As I’m finally getting away from things, relaxing as I am in a bit of Europe in the flatlands that constitute that stretch of countryside where Germany meets Poland; I’m getting down to a few things that I haven’t been able to in the last few weeks. One of which is a little review of a film I caught just before leaving the rain-swept island of Blighty.
I’d caught a preview of it a few weeks earlier and thought it looked interesting but I’m not really one for the cinema, although that might be changing. Even with that, I hadn’t specifically intended to go and see the film until I read this rather idiotic film review in the Daily Mail (interesting to note all the highly critical comments have been deleted – do love our wonderful open free press in this country) which was nicely taken apart over at Mailwatch.
Spurred on by the outrage at a film he’d not bothered to watch and making false claims about an institution he clearly hadn’t done any research on I thought it my moral duty to actually go along and see the film for myself because, well I’m an adult and I can quite happily make my own mind up about things without the help of reactionary moralising right-wing journalists who can’t do their job properly.
Now for those who haven’t read a film review by me in the past, here’s the layout. I do the first part which is pretty much what you’d expect in any review. I’m more prone to emphasis on things like cinematography, lighting, sound, music scores than actors performances. We all emphasise different things that we take away from films so just to let you know where my angle usually comes from.
After that there’ll be a nice bit of white space until I talk about other aspects of the film which will include elements of the plot and scenes that contain spoilers. You’ve been warned and there’ll be another warning later on so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know various elements about it then you’ll have the opportunity not to scroll down any further.
The film centres around two main characters played by, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe who while having sex, their young son accidentally falls to his death from their open apartment window.
Now at this point I’ll add that I didn’t at any point in the film catch the characters calling each other by their name which I could just have forgotten or not noticed but for the sake of this review, we’ll just refer to them as he/she as there are practically no other characters in the film, save for their son and various other representations of other humans here and there.
She appears to take the death of her son very badly, blaming herself and to all intents and purposes suffers a breakdown in which she is hospitalised and put on various medication. He (although it appears not a clinical psychiatrist, probably a psychologist) gets her checked out of the hospital to try and treat her himself.
At first this centres around their apartment but upon learning aspects of her troubles it moves on to a forest retreat/cabin called Eden where he tries to get her to face up to her demons.
Once there, a whole load of weird and scary stuff happens.
The film is split into (from memory) five parts, a prologue, three chapters and an epilogue.
I’d like to mention specifically the prologue and to a lesser extent the epilogue which are shot completely differently to the rest of the film. Although concentrating on the prologue as I have to admit, I really didn’t understand the epilogue, they are some of the most beautiful pieces of cinematography I have seen in a very long time. They’re simply stunningly well done; slow motion in black & white with some amazing bits of focus work (which presumably are digital special effects given that I understand the film was shot in digital rather than celluloid).
The style changes for the chapter elements of the film, reverting to full colour but here I found one of only a small number of things I disliked about the film. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really don’t do the whole fly-on-the-wall shaky camera thing. I found it offsetting for probably the first 20 minutes of the film which is a shame because after that it settles down into a more regular filming style. I can understand it was used to specifically emphasise elements of the film but I’m just not a fan of it.
When the film moved into the woods stage I was a little apprehensive. I did get the feeling that it was going to go all Blairwitch on me as up to that point it was still doing the shaky camera work. I know a lot of people raved about how the Blairwitch Project was terribly scary but it bored me to tears although as someone who’s lived in a Nordic country with lots of forests, (or technically speaking, one bloody big forest) the first thing you learn is there’s nothing to be scared about in the woods, except possibly bears.
Thankfully it didn’t turn out like that and it settled down to be a nice little artistically done horror film with some scenes that would make you jump a bit or wince if you happen to be a male of the species. Parts to particularly look out for are the talking fox, what I’ll call the ‘realisation scene’ (more on that later) and the stunning bit of the lady walking across the bridge who I’m not sure who it’s supposed to be or represent but did look a bit like BjÃ¶rk.
The musical score to the film is very well down. Relying on classical music, particular reference must go to the score in the prologue and epilogue which is truly beautiful and if anyone knows what it is then please do tell me as I’d like to get it. In other sections of the film it’s there when its needed to be and conspicuous by its absence which adds a grittier and starker edge to the film when other horror films would roll out something to get the senses going.
On the cinematography front, although it’s done in digital, it doesn’t feel like it. Put simply, it’s probably the best bit of digital work I’ve seen with meticulous attention to detail especially with some of the forest sequences.
Over to the acting side, although admittedly it’s rarely the thing in a film I look for most, there’s some really good performances in particular Charlotte Gainsbourg and although I’m not particularly keen on Willem Dafoe he is also very strong.
So what’s all the fuss about?
