I’m sort of in a place right now where I’m really interested in movies that get over (intentionally or not) based on their aesthetics, rather than their story. It seems like it’s not all that often any more that horror filmmakers consciously try to create something that works in terms of design and art direction, rather than plot or premise (or god forbid, special effects technology). I know this is a little old-man-shouting-at-the-clouds, and I’m not saying it never happens, maybe just not as often as I’d like. For a genre so occupied with the territory of nightmares, why not spend more time trying to replicate that particular surrealist landscape, where image and feeling prevail over logic and causality?
Maybe it’s because it’s a really tough sell, not just from an economic point of view (you rarely go broke underestimating the intelligence of an audience), but from a creative one as well. To really drive a movie through imagery rather than story, you need to be damn sure that what’s seen communicates what needs to be understood because you don’t really have the luxury of complex exposition. People have to see something and feel in their gut why it’s bad or wrong or scary without being told, and that’s hard to pull off for almost anyone. It seems to me like a Sargasso Sea of flawed-but-interesting and ambitious failures.
Unfortunately, Livide (Livid) is not going to break that streak. It’s striking, dreamlike, and macabre (a tone that is itself hard to hit), but not as cohesive as it needs to be in the end.
Lucie Klavel has just started a new job, assisting a home-care nurse in her daily rounds. Mostly she assists with medical care - preparing injections and medication, that sort of thing. Her first day on the job with the stern, peremptory Mrs. Wilson starts off uneventfully enough, and ends at the shuttered mansion of Mrs. Jessel, a formerly formidable ballet instructor who, in her old age, persists in a vegetative state. She is a frail, skeletal figure in repose in the middle of a big bed, interrupted by a respirator and an IV tube. Mrs. Wilson tells Lucie that there are stories about Mrs. Jessel having a treasure hidden somewhere in the enormous house, though she herself has never found any sign of it.
And so Lucie takes this story back to her boyfriend, William. He’s kind of a dope - dreams big, but doesn’t take the time to think things through. The kind of guy who decides to steal a TV from a store across the street from a police station. William sees this as their big chance - find the treasure, pay off some debts, live life free of care. He ropes his friend Ben into the scheme. The three of them will sneak into Mrs. Jessel’s house, find the treasure, and then be well-off forever. If this sounds like a stupid, poorly-thought-out plan, well, that’s William for you.
So, breaking into an old mansion belonging to a mysterious old woman to look for a treasure only rumored to exist? What could go wrong?
The strength of Livide lies, for most of its runtime, in its atmosphere. An odd, dreamlike feeling suffuses the whole thing, even before it gets going. Little moments of strangeness happen in the middle of everyday life with no real build-up or fanfare. They’re just sort of...there, ultimately suggesting that there’s a thin line between our world and the next (even between the world of the film and other horror films, as evinced in a sneaky, contextless little homage scene that worked well both as an isolated instance of strangeness and as a self-aware little wink at the genre), a line that thins, blurs, and is finally erased the further and further the three protagonists move into the house.
The dreamlike feeling is what drives the movie, which - like dreams - relies mostly on striking visuals to communicate what’s going on. The story is simple, and mostly there as something on which to hang the visuals, the specific scenes, the isolated moments. But this is the problem with dreams - lots of striking moments and images aren't necessarily a story, and Livide doesn’t quite commit wholeheartedly to this approach. If you're going to go the imagery-over-substance route, you have to push all-in on the imagery and be willing to forgo plot. This film bothers just enough with a story that it feels more incomplete than anything else.
Mostly it begins to fall down when it attempts to tell the story of Mrs. Jessel and why things are how they are. It's not so much a matter of things not being what they first appear to be, because they sort of are, it's just not necessarily the entire story. Basically, we are given one monster, then another, and then we learn as often we do that some monsters are more monstrous than others. The repeated imagery of moths, clockwork, taxidermy, and ballerinas makes for a strange, haunting experience, and one that does have an underlying logic revealed over the course of the film, but the last act abandons that understated creepiness for something far gorier and it loses something as a result. In its climax and denouement, some moments that seem to be important feel glossed over, and other moments that feel like they should be quick and sharp are unnecessarily prolonged. The end is ragged and inconclusive, leaving you feeling as if you’d missed some important piece of information that would tie it all together.
There are moments where this film effectively combines the beautiful with the unsettling and horrific, but doesn't really connect or build those moments effectively enough to tell a strong story on their own, and the exposition we get doesn’t fill in the gaps well enough. We’re left with tableaux vivants - living pictures, strung together into something that almost coheres into meaning, but doesn’t quite make it.
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