She Is Conann

(Bertrand Mandico, France/Luxembourg/Belgium, 2023)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | January 30, 2024

Sweeping across centuries and continents to track the Orlando-like incarnations of its titular barbarian, French writer/director Bertrand Mandico extravagantly extrapolates on the themes and situation of his 2023 short film Rainer, a Vicious Dog in a Skull Valley with this hallucinatory existential epic about survival in a world of relentless brutality and failed attempts at civilization. At once dazzling and baffling, monotonous and perversely imaginative, She Is Conann is more a conceptual, aesthetic experience than it is a narrative one, placing a firm emphasis on variations on themes, painstaking visual design, and practical effects, while exhibiting a flamboyant nonchalance with regard to its nonstop squishy, squelching, spraying displays of bloodshed and vomit.

Following the introduction of a framing device in which the elderly Queen Conann (Françoise Brion) looks back on her life’s journey as she prepares for her own spectacularly grotesque demise at the hands of surgeons in pink silk (think Barbie meets Dead Ringers), She Is Conann’s chronology begins in ancient Cimmeria, where our first Conann (Claire Duburcq) is a child traumatized by having witnessed her mother being bisected by marauders and is then forced to eat Mom’s bloody, still-beating heart. Conann is thereafter enslaved by the hot, evil Sanja (Julia Riedler), who schools the young girl in the art of combat and becomes the object of Conann’s desire and vows of revenge. Child Conann eventually meets and is murdered by twentysomething Conann (Christa Théret), who eventually meets and is murdered by thirtysomething Conann (Sandra Parfait), at which point our multifaceted protagonist is catapulted into the Bronx in the late 1990s, before the subsequent incarnation, who once again murders her predecessor, finds herself in some near-future corporate netherworld, which brings us back to Queen Conann and her plans for post-human transcendence. The final scenes mirror the transgression with which the film began: ritual cannibalism.

While its setting and heroine both continue to morph, there are two key constants in She Is Conann. One is aesthetic: whether smoke, ashes, mist, snow, flurries of glitter, or peculiar luminous effects of no discernable origin, there is always something suffusing the air, some manner of curtain obscuring the world, and perhaps meant to represent the gauze enveloping Queen Conann’s wearied, geriatric memory. The other constant is the film’s sole character to be developed in any meaningful way: Conann’s lifelong companion, the dog-faced, studded-leather-jacketed, he/him-pronoun-using shutterbug Rainer (Elina Löwensohn, the Romanian-American actress perhaps best known for her collaborations with writer/director Hal Hartley). Rainer serves as the film’s unreliable narrator, echoing the memorable voiceover supplied by Akiro the Wizard (Mako) in John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, the 1982 hit that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as a singular action icon and that popularized Conan for a wider audience. Mandico seems to have closely read both Robert E. Howard’s original run of Conan comics and Milius’s majestic movie version, which would explain why many of Mandico’s wildly irreverent, gender-queer aberrations on the source material are as clever as they are.

Clever, but not necessarily radical. Shifting the gender of both the story’s protagonist and antagonist from male to female is interesting, even revitalizing, but it would be a stretch to call She Is Conann innately feminist. (And let us not forget that the women in Conan the Barbarian do more than just offer lamentations: one of its most appealing, ass-kicking, enemy-crushing characters is Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria.) Upending conventions for its own sake, whether they’re to do with gender, genre, storytelling, or our attachment to our physical bodies, appears to be Mandico’s real raison d’être. In that regard, She Is Conann can be considered a fait accompli. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

X: @chiminomatic

How to see She Is Conann

Advance showings of the film take place January 30 at Alamo Drafthouses across the country before its theatrical run begins on February 2.
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