Early in “Judy & Punch,” a wife who’s just helped her husband perform a vigorously slap-happy puppet show in a desultory corner of 17th century England poses the question, “Do you think the show really needs to be that punchy?”
“That’s what the people like,” he replies with a shrug. “They like punchy. They like smashy.”
People still like punchy and smashy, of course, and “Judy & Punch” sees to it that its viewers will be longing for a bit of the old ultraviolence by the end of this particular enterprise. The film is both a deconstruction of myth and a twisted origin story for a slapsticky form of puppetry that was quite popular a couple hundred years ago, but it’s also a gory little bit of provocation that makes fun of bloodthirsty audiences but might appeal to some of them as well.
And while you could get away with calling it a black comedy, the emphasis should definitely be on the black. “Judy & Punch” digs into the grime and ignorance of daily life in an era blinkered by superstition, and then digs deeper into the ugliness of the stories that underlie some popular entertainment. There are a few laughs to be had, but those that are here mostly involve gawking at the array of grotesqueries that are paraded in front of us, or chuckling through a grimace.
The setup will be familiar to anyone who knows the usual plot line for the Punch and Judy puppet shows that came from Italian commedia dell’arte but morphed into popular entertainment in 17th century England: Mr. Punch (Damon Herriman, best known for playing Charles Manson in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) are an argumentative couple; she asks him to watch their baby, but he mishandles the infant; Judy returns, they argue some more, a big stick comes out and Punch starts punching.
This is played for laughs in a marionette theater, but it’s a grimmer business on screen when Punch drops the baby out the window and then beats his wife and leaves her for dead in the forest outside Seaside. The town itself is a backwards, landbound hamlet whose residents are routinely violent and so wary of anybody the slightest bit different that they have regular “stoning days” to get rid of women who have birthmarks or spend too long looking at the moon.
Deadly rituals proved to be quite the entertainment in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” last year, and with “Judy & Punch,” first-time director Mirrah Foulkes has whipped up a brutally stylish feminist twist on the old story, albeit one that doesn’t have quite the potency of Aster’s twisted tale. Samuel Goldwyn Films would have released the movie theatrically if not for coronavirus, but is now giving it a VOD release.
In this version, Judy’s out for revenge, aided by the ragtag population of “Heretics Camp,” a secret forest hideaway for albinos, little people, redheads and other misfits who’d be in danger of stoning if they set foot in Seaside. “Judy & Punch” finds the vicious misogyny at the heart of old stories and the horror movie that lurks inside myths and legends, and then tries to whip it into a kind of dark entertainment.
There’s a lot going on here, and it all gets a bit heavy-handed at times. But Foulkes certainly knows how to create a mood, helped along by a doomy score from Francois Tetaz that is mixed with everything from an electronic version of Bach’s “Air on a G String” to “Who by Fire,” Leonard Cohen’s elegant recitation of ways to die, which haunts a central montage.
Wasikowska has always had an otherworldly air about her, one that works well with fairy tales — though when she’s battered and bruised and has a meat cleaver in her hand, she’s clearly a force to be reckoned with. With her husband reduced to a drunken, whimpering fool by the end of the film, she’s the one who puts the punch in this particular puppet show.
“Judy and Punch” is available on-demand Friday, June 5.