Wednesday, May 31, 2023

À L’intérieur: What's Black And White And Red All Over?

I’ve talked before about how the once-vaunted New French Extremity ended up being more hype than substance (not to mention nebulous as all get-out - the Wikipedia entry includes a whole lot of films that aren’t even French), but for every Frontiere(s), which wouldn’t know subtlety if it walked up and smacked it in the face with a lead pipe, there’s a Martyrs, which has a thesis, actual narrative craft, and a willingness to let some things remain ambiguous. What these two ends of the continuum have in common, and seems to be broadly characteristic of the movement (to the extent it actually exists) is a confrontationally graphic use of violence and a tendency toward nihilism. When it’s done well, it makes for a singular experience that is by no means for everyone. And when it’s not done well, you get Frontiere(s)

À L’intérieur (Inside) is definitely done well, and what it lacks in narrative sophistication it makes up for in atmosphere, tension, and a use of violence that blows right past glib and titillating and lands smack dab in the middle of outright grueling. I can’t remember the last time a film made me exclaim “that is fucked up” out loud so many times before it was over. It's an unrelentingly intense, disturbingly intimate siege film marred only by one totally unnecessary stylistic choice.

The totally unnecessary stylistic choice makes itself known immediately, with what is pretty clearly a computer-generated animation of a child in the womb, floating peacefully. It’s fake, it’s clearly fake, and it’s faintly ridiculous. There’s an opening voiceover as a woman talks about how her child is safe and nobody’s going to be able to take it away from her now. Which is maybe a little intense, but then there’s a screeching of metal, a shattering of glass, and a cutaway to a visibly pregnant woman sitting in the wreckage of a car, dazed and bloodied, a man slumped over dead in the seat next to her.

The woman is Sarah, a photojournalist, and the man was her husband. She lost him in the crash, but her baby is still alive and healthy. Flash forward a few months, and it’s Christmas Eve. She’s going to deliver on Christmas Day. What does she care? The man she loves is dead, she has no interest in seeing her extended family, no interest in celebrating anything. So she makes plans for her editor to drive her to the hospital tomorrow morning, and settles in for the evening, all alone in a house that’s a little too big now. And then there’s a knock on the door. There’s a woman outside, asking to come in and use her phone. Sarah’s understandably skittish, being all alone in the middle of the night, so she begs off, suggesting the woman go to a house down the street, it’s Christmas Eve, there will be plenty of people home elsewhere.  But the woman persists, so Sarah says that her husband’s just gotten home from his shift and is asleep. The woman promises to be quiet, but Sarah isn’t giving in.

And then the woman says “your husband isn’t home, Sarah. He’s dead.”

There are at least a couple of general reasons to watch horror. One is entertainment - the adrenaline thrill that comes from being startled, from tension and release. It’s the ability to experience scary situations vicariously. Horror as thrill ride. The other is art, in the sense of experiencing a creative work for the sake of the experience it evokes, the way it makes you feel. This can be more complicated than thrills, and can prod at our boundaries, maybe take us beyond them. When you go past your limits, everything is new. Inside is most definitely not entertainment. As is the case with Martyrs, people who watch horror films to see teenagers get skewered by a masked maniac are not going to like this film, because the violence in it has consequences. It’s not the punchline to a joke. There’s visible suffering, it’s up close and it’s damage and pain, people don’t die right away and it’s messy. It’s upsetting because it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to enjoy it. 

But even by those standards, fuck this is a violent film. Blood is everywhere, right from the opening scene and impressionistic opening credits that turn it into something textural. The majority of the film takes place inside Sarah’s house and by the end it is absolutely painted red, as is Sarah.. Blood sprays, spurts, spills, smears all over the place. You can’t get away from it. Harm is quick and brutal, except when it’s prolonged and agonizing. Whatever sharp object someone can find, it’s getting used in as graphic a fashion as possible. It’s not a complicated story, Sarah’s being put through a wringer and she has no idea why, and by extension so are we. That’s the point - the absolute senselessness of it, the way this horror finds its way in in the form of The Woman (she is never named). This is happening, regardless of how you feel about it. It’s an intimate film, mostly two people in a single location, and a lot of it happens up close. The violent moments, sure, but also conversations, examinations of faces exhausted, in agony or fear or rage. Apart from a blackly funny sequence toward the start featuring a nurse who absolutely cannot read the room, there's pretty much no humor either. It’s not a film with a lot of opportunity for distance.

But there are films like this that are just endurance tests without a lot of value otherwise, and a big part of what separates this from grosser, more exploitative stuff - still looking at you, Frontiere(s) - is that it’s clearly made with skill. This is a film that uses lighting really, really well - shadowy interiors, backlit figures like darkness cut out of the world, remorseless fluorescents, complemented by a grain to a lot of shots that gives it a rough and immediate texture without looking cheap or like an attempt at pastiche. The pacing is efficient, accomplished largely by interrupting action with sudden, shocking cutaways that keep the audience on the back foot. This isn’t a film that strictly adheres to the rhythms of a scene, anything can happen at any time, and so once it gets going, it always feels tense. There isn’t a lot of exposition - it doesn’t need it, like I said, it’s a pretty straightforward story - but there’s enough ambiguity that you’re sort of left wondering exactly what has happened, little throwaway lines that make you say “wait, what?” and are never followed up, so there’s this faint air of mystery to it all that lingers once it’s over. Performances are believable all around, with The Woman especially standing out - she’s calm, feral, and piteous by turns and the energy is always palpable. Sarah spends most of the film in shock, literally or figuratively. This is a woman who’s already grief-stricken, thrust into something so much worse. And the whole thing is scored using minimal, pulsing synthesizer, some strings and white noise, it’s effective all the way through without ever being intrusive, coloring scenes without upstaging them.

That said, there are some moments that beggar belief - one group of police officers makes a baffling choice regarding someone they already have in custody, people who by all rights should be dead aren’t, but just as often it adds to the surreally nightmarish feel of the whole thing, where not everything is explained neatly and so you sort of wonder how much of this is or isn’t actually happening. The film never commits either way. More egregious is the repeated use the dodgy CG effects of a child in the womb, as if the baby is reacting to everything going on around it. It’s hokey, the effects look cheesy, and it adds nothing to the film. You could cut out those interludes (of which there are more than a few) and it would only help the film. But despite that corny nonsense, the film gets over because everywhere else it’s utterly sharp and ruthless, unsparing and implacable. This was one that had me feeling wrung out afterwards. It’s a hell of a thing, and maybe the only other film apart from Martyrs that justifies New French Extremity in horror. 

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