Tuesday, January 4, 2011

À l'intérieur (2007)

While watching this extremely over-the-top French gore film, one question kept bugging me, drawing my mind away, far away from the indulgent bloodshed. That question is as follows: "How can such a nicely-produced, 80-minute film filled with all sorts of ultra-nasty gore be so damn tedious?" Honestly, I thought it was never going to end as I lay limply on the sofa, being sluggishly dragged from one implausible scene to the next, hopelessly wishing for something meatier than just gore to light up the screen. Still, I kept watching, toying with the aforementioned question in my mind and glancing sporadically at the seconds slowly trickling away on the DVD player display. With my mind wandering away, almost completely unbothered by the scissor wounds to the genitals, gouged-out eyes, impaled hands, and carved-out wombs displayed aggressively in front of me like so many meat slabs on the grocery counter, I realized that I dug the first twenty minutes of the film, dedicated solely to exposition, much more than I did the final hour, filled to the rim with non-sensical gore. This was an enlightening start in my quest to make sense of why I disliked À l'intérieur so much. But soon, the answers came pouring as more and more corpses piled up for no reason other than to showcase the proficiency of the makeup team, as the boring locales were being used over and over in a ridiculously short-reaching game of cat and mouse, as the perspective of any tangible dread or drama not expressed solely by squirting blood all over the place quickly waned, and as I ultimately realized that watching such stuff is the necessary burden of a film critic...

À l'intérieur has a one-track mind but it doesn't have the humor, nor the brains to back it up. It is a horror film that could've come straight out of a butcher's shop, a mere display case full of contiguous beef packets meant to attract you with their bright, artificial red hue with directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo amiably standing behind, wiping their dirty hands on streaked white aprons and smiling large toothless grins. And while their own passion is unquestioned, it is unlikely that the casual customer will share in that passion, failing to catch the artistry involved in grinding meat for resale. And that's precisely where I now stand, as the customer not understanding the pride of the butcher who has so lovingly lined up stacks of grounded beef. As such, I shall simply glimpse at these packets, then at the butchers' toothless grins without even so much as asking "Why?", but just passing by and moving on to better things.

Blood, blood, blood, but what else?

The story here focuses on Parisian yuppie Sarah and her coveted unborn offspring. As the film opens, the young woman is involved in a brutal car crash. Her baby survives, but not her boyfriend sitting in the passenger's seat. Both he and Sarah are bleeding thick drops of syrupy film blood when she realizes that the worst has come to the worst, and that handsome, buff Matthieu is gone forever. Fast-forward four months and some very cool credits later, and we find ourselves in a hospital room on Christmas Eve. Sarah is having the final check-up prior to her delivery planned for the following day. From the get-go, as she sharply answers every question asked by the obstetrician with angry one-liners, we understand that she has become a bitter bitch. The loss of her boyfriend has obviously made her fall into the nether regions of female moods. That is why she decides to push all her friends away in order to spend the night alone in her huge house located in a cozy Paris neighborhood. Conveniently enough, this neighborhood is almost completely devoid of feasting neighbors, making Sarah the ideal prey for a mysterious stranger who suddenly knocks on her door. From outside, a husky female voice asks to use the phone for such or such reason. Completely panicked, Sarah answers that she won't allow it for fear of waking up her sleeping husband. But since the stranger already knows about the pre-credits car crash, she isn't fooled by that stratagem and simply points out the obvious, namely that Sarah's husband is dead...

And so begins a night of atrocious horrors, all of which are probably more exciting as white words on a black screen than as the indulgent exhibits appearing onscreen. But at this point, with Sarah freaking out and cold sweating against her front door, the film is still promising. And it gets better as the stranger suddenly appears smack in front of the glass wall of her living room, negligently smoking a cigarette, which eerily ignites the night sky. Then, the ominous shrouded woman smashes her fist against the glass, causing a large crack to appear and metaphorically breaking the barrier between two worlds filled with darkness. The intensity, the suddenness of this punch are truly gripping and thus, as the crack stretches a little and Sarah rushes to call the cop, so has the high point of the film come to pass. Then it all goes downhill... and fast. Surprisingly enough, Sarah does manage to successfully summon police assistance here. Despite her apparently infinite resources, the stranger obviously hasn't thought of severing the phone line to the house, nor as she managed to take down the satellite providing Sarah with cellphone coverage. Hence, we aren't immediately faced with a dated device unduly isolating the protagonist from the outside world, which would be quite refreshing if the remainder of the film wasn't so unbelievably implausible and weirdly paced. At any rate, when the police does come, the stranger has eloped... to a nearby bush no doubt for she pops up inside the house moments later to torment Sarah some more. But torment is not the name of the game here as the antagonist harbors a very precise agenda, which she intends to carry out no matter what. Her objective is to pry out Sarah's baby out of her womb. And what better way to remove a baby than with a pair of sturdy film scissors capable of retaining their sharpness after several dozens of stabs through the various body parts of random passersby. Eventually, after dispatching a whopping seven people (including a carful of cops) using almost only stabbing weapons, after having her face half-burnt, the stranger finally gets her wish with some major help from the screenwriters, leaving a very lengthy trail of blood, guts and afterbirth behind her.

