Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 16: Death By Self-Indulgence

You know, sometimes it becomes all too clear that people haven’t really advanced all that far in our storytelling ideas. Look at a film like Let The Right One In, which is one of my absolute favorite films. It’s marvelous and I don’t know that anyone whose opinion can be trusted has disagreed with me in their assessment of it. It’s been adopted by the people who determine cult classics and championed by real critics; in one of the few instances of everyone being right, Let The Right One In is as extraordinary as everyone says it is. But when you break down it’s various elements it isn’t really too unusual. It’s alternately a tragic love story, a vampire story wherein a boy discovers that someone he knows is has a good reason for their strange behavior, and a clash between an underdog and many bullies, both societal and playground. Not all that different from a good many other films; it’s simply in the telling that the film becomes transcendent. However, it took the combined efforts of a director and screenwriter with something different and exciting to say about genre truisms to make such a great film and a really marvelous crew and cast with which to pull it off. Take any of those things out of the equation and you have a film that fails gallantly, but still fails. You need to care about telling an old story a new way, but sometimes you need more than determination, you need to understand what was wrong with the old way. The two films I’d like to discuss today, two of the most recent French horror films, were 'new spins' on old stories but didn’t differ from their influences in clever enough ways to make themselves vital or even necessary.

By Kim Chapiron

It’s Christmas Eve and Five twenty-somethings who could charitably be described as fuckheads, finish off a night at a club. Bart, the biggest fuck-up and horn-dog of the bunch gets a bottle in his face after hitting on someone with a boyfriend, and his friends (Thai, Ladj, Yasmine and Eve) have to carry him to the car. Eve invites them all back to her country estate, and seeing as no one has any money (they wind up stealing the gas it takes to get there), they all think a free meal and warm house sounds great. It helps that both Thai and Bart want desperately to get in Eve’s pants. They arrive just after dawn and are greeted by Eve’s handyman, Joseph (Vincent Cassel, the only actor in the cast worthy of the name) who creeps everyone out with his racist bumpkin shtick. The following twenty-four hours just get creepier and creepier and more offensive. Joseph seems to be obsessed with Bart (in a joke that gets less funny everytime it occurs, he keeps calling him Marc instead of Bart). Bart splits his time between wanting to fuck Eve and a local girl who reminds me of Daisy Duke via the family in Frontiere(s). After an incident at the hot springs where a bunch of local guys pick a fight with Bart, the kids decide to stick to Eve’s house for the remainder of their stay which they keep threatening to cut short. Finally after dinner where everyone argues about religion and Joseph tells a story about a guy sleeping with his sister who then has to surrender the resultant baby to Satan, everyone attempts to sleep with each other. When that fails for one reason or another (Yasmine’s bed fills with crickets for some reason, the kids from the hot springs show up to do. something vague and mean, Joseph spies on the budding three-way between Thai, Bart and Eve) things descend into chaos and suddenly that story that Joseph told turns out to be not just a story after all, but really who cares?

There’s a bit late in the film where Vincent Cassel’s character sees a couple of crows eating a rat. That’s not a bad analogy for this film: it’s one disgusting germy creature preying on another. White trash v. white trash, as it were, city kids clashing with unnerving yokels, attempting to one-up or at least join the canon of something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My big problem (hardly unique to this film) is that I couldn’t care less about anyone of the characters. They’re all (with the occasional exception of Eve) awful, awful people who deserve much worse than what they get. Worst of all, the film spends most of its running time showing you just how richly they deserve to get hacked to pieces by the gross clichéd hicks they so despise and then doesn’t punish them. In fact Bart, Thai and Eve are really the only people who seem to get any kind of comeuppance at all and no one conclusively drops on screen. They are all rather unlikable so I didn’t care about their mannerisms or the stories they tell or how much they want to fuck whoever, and that’s all director Kim Chapiron is interested in; the ostensible horror lies in shadows and implications and in the slightly creepy behavior of the natives. By the time the bed full of crickets shows up, the film has worn out its welcome in the atmospherics department; it should have gotten to the proper horror by now. Chapiron relies on things that aren’t at all scary like two dogs fighting. That isn’t scary, it’s just cruel and worrying, like most of the dialogue and set-pieces, which like the cinematography and set-design are simply hideous; there’s no comfort even in the little things.

