Tuesday, September 18, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "À l'intérieur" (Inside)

(Midnight Madness)
(France, 2007, 83 minutes)
Written by: Alexandre Bustillo
Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Mury
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Natalie Roussel, François-Régis Marchasson, Jean-Baptiste Tabourin

À l'intérieur begins with a truly terrifying image--the logo of the new Weinstein Company— which means that the chances of this skilful and outrageously depraved debut feature finding an audience beyond its European borders are already screwed. Harvey and Bob were once champions of the horror crowd who will never forgive the duo for splitting up Grindhouse and buying-up-and-then-burying fine films like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and Feast (they’ve gotten their meat hooks on George A. Romero’s Diary Of The Dead, too!—finally answering the question, “how do you kill something that’s already dead?”).

But if the bros want to atone for past sins, they could start by hyping this one into overdrive (if not, it’s your civic duty to borrow, bootleg or BitTorrent). Yes, it is French, and oui, there are subtitles, but a good 99% of the dialogue uttered in the film’s second and third acts consists of howls of anguish. Even though the title at first conjures up images of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen (in his Bergman phase), and just because it’s from the land of meandering critics’ darlings Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc whathisname doesn’t mean it gets all Michael Haneke on us and denies us our baser pleasures. While even the most seasoned gorehound will probably encounter a moment or three where he’ll be forced to turn his head, À l'intérieur will be nothing less than excruciating to a female perspective—(what a great double bill it’d make with Dead Ringers!)--I wonder if it’s time to resurrect one of those old William Castle-type disclaimers warning pregnant women to attend at their own risk?

The film’s second image is a close up of a fetus in the womb, subtly reacting to the sound of a comforting female voice (presumably its mother) before the chamber fills with blood after a brutal impact collision.

Photographer Sarah (Alysson Paradis) survives the car crash but her husband does not. Widowed, she spends Chrismas Eve alone in her small country home, with her baby due the next morning. Watching television coverage of the latest race riots and struggling with some seasonal blues, she receives an unannounced visit from a mysterious woman (Beatrice Dalle), who asks to use the phone. When Sarah refuses her entry, La Femme begins to recount some surprisingly personal details about her life, and bashes her way into the house. With the aid of a pair of gleaming scissors, the intruder has one thing on her demented mind: to take Sarah’s baby—which she is convinced is hers—by any means necessary. Sarah fends off her attacker long enough to lock herself in the bathroom, but will her assorted visitors—including her former boss, her mother, and a duo of suspicious cops--survive the woman’s unbridled maternal rage?

That pretty much sums it all up: it’s a simple, sick little two hander all right—Sleuth minus the homoerotic subtext (there’s only one thing the mad woman wants from between Sarah’s legs and it’s attached to an umbilical cord) and all that damned chat--set almost entirely in Sarah’s home which consists of a modest bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. The tiny interiors host a real-time bloody duel that escalates to a brutal, and perversely moving, coda.

Of course, in this era of Saw and Hostel there will be those ready to brand À l'intérieur as “torture porn”—an already tiresome label I despise in that it is inaccurate, intolerant, and born of the same knee-jerk grandstanding that befell the so-called “slasher” subgenre of the early 80s—but its European roots might muster up some cushioning art house cache. A warning to rival camps, though: gorehounds expecting nothing a parade of the red stuff might be taken aback by the film’s unique feminine fury, and those of the PBS set looking for something to “transcend its genre” will feel like they’ve been slapped around with a meat tenderizer for nearly 90 straight minutes. Its rewards are found somewhere in the middle: outrageously over the top sadism, anchored in an expertly-paced and well-acted premise that’s all too plausible.

Freshman directors Bustillo and Mury are clearly students of the 70s independent horror scene, working from a visual palette that mixes equal parts Carpenter’s claustrophobic widescreen compositions and Argento’s operatic bloodshed (the film appears to have been shot on digital video, but I really couldn’t tell for sure). Clive Barker has personally selected the boys to direct a remake of his 1986 cult classic Hellraiser, which is another domestic horror tale that could benefit from their collective keen eye and empathy for even the most monstrous motivations.

Béatrice Dalle, perhaps still best known for Beiniex’s erotic melodrama Betty Blue, creates one of recent horror cinema’s more believable and thus all-the-more terrifying homicidal nutjobs, and the suffering that obvious trooper Alysson Paradis experiences makes one think that there should be some sort of “special award” given to her come next year’s Cesars. Not being female, I’m really in no position to evaluate either character’s motivations or emotional responses, but thanks to the raw emotions and utter lack of vanity displayed by both actresses, the gimmicky scenario seemed unnervingly real with only one minor contrivance easily forgiveable.

Like the breakout French shocker Haute Tension, this is one of the most relentlessly savage thrillers to come out of anywhere. Thankfully, its third act plot twist is nowhere near as ridiculous as that of Alexander Aja’s 2003 debut, and the film ends on a more satisfying, even bittersweet, note. And while on the subject, what is it with France being the breeding ground for so many stylish and hyper-violent genre films lately? Maléfique, Frontieres, Them, Calvaire, Irreversible—if you believe that horror uniquely reflects a country’s “spirit of the age” or moment (that’s zeitgeist to you eggheads, and yes, I do...), then what the hell are these people going through that needs to be played out with such gleeful nihilism?

Once you’ve pondered the question, you’ll have to make due with the trailer (here), since the retitled Inside isn’t scheduled for North American release until 2008.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis