Body Odyssey – Raindance Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Marco Morana, Giulio Rizzo and Grazia Tricarico

Director: Grazia Tricarico

If Ken Russell had ever got together with Peter Greenaway to make a film about a female bodybuilder then Body Odyssey could be the result of such a collaboration. Magnificent and preposterous, Grazia Tricarico’s film must be the oddest among this year’s selection in the Raindance Film Festival. With its lens squarely on decadent beauty, Body Odyssey is a throwback to late 20th-century auteurism.

It also stars the late Julian Sands in his penultimate film. His affected performance as creepy personal trainer Kurt complements Body Odyssey’s strange, but hypnotic, aesthetic that centres on everlasting beauty. His client is Mona (real-life bodybuilder Jacqueline Fuchs from Switzerland), who, in her 50s, is competing in the upcoming Miss Body Universe competition.

But this is not the usual sports film where hard training brings success; indeed, the competition is almost a subplot, coming second to the images of the muscles shifting under Mona’s skin and the story of her rage, which is barely contained, caused by the illegal steroids Kurt forces her to take. As she becomes leaner – the film starts with Kurt pulling at Mona’s loose skin – her muscles start talking to her. The voiceover sounds like Sands, but the credits give nothing away, choosing instead to merely offer ‘Body Voice’.

As Mona toils away at the weights keeping age at bay, the gym’s interior design symbolises the fight against time. Temple Gym may provide all the latest equipment but the sparse gymnasium looks like it’s located in a Venetian palazzo with peeling frescos and marble floors. This stunning recreation of the old is mirrored in Mona’s similar transformation. There’s something of the artistic incongruity of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty about the way performance artists, replete with monstrous fish heads, swim in the pool of the Temple Gym.

Tricarico isn’t interested in youthful beauty, although there is a scene of young dancers gyrating to the aria from Madama Butterfly, their lithe bodies at odds with the solid presence of Mona practising her poses behind them. Instead, the Italian director’s debut is fascinated by the Faustian deals that people make in the pursuit of everlasting beauty. Her camera wanders backstage at an over 50’s competition for men which finds them pumping weights and preening with their trainers. One man nearly vomits in a champagne bucket, nervous about what the judges will say. Sands, often bare-chested, looks incredible for a man in his 60s.

However, age requires youth too and Mona becomes infatuated with a young blond man she meets in the spa’s steam room. It’s not just he who desires her; nearly every man appears to find her attractive, the juxtaposition of her muscles and high-heels a combination that men find impossible to resist. But in her roid-addled mind, it is the young man, over half her age, she wants. Her pursuit of the boy is almost vampiric.

The lake outside Mona’s Modernist home is also in the midst of transformation. Trees grow underwater, their leaf-heavy branches fully submerged while, we’re told, eerie mists and toxic algae appear on the lake’s surface. Mona suggests that these changes are natural, unlike her metamorphosis which is dependent on the chemicals in her body.

Although this film is produced by both Italy and Switzerland, all the dialogue is in English. The different accents spoken only add to Body Odyssey’s eccentricity giving the location a fantastical element like that of the institution in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. The world of these aged bodybuilders is uncanny, not quite ours, but still just about recognisable.

Body Odyssey may not encourage you to hit the gym and start pumping iron like there’s no tomorrow, but it will leave you eager to catch the next Tricarico movie. Her vision, while similar to David Cronenberg’s, is unique. Somewhat grotesque at times, and the shots of Fuchs’s naked body verge on the voyeuristic, this film is tender and is like nothing else, certainly nothing like Love Lies Bleeding, the other (excellent) female bodybuilding film doing the rounds.

Body Odyssey is screening at the Raindance Film Festivalwhich runs from 19 – 28 June in London cinemas.

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