I guess it’s obligatory to refer to the matter that this film’s stirred up the hairs on the back of the neck of a few critics and general right-wing moralising folk. The general criticism seems to be that it’s sick and has got a lot a scenes of people ‘doing it’ in it.
I’m a pretty liberal kind of guy when it comes to such matters and I’ve never quite understood that while depiction of full frontal female nudity doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem, the slight hint of a bloke with a stiffy gets people up in arms. I’m an adult male, I have two kids, I know what an erect penis looks like and short of a very small section of the entire global human population, so does everyone else.
The actual sex scenes in the film are very brief or fleeting clips and are certainly not erotic or arousing so I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. There are only two scenes in the film that could be considered a bit on the rough side, the female genital mutilation scene which lasts all of 1-2 seconds and the masturbating a penis that ejaculates blood scene of which the former if cut out would have left a slight ‘huh’ feeling in the subsequent scene and the latter I’ll mention a bit about later.
All in all, it’s a bit of a disjointed film that leaves you wondering about it at the end and doesn’t provide specific explanations (especially the epilogue) but I appreciate that as not every film should end all happy and concluded.
A couple of notes (some of which are sartorial):
If you have a problem with bad things happening to small children (like my missus) then this film probably isn’t for you.
The film gets extra special recommendations for inventive use of a grinding wheel in a horror film.
The couple have completely no idea of suitable clothing to go and spend time in the woods, I mean, come on, a full on winter coat in a wet close environment?
That bloody oak tree must have a hell of a lot of acorns on it.
A lot has been thrown at this film, the usual criticisms of it being potentially damaging to people that you get when anything mildly controversial pops up (not that in an enlightened world anything in it should be controversial). From a personal perspective I didn’t suddenly go all mentally twisted on emerging from the cinema but moreover felt a great protective emotion towards my children and a desire to double-check safety gates, windows and that my kids have their shoes on the right way round.
Further section below (contains spoilers – you have been warned)
What you don’t get the impression of when watching the trailers to the film is that it’s a deeply psychological film at heart. Yes, it’s artistic, and definitely can be placed into the horror genre although only really for the last chapter of the film, must of the screenplay revolves around the psychological malaise of the female lead and her husband’s attempt at trying to find out what she is truly scared of most.
As the film progresses there’s a realisation that something’s not quite right about ‘her’. I’ll claim to be a bit of a smart arse here and say that I had my suspicions right after she claimed that the child could open the safety gate. Perhaps it’s being a parent of small kids myself but the first thing that sprung into my mind during the prologue is how the hell could you leave a safety gate unlocked, because it sure as hell looked unlocked to me. In addition to that, it would have to be a thoroughly rubbish safety gate as although my three year old know how to open our safety gate, he can’t because it requires a requisite amount of strength and physical manipulation that he doesn’t have yet.
We do of course learn that she had deliberately left the gate unlocked, presumably the window as well and witnessed her son fall to his death without reacting. She is in the truest form of the horror genre a bit of a psychopathic nutcase.
The ‘realisation scene’ I alluded to before is where this becomes clear, that the book/thesis she was working on at the cabin the year before had fundamentally twisted her mind and the study of the demonisation of women in history (which is the best way I can put it) internalised that belief on herself to the extent that she becomes a sadistic torturer of her son.
Whether the fears and pain that she portrays in parts of the film are real or part of a complicated act I’m not entirely sure but that true psychotic rage that appears towards the end of the film I haven’t witnessed since watching Switchblade Romance a few years back. (which is also a good film BTW, cracking bit of French horror – in the true slasher genre).
As far as horror gore goes, there are two particular scenes, one of which I’ve already mentioned that bring a pretty gruesome addition to any horror film. The first of which being where she (putting it as best as I can) seduces him into sex only to throw a bloody great log at his family jewels. Resulting in him being completely laid out (a scene that no man viewing would not wince at). Whereupon she proceeds to masturbate him till he ejaculates blood.
The second being immediately afterwards where she realises that eventually he will wake up and so needs to disable him somehow.
Most horror films would have found some handy chains, rope or gaffer tape to hand at this point but the film gets very ingenious. She instead finds a grinding wheel. Takes it out of its frame, drills a hole through his leg and bolts it on while helpfully throwing the wrench away. Yes, it’s gruesome but hideously inventive.
He of course does eventually get free and kills her which you kind of get the feeling is what she wanted him to do as she’d had ample opportunity to see he off and wouldn’t have bothered rescuing him.
All in all, it’s a good film. Beautifully done in parts, grittily gruesome in others. Worth seeing if you a generally into horror/psychological films. Possibly not suitable for people with closed minds or those who believe what they read in the Daily Mail.