Time to put the rumors to rest once and for all. The supernova of French porn for a new millennium that's still wet behind the ears, the enigmatic "Martin Cognito", is most definitely NOT Gaspard Noë, Jean-Jacques Beineix or even LE PORNOGRAPHE's Bertrand Bonello. As is so often the case, the truth is far more prosaic. A one time respected Parisian graphic designer who had also made a few short films in the early '90s (including VALENTINO! I LOVE YOU with perfectly bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas), Jean-François Chiron found himself faced with considerable alimony and child support payments in the wake of a messy divorce. Therefore he decided to disappear off the face of the earth, bearing in mind that the best place to hide is in plain sight as leather-hooded porn auteur Martin Cognito, a fact incidentally revealed by a surreptitiously acquired slip of paper,linking both identities, that fell into the hands of his former wife's army of lawyers ! Mystery solved, and weren't we all better off not knowing ?
As the middle section of his female trilogy, situated smack dab between the unrelenting darkness of CLAUDINE and the uncharacteristically optimistic return to light of VIRGINIE, the profoundly disturbing AXELLE incorporates disparate elements of both, "leavening" the clinging scabrous mood that touches upon rape, incest and necrophilia with deliberately bad taste humor. With only about three (and a half, sort of) sexual encounters to its name, this is the least conventionally pornographic picture of an already idiosyncratic lot. Sharp-witted dialog and disenchanted voice-over narration by its title character, along with some of the most accomplished acting yet encountered in Continental 'core, help make AXELLE into a solid character-driven piece, an experience audiences might not enjoy as readily as the other two, but which should only gather increased appreciation over the course of repeated viewings, when elements that seem initially far-fetched fall beautifully into place.
Lovely Lilith, a mesmerizing actress (she was one of the "Dalmachiennes" in CLAUDINE) whose haunted eyes betray her character's painful past, shines as the self-described "virgin lesbian" Axelle, driving a Paris cab by night to battle personal demons. She distrusts all of humanity, quite rightfully so as it turns out, apart from her happy go lucky live-in girlfriend Kimie, beautifully portrayed by then budding superstar Katsumi just prior to hitting the big time on both sides of the Atlantic. One night, a mystery client who bears a striking resemblance to her lover flees Axelle's taxi, leaving handbag with keys and passport behind. On Kimie's urging, they go to the woman's apartment to collect the fare, if nothing else. While Kimie unwittingly "transforms" herself by trying on the absent owner's wardrobe, there's a phone call demanding to know where to drop off the 2 million Euro for a set of incriminating photos. Put off by her girlfriend's giddy (not to mention greedy) willingness to play along, regardless of danger, Axelle drops her off at a warehouse, vowing to meet her later once she has cleared her head. A pair of bumbling phone repair men named Smith & Wesson (played by regular Cognito submissive Thibault and longtime fornication film veteran Piotr Stanislas) follow Kimie inside and attempt to violate her. To reveal much more of a plot that twists and turns like a coiled snake would qualify as a major spoiler. As mentioned earlier, not all of it makes a whole lot of sense at first, but this is one narrative where you just have to climb aboard for the ride, trying to determine whether the director is being earnest or just having you on, not an easy distinction to make when disorienting surreal touches and below the radar visual jokes abound.
Sex, already somewhat frugally represented for porn, is not always intended as turn-on material, which might still further alienate less adventurous viewers. Still, the lovemaking between Axelle and Kimie is charged with genuine affection and emotional electricity, with the appearance of a strap-on dildo thematically justified for a change but you have to see the movie (and its accompanying making of) to fully grasp. Another key scene proves even trickier to describe without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that it involves the heartbroken Axelle in her fogged up cab, willing to distance herself from life and identity (how fitting in light of Cognito's own elaborate hoax !) with horny clients Hervé-Pierre Gustave, Manuel Ferrara and ravishing John B. Root muse Adrianna Laurenti. Carefully orchestrated, this sequence packs an emotional sucker punch rarely encountered in adult.
Along with Roger Fellous undoubtedly the finest cinematographer working in the French skin flick industry, François About (who shot most of Francis Leroi's films, including his landmark JE SUIS A PRENDRE) strongly adds to the ominous atmosphere, employing the City of Lights' neon garishness to maximum effect, sustaining a waking nightmare feel even during daylight scenes. The consistency of his contributions, along with the sensational Georges Grosson soundtracks (rightfully included as cherished DVD extras), solidify the sense of unity that characterizes Cognito's trilogy, one of the most remarkable compendiums of carnality the much-maligned porn industry has spawned to date worldwide. Not just a display of erotic skill but a deep exploration of human sexuality and its repercussions, these three movies combine to create an all round amazing achievement that should fill production company Colmax and especially its visionary chairman Max Alestchenkoff (who took a leap of faith when few of his competitors felt compelled to follow suit) with great pride.
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