Retelling The Mythos: She Is Conann (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Altered Innocence

Say the name “Conan” to anyone familiar with pop culture, and it will likely evoke similar imagery in them: classic heroism, big muscles—and perhaps most of all, masculinity. Created by Robert E. Howard in literature and made famous by the film series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the character of Conan the Barbarian is nearly synonymous with the idea of the prototypical “manly man.”

She Is Conann embodies none of these things, however. Despite taking cues from the aforementioned barbarian, it brims with a fierce femininity that exudes an unconventional strength. To writer/director Bertrand Mandico, that’s likely the point of naming the protagonist of his latest feature film after this well-known warrior who’s the posterboy for machismo. Known for gender fluidity and stunning imagery, Mandico’s previous films like Wild Boys and After Blue (Dirty Paradise) celebrate queerness and surreal beauty from start to finish, and this new film is a worthy follow-up to his previous efforts, pushing the bar further while securing his place as one of the most inspired French auteurs of recent times.

In true Mandico fashion, the plot of She Is Conann feels loose yet tangible, basking in style over substance, but it’s hard to fault it for that since it’s so bold and captivating in its presentation. The film examines the many stages of the warrior woman Conann’s life, and each decade is represented by a different time in history. Ranging from ancient Sumerian times to a futuristic dystopia, each era plays out like a different chapter in an anthology film, culminating every time with the current iteration of Conann being killed off by a new version of her—each played by a different, progressively older actress. Through these violent metamorphoses, the film accentuates different aspects of this complex character. Throughout her journey, Conann is guided by Rainer (Elina Löwensohn), a nasty dog-faced demon who guards the underworld and acts as an inelegant, Virgil-esque companion to her throughout her adventures.

The overarching themes and juxtapositions at play in this dreamlike film are perhaps more integral than the synopsis, however. Beauty clashes with the grotesque, the realistic battles the absurd, romance confronts hatred, and comedy goes toe-to-toe with tragedy here. Fluctuating between rich, highly saturated colors and black and white film, She Is Conann does a masterful job at experimentally exploring the lives of the protagonist. Most fascinating is the complex world Mandico constructs, which combines traditional sword and sorcery imagery with a harsh, modern world to present barbaric horrors in a way that dances between glitter-coated whimsy and stark realism. Even more impressive is the fact that it manages to do all of this with seemingly all practical effects, sets, and props.

She Is Conann is also powerful in the way that it explores the very nature of humanity. The film makes no pretense about the fact that it’s a film, showing dramatically different-looking actresses playing the same character. It depicts the way people want to reinvent themselves and inevitably change over the years, eventually becoming ghosts of their former selves. This also gives the audience pause to think about the fleeting passage of time and eventuality of death, as Conann progressively comes to terms with her own mortality. While a less experienced filmmaker would approach lofty ideas like this with a heavy hand, Mandico never does, letting the concepts wash over the viewer organically.

Filled with a brutal, imaginative essence that is entirely captivating, She Is Conann is a standout modern fantasy that should not be missed by any fan of Mandico’s previous works—or by art film buffs looking to expand their horizons, for that matter. This haunting, abstract epic manages to tackle quintessential philosophical ideas while simultaneously posing more in the process, and it’s as much fun visually as it is conceptually. Do yourself a favor and lose yourself in this glamorous underworld as soon as possible.

- Andrea Riley