Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Movies: Is everybody in? Is everybody in?

Inside, the co-directing debut of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, is one of the latest flicks in a small but steady stream of bloody French imports. It takes a plot of primal simplicity – one attacker, one victim – and turns it into a stylish, meticulous, energetic, and gore-soaked struggle that initially galvanizes the viewer only to, in the end, leave them feeling utterly exhausted.

Setting against the backdrop of the 2005 immigration riots in the outskirts of Paris, Inside tells the story of Sarah, a pregnant photojournalist who, after losing her baby's daddy in an auto accident that nearly took the unborn child and left her physically scarred, is spending Christmas alone. Christmas night an unnamed woman busts into Sarah's home. Her goal, we quickly learn, is to cut the baby out of Sarah's womb. Think of it as a violent, unilateral form of adoption. (As contrived as this sounds, there have been at least three recorded real-life cases in which crazed would-be mothers have attempted amateur-Cesarean kidnappings.) What follows is a long, brutal night in which Sarah, trapped in a bathroom on the second floor of her home, tries repeated to escape her attacker. This grim stand-off is violently punctuated by the arrival of various relatives, friends, and police officers, all of whom will face-off against the anonymous attacker.

The two key roles are ably played, but somewhat thankless. The fragile beauty of Alysson Paradis makes the lead role of Sarah an effective center to viewer concern, but she's supposed to play an emotional shut-in so there is a real limit to how deeply we can connect with her. Her attacker is played by the truly fascinating Béatrice Dalle, a controversial art house fixture on the French film scene. In real life, Dalle's explosive personality (she attacked a French police woman over a parking violation) and bizarre love life (she was secretly married to unnamed prisoner at a prison she was doing volunteer work in) are the stuff of tabloid dreams. Cinematically, she taken projects that fit her odd profile – including the horrible Trouble Every Day, the worst film this blogger has ever had to sit through. Dalle's oddly captivating looks and hot-and-cold acting style make for an unusually interesting villain. She slides between killing-machine and pathetic-loony with ease, playing with audience expectations. She is also the most stylish slasher in recent memory: she goes to work in a floor length black gown and leather opera gloves.

Like High Tension, the violence of Inside is extreme. In the "making of" featurette for the former flick, the director claimed that French cinema culture was inherently adverse to extreme violence. They are, he opined, lovers, not fighters. The recent spate of bleak and brutal French drama and horror films (Irreversible, Kiss Me, Frontier(s), High Tension, and Inside) would suggest that this is no longer the case. Inside takes practically revels the display of the mushy, fluid details of human existence. Aside from the gallons of blood that the directors practically paint the house with, we're treated to scenes of vomit, tears and snot, and urine. Though the violence isn't particularly realistic – the capacity of these characters to absorb damage and continue struggling stretches disbelief and very nearly tips over into some dark form of slapstick – it is considerably more effecting and graphic that anything I've seen in recent memory.

Set against the unhinged relish with which the filmmakers show gore and violence is the polish of their visual approach and an oddly elegant series of structural binaries used to give the film a thematic and visual template. Like many contemporary horror films, Inside makes full use of DV technology to escape the visual restrictions of its relatively small budget. It has the slick, professional look of films like Hard Candy, Saw, and Hostel. However, unlike those films, Inside borrows occasionally from French New Wave techniques, working in jump cuts and intrusive camera tricks that break the viewers disbelief while adding to the emotional unsettled feel of the picture. The technical proficiency of the filmmakers in and of itself is unsurprising: this slick look is the visual lingua franca of modern horror. What is notable is the overt structuralism of the flick. Our heroine dresses in white, the villain in black. In the flashbacks to the car wreck, which becomes a sort of origin story for both women, the cars are white and black (Sarah's car is actually silver, but it is shot with a glare on it, making it appear white). There are repeated inside/outside motifs. Sarah's trapped in the white title bathroom while her swart-clad assailant lurks in the darkened hall outside. This plays out again and again with the folks who come to the house and then jumps to a different scale when the theme of native versus immigrant conflict is overtly introduced. Like the main characters, rooms in the house end up getting color-coded: the bathroom is white, the upstairs bedroom is blue, the living room is orange, the kitchen is yellow. This is by far the best manically blood-soaked slasher flick that Peter Greenaway never made.

(A comparison of the French film poster, above, and the American DVD cover, below, is interesting. The French poster not only has a curiously – ironic? – patriotic color-scheme, it emphasizes the structuralist bent of the flick: up/down, left/right, blue/red. In contrast, the American box art emphasizes the gore. The blood that is a disembodied design element or abstracted body paint in the French poster gets slathered over a preggers tummy. The Woman in Black's favorite weapon, a pair of scissors, hovers hungrily above the mommy-flesh.)

Curiously, the interplay of all these themes never materializes into a "message." Inside, despite playing with the concepts of motherhood, security, immigration, and violence, does not venture any socio-political theories. It doesn't pretend to offer up insights into the nature of cruelty or reach to attempt to create a metaphor for the sort of fierce maternal instinct (like, say, the final act of Aliens did). I've seen some reviewers criticize the film for groping towards, but failing to achieve any important deeper meaning. I suspect that feeling is a result of these repeated, organizational binaries. We feel that they should communicate something. We're attuned to think of any patterns we find in that way. But, honestly, these tropes are really just surface elements that ground the work visually and serve to keep us fully engaged despite the natural reaction to simply tune out the violence. It is a neurological bait and switch that forces the reader to minutely examine the unjustifiable, to probe the ultimately mute violence for something to redeem it. The answer is, of course, that there is no redemption for what happens. Like the nameless attacker, the flick treats violence as a cipher that sweeps away everything before it. This is, depending on your point of view, either a massive cop-out on the part of the filmmaker or the only genuinely moral way to view violence. While I personally lean towards the later, I sympathize with those who find it a crass and exploitative abdication of the duty of the artist. Nihilism always runs the risk of lapsing into a sort of immature naïveté that mistakes simple-minded extremism for the wisdom of moral certitude.

Whether or not the project fails on a moral or intellectual level, there are some artistic fumbles that mar the film. Like the plot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the plot of Inside can only keep moving forward if fresh bodies stumble into the home. When this first happens, it is genuinely intense. As a pattern, it is simply frustrating. The second problem, for me, has to do with the intensity and regularity of the violence. Eventually I was simply fatigued. Compared to Inside, Hostel and Saw are downright generous with the viewers' sensibilities. There came a point for me, about 15 minutes from the end of the flick, when I was simply unable to muster concern for any of the characters because it seemed so unlikely that any of them could possibly survive what had happened or, honestly, that any of them would want to given all they'd endured. I suspect this is part and parcel of the program of presenting violence as the opposite of the meaningful, as the point where you can no longer talk or wax philosophic and you can only feel. If so, it is philosophically a success, but the experience is something akin to an endurance test.

Did I like Inside? I'm not sure it is built to be liked, really. It is one of the most intense horror film experiences I've had in some time, and its emotional punch is not come by cheaply. But, at the same time, it is not a particularly thoughtful, meaningful, or important film. It is odd: what does one make of something so slight and yet so profoundly unnerving?


spacejack said...

Ah, Beatrice Dalle. I could watch this movie just to see her again. She was in the most wonderful and absurdly depressing Betty Blue, a French arthouse fave from my youth.

spacejack said...

Also, it's funny but one could also describe Betty Blue as being an incredibly intense experience, but in the end not really meaningful or important.