I had hoped to find respite in Vincent Cassel’s performance, but alas. Now, I really like Vincent Cassel and he does try his very best with a role composed out of bits of stereotyped behavior, but he doesn’t have a good enough screenplay to work from and he’s simply too big a personality to be good in such a bad little film. Weirdly, Cassel must have really enjoyed the role because he also produced Sheitan; he even gave his wife, Monica Bellucci, a cameo in the horror film that the gas station attendant watches (on christmas eve?). Stranger still, Cassel plays his own sister when the big plot twist is revealed. When we get the plot explained to us and subtly leaks like so much placenta, there is then a completely unnecessary and time-eating dream sequence that I think is supposed to remind us of Sisters (harking back to Brian De Palma is never a good thing). The film puts you in close quarters with a bunch of broad and stupid character types and offers no respite, it just gets more grim and gross until the ending, which despite it's attempt at sickening black humour is really just as formulaic (and I might add nonsensical and arbitary, given the rules established by the script) as you might expect from a movie that spends the majority of its running time asking you to check out how funny rednecks and drug-addled dipshits can be.

So as you see, wanting to teach an old dog new tricks is not always easy. Being able to write is pretty crucial, and so, as we’ll see, is being able to direct. When our next film found its home on DVD in the states, it was hailed as the sickest and most intense horror film of the year. You’d think someone had reinvented the horror film from the way people prattled on and on about it and to be honest the gore effects aren’t even that impressive. In fact, for an underdog French movie with big ideas about the after-life, the film is utterly without style or grace.

by Pascal Laugier

Open on a nearly nude little girl fleeing an old warehouse, where, we will learn, she was imprisoned for quite some time. Then, in a rather clever opening titles sequence, we see the news following the girl’s escape, the story of how she was evidently tortured in captivity and how she was transferred to an orphanage and given psychiatric care. When the police show up to question the little girl (whose name is Lucie) her best friend Anna tells them that she’s hiding. She is much the worse for having been kidnapped, as I’m sure you can imagine and the thought of reliving it for the sake of the investigation doesn’t sit too well with poor Lucie. That night, she is visited by a monstrous figure that looks something like the feral child from Isidro Ortiz's Shiver, a terrific, under-appreciated Spanish horror film you’ve never seen, so nevermind that comparison…think Road Warrior’s the Humongous as a preteen. 

We then fast-forward fifteen years into the future where a suburban family goes about their humdrum morning routine. You just start to wonder what this lovely if slightly irritating bunch of squares has to do with this grim horror film when a twenty-something girl rings the doorbell and guns down everyone in cold blood. This is Lucie and it seems she hasn’t faired much better in the intervening years. After dispatching with everyone in the house, she phones Anna to tell her that she finally did ‘it’, that she was sure that this group of people were “them”. It takes a little unfolding, but Lucie is under the distinct impression that two of the four people she murdered at breakfast were her captors all those years ago. Before long Anna arrives and has to help her move the bodies but not before the feral kid shows up and beats the stuffing out of Lucie and cuts her up good with a razor. Anna, who has trained as an amateur doctor or nurse in the time between the prologue and the murder, tends to Lucie’s wounds and helps her move the bodies. When she sees that the mother is still alive, she’s torn. She doesn't want to kill anyone but she also doesn’t want to cross Lucie; she just slaughtered a family on a hunch, after all. Yet, if these people are really responsible for her friend's psychosis and paranoia, maybe they do deserve it. Lucie gets the upper hand and discovers that the mother is still alive and finishes her off before Anna has much chance to right her friend's rather horrifying wrong. Just when things quiet down, the feral kid shows up but this time Anna can see the attack and learns a little something about her friend that she’d probably already guessed at. Guilt has been playing a rather dangerous trick on Lucie, it seems. And as if that weren’t enough, Anna decides to press her luck by venturing into the basement and finds another feral child chained to the floor. We see that she isn’t so much feral as she is heinously tormented; she’s been, beaten, chained up, skinned alive and dehumanized. How do we know that this is what has happened? Because Anna’s about to learn who’s behind all this madness; perhaps most horrifying of all the revelations she becomes privy to is that she’s next.

