‘Everything Will Be OK’ Review: An Exhausting Vision of Dystopia

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The title, you might not be surprised to hear, is ironic: In Rithy Panh’s frenetic, splenetic new hybrid essay film, everything will most assuredly not be OK. Humans, with our immense capacity for microscopic and macroscopic cruelty, will not be OK. Animals, even if they manage to turn the tables on us, will also not be OK. The planet, in a near-future shaped exclusively by the evils of the near-past, will be the very definition of not-OK. And perhaps the battered viewer — assailed by an interminable 98 minutes of untethered, oneiric narration over split-screen footage of genocide and industrial livestock slaughter, while an “Animal Farm”-inspired sci-fi drama plays out in handmade, clay-modeled diorama — will be the least OK of all. The little clay critters are cute, though.

In one regard, “Everything Will Be OK” is as good as its word. Panh crams so much into his film that it feels like he really is doing his damnedest to include everything: pulped-down battery chicks, George Méliès, solemn old photographs placed symbolically in a sparkling stream, technoparanoia, Hitler, Super-8 home movies, pandemic commentary, “Planet of the Apes.” The resulting cacophony feels less like argument than assault, or perhaps the kind of aversion therapy Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” might have been subjected to. If you’re not a psychotically murderous droog, you might wonder what you’ve done to deserve it.

The Kubrick reference is apt. “Everything Will Be OK” opens under a lightning-breached sky, as something stirs under the sand. Up rises a featureless rectangular monolith, like the one that causes our our poor simian ancestors such consternation at the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” From here, it’s a short hop to the alternate future, imagined in intricate, dollhouse-like tableaux in which an animal revolution has occurred. A variety of pigs, elephants, foxes and suchlike have gathered around a cobwebbed Statue of Liberty, gazing up at her feet of clay.

This technique is not quite claymation: The characters never move, with the camera instead peering around them, alighting on one detail or another. In Panh’s most celebrated film, the Oscar-nominated “The Missing Picture,” he used the same device to elucidate his memories of the Cambodian genocide, and it again provides this film’s most interesting sections. There is something provocative in the contradiction between naively but lovingly crafted figurines and the grandiose, dystopian science fiction tale they tell: childlike playthings illustrating complex catastrophist thinking. Some scenarios are a little worrying in their implications. (One set in a familiar-looking pandemic has a faintly anti-vax air.) Others — such as a cityscape resembling the inside of a microchip, or a monkey whimsically piloting a propellor plane past a vast backdrop of a reclining mermaid — have the feel of a Ghibli animation, and could easily power a whole movie by themselves.

But Panh is scarcely getting started. He also incorporates stylistic and thematic elements from his last despairing documentary on atrocity, “Irradiated” — notably, split-screen repetitions of archival footage from some of the most traumatizing events in recent history. Again, he almost casually breaks the fairly sacrosanct cinematic taboo against showing real people dying onscreen, with a brief clip of an execution-style gunshot to the head. Even more visceral violence follows, often tiled across six panels so the images they contain are at once inescapable, upsetting and oddly redundant. One particularly queasy section dealing with animal slaughter contains footage of blood spurting from the pulsing severed jugular of a newly decapitated calf — that alone is fuel for several weeks’ worth of nightmares.

As if that weren’t enough (or already far too much) the coup de grâce is the inclusion of self-consciously poetic narration (delivered in melodic French by Rebecca Marder) that only obliquely refers to the images over which it is layered. With every new idea distracting from, and sometimes contradicting, the one that came before, the voiceover adds infinitely more complication. Yet while much of it sounds dreamily prophetic, actually scrutinize any one phrase (“revolution is truth turned into an act of terror,” or “the past also awaits us like an illusion”) and its meaning evaporates. Perhaps it’s partly down to untrustworthy translation (at times, the English subtitles on the Berlinale print seemed to deviate considerably from the French narration), but that only enhances the impression that the words themselves are not particularly important.

Soon, these ceaseless faux-profundities come to hold about as much meaning as the oinks and grunts and howler-monkey screeches that, along with Marc Marder’s often incongruously jolly score, otherwise adorn the soundtrack. One phrase does land with the ring of truth, though, when the narrator complains of being “trapped in a vise of images.” Brother, after the experience of “Everything Will Be OK” — arthouse maximalism at its most garbled — we know exactly what you mean.

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