French helmer Bertrand Mandico has achieved a cult following for his gender-bending sensorial surrealist visions, with more than 20 short films and two feature films completed to date.

His first feature, “The Wild Boys,” about five wealthy adolescent boys sent to a tropical island, all played by actresses, premiered in Venice. It won the Louis-Delluc 2018 prize for best first film and topped Cahiers du Cinéma’s 2018 list of Top 10 films.

His sophomore feature “After Blue (Dirty Paradise),” is a sci-fi western, again primarily with a female cast, including Mandico’s fetish actress Elina Löwensohn. It had its world premiere at Locarno in 2021, where it won the Fipresci prize, followed by its North American premiere in Toronto’s Midnight Madness sidebar, and U.S. premiere in the Fantastic Fest, where it won Best Film. It won the Special Jury Prize at Sitges.

The helmer is now completing post-production on his third feature, “She Is Conan,” based on the Robert E. Howard character, created in 1932, with actresses playing the main protagonist.

All three feature films have been produced by Ecce Films. Mandico considers that they form a trilogy, loosed linked to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” wherein the three films, in chronological order, correspond to Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno.

Kinology is repping sales on “After Blue” and “She Is Conan.” The former will be released in France on Feb. 16. North American rights have been bought by Altered Innocence, whose owner, Frank Jaffe, called it “a lesbian ‘El Topo’ in space!”

Variety spoke to Mandico.

What are some of your principal cinematic references and inspirations?
I like to navigate between different cinematic lineages, above all surrealism, fantasy and oneiric visions, including film poets such as Cocteau, Buñuel, Pasolini, Terayama or Fassbinder. I’m interested in experimental cinema, genre cinema and surrealism cinema, but always rooted in creating pleasure for the spectator. The link to melodrama and emotion is very important for me. That sets me apart from a lot of genre cinema, which often has a cruel or ironic vision. I am more of a great romantic lyricist!

You have described “After Blue” as a mix between Jean Cocteau and Sergio Leone.
Exactly! They are both great formalists. I love Cocteau’s mix of film poetry and narrative in “Beauty and the Beast.” Leone is committed to narrative cinema but also highly experimental, for example in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” He moves towards abstraction, but without ever losing emotional force. The western genre is often surrealist. Another inspiration for “After Blue” was “Fantastic Planet,” written by Roland Topor and directed by René Lalou. I loved the combination of the sets, animation and sci-fi.

How did your animation studies at Les Gobelins influence your work?
I started with animation cinema and collage, almost three decades ago, because it was the best way for me to start making films. Eastern European animation, in particular Jan Svankmajer was a big influence. All his amazing experiences, use of marionettes and recovery of pre-existing objects. I was also inspired by the Polish director, Walerian Borowczyk. My passion from the very beginning was to work with actresses. The truth is I always dreamt of becoming an actress!

What was the inspiration for the key character in ‘After Blue,’ Katerina Buschowski, who calls herself Kate Bush?
At the end of “The Wild Boys” there is the quote: “The future is woman. The future is a sorcerer.” This character is a powerful earthly force who emerges from the ground. She is an ambiguous magical figure: like the sphinx – she talks in riddles. The name of the English pop singer is a kind of resurgence of certain things from the past, like the Statue of Liberty in “Planet of the Apes.” The reference creates a disturbing and unexpected referential telescoping. The character is poles apart from the singer. But I chose the name out of my admiration for the singer Kate Bush’s work – who combines fiction, romance and a certain idea of esotericism.

What creative opportunities arise from casting actresses in male roles?
At first I write all my characters as male characters, then I change some of them to female characters or cast women to play male characters. Actresses bring a special power to these roles. They often say that they are offered fewer interesting roles and tend to have shorter careers. I like to see what actresses do with roles that are often reserved to men. They can express themselves in a different way. It’s almost an asexual approach – where the body is invested in a different way. I create a dialogue with them. I’m the first observer.

Your films have a strong corporal energy and eroticism
My films involve choreography, dance and performance. My direction is very corporal. I put myself in the positions that I want the actors to assume on set. What interests me is the “corps dans le décor” – the body in the physical setting. That immediately opens up to the erotic, but it’s almost by accident. I don’t reject eroticism. It’s very easy to create pornographic images, which are often a negation of eroticism. What I find interesting in eroticism is the collage, the collision of elements that have nothing to do with each other. But together they gain eroticism. For example, showing part of the body in collision with an external object. That can be very disturbing.

What is your next film “She Is Conan” about?
This began as a stage play, which Philippe Quesne invited me to put together at the Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers. I was initially repelled by the universe of Conan, but I found something that worked for me, which coincided with my research into demoniac characters.

We couldn’t open the play because of the COVID restrictions and so we filmed the performance, and it then evolved into a feature film – with a new shoot – and a virtual reality project. I was also inspired by Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montes” about the character who tells her story, from a circus that became her damnation. And also the dead man who tells his life story at the beginning of “Sunset Boulevard.” My film is the complete opposite to John Milius’ “Conan.” It’s not a violent or harsh tale. It explores the different stages of the life of Conan – from the Sumerian era to the near future. It’s more dreamlike, again a bit like Cocteau or Paul Schraeder’s “Mishima.” Each stage of the character’s life is shown with a different aesthetic and rhythm, but there is an underlying unity and evolution of the character.

What are your expectations from the commercial release of “After Blue”?
I view each film as a prototype and try to do something different. Some critics were looking for something very similar to “The Wild Boys,” but it isn’t. It has a very different feel and rhythm. It has a lot of long takes and is more melancholic and lyrical. I explore color more intensely. By contrast, “Conan” will be entirely black and white. We’ll see how spectators react!