Now, before anything else, let me offer director Pascal Laugier a piece of friendly advice. When you make a film this dark, that takes place in basements and warehouses, you might try turning a few lights off. With the exception of the opening shots and that wonderful credits sequence, the whole movie is flooded with light. There is not a shred of darkness or shadow in the whole film, which gives Martyrs the appearance of a rather sorry made-for-TV movie. The direction, editing, photography and sound design are hopelessly flat, so the effects are then rendered far less effective. And as long as we’re talking Brian De Palma (sorry, Pascal), I was reminded in the worst way of his and John Landis’ work in that the film lacks any artistic direction. It is completely unremarkable and so everything else becomes uninteresting. I couldn’t really find the gore that intense because you can see it all perfectly and it looks like just an obscene effect. At no point does anyone appear to have been actually harmed, they just like the victims of an over-eager make-up man. Martyrs also lacks the assault-like editing and stylistic cinematography of its peers and has a story so alienating and grim, where innocent girls are tortured until they cease to be human, that I simply couldn’t find anything to like about the movie. There is no hero and the last third of the movie is simply a regiment of flood-lit torture and beatings. I’ve seen beatings before, why would I want to see them divorced of plot? The international torture coalition that shows up isn’t so much because the film has questions that need answering, it’s just to justify the torture we’re about to see. The film runs out of ideas pretty quickly after this and so falls back on devices from other films. Take the musical score for example: the ending music cue is such a conspicuous crib of John Murphy’s climax of 28 Days Later I almost phoned a lawyer on his behalf. If you’re going to make a film about people being tortured to death (and that is what it is about, even if it makes grander claims to understanding guilt and what waits after death or anything else it never comes close to exploring) you had better have enough great ideas to keep my mind off the despicable nature of the plot and there just simply wasn’t enough thought put into the production to make its misanthropic premise work.

The whole notion of the capture ’n torture business is that some people figured out that people have a far away look in their eyes just before they die horrible painful deaths and that they want to see what they’re seeing in those last minutes before death. That’s an interesting idea, sort of, but I don’t see that an organization based around that idea could afford the kind of lavish torture basements that these guys do. Where are they getting the funding? When has something as violent and disgusting ever been able to captivate more than a bunch of hairy cultists? I don’t think that anyone this crazy could get away with kidnapping and killing people if they’re such a well-funded and organized group. The silliest bit is at the end when a bunch of well-dressed people assemble to hear about the outcome of their experiments with Anna; like there’s an international conglomerate of millionaires just dying to know what happens when you torture someone to death instead of sitting at home snorting coke with hundred dollar bills. The idea behind this is so self-indulgently faux-philosophical and lofty and Laughier clearly has no interest in exploring it, he just wants to film people getting flayed alive, which he can’t even do with the slightest panache. So, while Martyrs has a bit more creativity than ordinarily accompanies this much violence, a semi-cohesive narrative and a new spin on the same old torture doesn’t stop it from being rubbish.
Finally, I’d like to address something minor that’s been bothering me. The film starts by offering a dictionary definition of its title: “Martyr: Witness. From the greek Marturos.” No that’s incorrect. I get what they’re trying to say, but the word 'martyr' is no longer synonymous with the word 'witness' and in no dictionary will that be how it reads. The ecclesiastical Latin translation of the word Marturos led to the English word martir, which then took on the connotation it has today, but that took hundreds of years and dozens of small, protracted changes; nothing is equal to its latin root any longer, the root is just a blueprint. Just like I’m sure the script had a lot of promise that didn’t find its way into the finished film. That'd be like if I made a film called Kin and opened it by saying "Kin: To Give Birth To. Related to the Dutch Kunne." So yeah I get how that might be profound and tie into the plot but it’s fundamentally wrong and I really think that the director’s job is to make sure that kind of shit doesn’t make it into the finished film. If I could turn this into a ‘teachable moment’, I would say that a good idea is often not enough for a good film…or even a mildly entertaining one. I got no pleasure out of watching either Martyrs or Sheitan because long before they ran out of things to say, they had worn out their welcome with their general repugnance. Considering how easy it is to botch an idea, I’m amazed sometimes that we get the great films we do.

No comments: