the Sisterhood live, and suggest an overt and inarguable level of hypocrisy. The women of the Sisterhood of Meta-Control don’t abide by their own edicts, and Number Three, at least, hints at her immense pleasure in the sexual activity her party denies to others.
F.A.Q. is not without some fine qualities, but the film is ultimately less-than-successful because it blends too casually its literal story with the metaphorical point the director hopes to make. Now, I’m all for subtext and metaphor in film. Indeed, the art form is perfectly suited for the expression of such metaphors. Yet metaphor also requires a special kind of dedication and attention on the part of an artist.
It’s just as infuriating, in other words, to end F.A.Q. with a shot of the actor playing Nono on the film’s studio set, walking away from a blue screen, as it is to end Skyline (2010) nearly mid-breath, in the hopes of making a sequel. Neither ending satisfies, because neither ending resolves the narrative organically and honestly; in terms of the characters’ actual experiences.
If Nono is just Xavier Tort acting in a dystopic movie, then the plight of Nono is made less important, less vital a concern. If there is a ready escape to this grim “reality,” then there is no “Meta-Control” at all, because the Matriarchy can be escaped at any time. See my point?
I would have preferred to actually see Nono executed, then re-discover Angeline, rather than watch him simply slip seamlessly from one reality to the next, as if this has always been a a viable option for the character. The ending as it stands reeks of post-modern game playing, and resolves nothing of the film’s storyline.
There are games and then there’s storytelling, and F.A.Q. moves away from satisfactory storytelling in its last act, to the detriment of the whole enterprise. This is a low budget film, and I don’t begrudge the film the weak effects, the limited settings, or any other overt sign of cheapness. Those are all things that can be overlooked easily when a director is engaged with his material and ideas.
What I dislike, rather, in F.A.Q. is the director’s choice to so powerfully set up a dystopian reality, and then, capriciously, abandon it in an ending that, on a literal level, undercuts the previous eighty minutes. I don’t know that the science fiction film is the right vehicle for a post-modern ending that reminds us we’re all just watching a movie. The purpose of the genre film is transport us to that other reality in the most effective way imaginable and make is seem plausible, believable and, yes, possible.
F.A.Q. goes to some length to paint a grim picture of a totalitarian matriarchy, but then decides it would rather be about the self-reflexivity of movies as an art-form. That’s a distraction, a sleight of hand, not a valid ending.
The most frequently asked question about this 2004 sci-fi movie might just be: what the heck happened to the movie’s last act?