I go on and on and on a lot about the need for coherence and clarity in storytelling, and a lot of my complaints lately over the last couple of months have been centered on movies that seem to cobble together set-pieces or imagery intended to frighten without really providing a reason for why they're there or why they happen the way they do, as if just assembling a bunch of scary stuff automatically makes something a horror movie and justifies its existence.
(Of course, when these movies do decent enough business to justify their existence to the people who bankrolled it, well, that's sort of depressing to me. Not so much from the money end - money wants more money and makes decisions that it thinks will bring it more money. Business is a necessary evil of art if you want that art to have an audience or make a living for the artist. No, what bums me out is that there's enough of an audience with low enough standards for those movies to do the business they do. "You'll like it if you're a fan of that sort of thing" is some bullshit.)
But I'm not here to spend the entire post on an exhortation to higher standards. I'm not even here to talk about the need for more coherent horror movies, because Le Village Des Ombres (The Village of Shadows) is, much to its credit, clear and coherent in the story it's trying to tell. Unfortunately, it also serves as a lesson in the insufficiency of a clear story - without intensity, without surprise, even the most elegant storytelling falls flat.
The film opens on a flashback to World War II, and a group of Nazi soldiers is stuck in a house in a small French village and some weird shit is going on. It's hard to tell what's happening, but some of the soldiers have died, and there's some mysterious force behind a door, and there's some shooting, and then all of the soldiers are dead. It's not the most promising opening, in my opinion, because as a flashback all it tells us is that something bad happened in this village a long time ago, and since this is nominally a horror movie titled The Village of Shadows, that's sort of a given. Flashbacks work best when they offer information that seems like it communicates one thing only to mean something else entirely in context, or to pique interest by showing us something that doesn't quite make sense, and is revealed gradually. This flashback doesn't do either. It says "a bad thing happened a long time ago" which, no shit.
So World War II, dead Nazis, something spooky. Flash forward 60 years or so to two carloads of young adults on a road trip (I am starting to get sick of people on a road trip) to a summer home in a small French village. Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN! (Yeah, that seems a little cheap, but that's sort of what the music in this movie does - it's almost entirely ominous, minor-key strings slathered over every fucking scene, sometimes to the point of being distracting.) There's, like, nine people in the two cars, and we don't really get a strong sense of who all of them are. There's bookish Mathias, Lucas, to whose family home they are traveling, Hugo, his girlfriend Marion, Marion's sister Emma, headstrong David, David's spooky girlfriend Lila, and Bastien and Juliette, whose chief defining characteristic seems to be that they're the goofy young horny couple. By and large, they're just sort of there in the beginning.
It's not a promising start, but after a little back-and-forth by the protagonists (and some hilariously awful funk/rap by…Bastien, I think), things start getting pleasingly weird. The car driven by Hugo pulls ahead of the car driven by David, even though Hugo doesn't know where they're going, and then mere minutes later, David has to bring his car to a screeching halt when he almost runs into Hugo's car, sitting deserted at the side of the road, doors hanging open. It's nicely disorienting because we don't see what happens to the people in Hugo's car and it's too short a time since they passed for everything to be so deserted. Needless to say, David, Emma, Lucas, Mathias, and Lila get out and try to track their missing friends, their search leading them to the village of Ruiflec - the very village they were trying to reach to begin with.
Naturally, it's the village from the flashback.
After coming on a little too strong in the beginning, the movie settles into a more self-assured groove with the arrival of our protagonists in the titular village. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that something is not right in this place - the village is deserted, and there are cryptic drawings scattered everywhere. It occurs to the protagonists that none of them really know Lucas all that well, and it was his idea to come here. The discovery of Marion - one of the passengers in the other car - makes things even more confusing, as she talks like they've been there for hours when they just found her minutes after entering the village. Time and space, they discover, are out of joint here - leaving the village proves to be impossible as paths lead back to their beginning, ways out return them to the house. The cryptic drawings become prophetic, and people begin disappearing one by one. Something is stalking them. All of this is intercut with scenes of Emma, elsewhere, getting some unspecified bad news, and one side of a conversation with an unknown man in a car. It's not clear if these cutaways are related or where they occur in time, but restraint makes them less confusing and more curious - their reveals are paced well enough to deepen the mystery surrounding these people, rather than distracting from it.
In fact, one of the biggest strengths of Le Village Des Ombres is its pacing. It's not a sudden-scares kind of movie. It gradually drip-feeds information to the audience - weird occurrences, flashbacks, misdirection - at a rate fast enough to keep us guessing, but slowly enough that we spend a long time wondering what it all means. Why can't they leave? Why do the drawings depict events that happened seconds before the drawing was discovered? What happened between Emma & Marion? Who is the dude in the car? What's with the weird ledger in the town hall? Why is the library filled with copies of a single book? Everything coheres in the end, but it takes its sweet time getting there, answers inevitably leading to more questions until the very end. That's a good thing.
All of this makes the film's shortcomings stand out in stark relief. This is a really dark movie (if you couldn't guess from the title). Not thematically dark, actually, cinematographically dark, and this makes it a little difficult to really set up as much of a mood as it could. Being dark isn't the same thing as being spooky, and the different flashbacks (of which there are more than a few, all executed more deftly and effectively than the opening) utilize different cinematographic approaches to create different moods. This suggests that they could have handled the present-day stuff in a defter manner as well. Several key moments feel muddled and confused, simply because it's hard to see what's actually happening.
These same undermining tendencies extend to the narrative as well. Although the overarching mystery of the story is kept going for a good long while, and doesn't leave any loose ends, some of the reveals along the way feel like they should have had more impact or have been more startling than they were. That the film takes its time is good and effective, but for the time that it took to set up some pieces of the story, you feel like they should mean more or inspire stronger feelings in us than they do in the end, and you sort of wonder if some parts of the story couldn't have been better communicated through dialogue instead of flashback, so we'd know what we need to know about the character without being lead to believe that we're going to be let in on some earthshaking secret. What's supposed to be shocking or horrifying, as a result, sometimes feels a little pedestrian instead. And for all the right pacing choices made throughout, the film's ending feels a little abrupt and obvious, in part because we've been lead to expect something far stranger than what we get, but also because the sense of restraint the rest of the movie has abandons it in the conclusion. The point is made, the story is over, but the movie keeps going. The end isn't really a surprise because it was all spelled out pretty clearly in the final act, but then instead of ending on the important revelation (one with more emotional freight than anything else in the film) it continues to a scene that resolves some of what we've seen in flashback, only doing so to make the pretty-obvious implications of the conclusion even more explicit without really extending or elaborating on them. It over-explains what was already a pretty clear-cut ending.
I wish it had been a stronger effort, because it does do something a lot of the movies I've watched lately fail to do - it has a specific premise, with a clear through-line on the story, and everything we see serves that story. There aren't any scary bits tacked on without regard for the narrative and internal logic, everything seems planned out and the product of a specific set of events, and what at first seem like narrative interruptions or detours do serve a purpose - the structure of this film is tight and solid, but it doesn't have quite the intensity, emotional punch or sense of profound surprise in its twists and reveals that it needs to be really good. It's not dull, just…ultimately nothing new, and there are just enough glimpses of something better to make that a disappointment. It's exactly the kind of movie that's likely to get one of those "you'll like it if you're a fan of that sort of movie" endorsements, with all that implies.
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