From here, I can see you drooling already, as I did when I first read the film's synopsis. And although I sense it hard to convince you that it actually sucks, I will ask you to have the decency to try and believe me, based on arguments, when I say that À l'intérieur is a really, really unsatisfying film. But first I must address the complex issue of Béatrice Dalle's portrayal of "the stranger". Personally, I had no clue who this darkly elegant actress was prior to watching the film. Having never witnessed her legendary performance as Betty in Jean-Jacques Beineix' 37.2 degrés le matin nor any other of her performances, I was hard-pressed to appraise her present casting. Had I known more about her, then maybe my perception of the film would've been quite different as I feel that her character here is intimately tied to her star persona back in France (and her substantial police record, which prevented her from working on The Sixth Sense in the US). But from where I stand, in the role we are now discussing, I feel that she fails to create a convincing villain amidst all of the mindless drivel contained in the film. And while she has undeniable screen presence, contributing her own inner darkness to the surrounding shadows, she cannot transcend the flimsy, shallow role she has been given. We know next to nothing about the stranger, only that she is extremely vindictive and prone to uncontrolled bursts of anger, both of which can be automatically inferred only insofar as one is familiar with Dalle's antics outside of the diegetic world. And while these antics might help further flesh out her character, they're extraneous to any logical interpretation of the narrative and should not be taken into account when appraising À l'intérieur's numerous issues with characterization.

Confined to the shadows, both in terms of lighting and character development, the stranger cruelly lacks a full-fledged psychological motivation for her gruesome murder rampage. The only explanation we are given as to her disturbingly misanthropic violence is a mere trigger, which conveniently doubles as a predictable twist ending. This trigger, the likes of which are usually used to provoke a mere shift in mood and never to sum up a character's entire persona, is meant to come as a brief surprise here when it should be an integrant part of the killer's identity. In all fairness, the screenwriters were fools to think that such a silly twist could actually account for all the brutal bloodletting that constitutes their bread and butter. It could've worked, had they decided to take a more humorous, less stuck-up approach to their outlandish material. But as it stands, it merely pushes what is essentially a would-be serious, would-be realistic effort in terror squarely into the realm of camp, which the ridiculous parade of mindless victims further confirms. Unfortunately, while it embodies all of the narrative carelessness of camp cinema, À l'intérieur possess none of its lightness or humor.

And while the antagonist is criminally underdeveloped, protagonist Sarah proves to be an equally cold and distanced character. And while it is easier for us to empathize with her loss as it is exposed slightly longer, the young woman's surprising bitterness in the face of adversity fails to generate the sympathy necessary to make her an earnest victim in this scenario. Hence, we cannot root for either of the two stars despite their maddening efforts to reach survivalist goals, seeing them only as two rats caught in a maze, running endlessly before our uncaring eyes. Given that sorry state of affairs, the film is bound to fail as an exercise in terror for we cannot possibly find any anchor in the diegetic world but with the gamut of anonymous victims left by the stranger. Personally, I only cringed for the cat's death for it is the only one that managed to stir any form of compassion inside my heart. As for the expendable peripheral characters, they couldn't begin to stir sympathy in the heart of Mother Theresa. They are clearly just scissor fodder meant to be punctured aggressively like pin cushions. They all die a pig's death for they are no more interesting than pigs. And all that is left of their demise, all that is left from our own emotional involvement in the film is the hollow enjoyment of mindless gore, a flimsy reward for enduring such an uninvolving film.

Dalle's offscreen antics help understand her present screen persona.

Aside from simplistic characterization, the screenplay also suffers from a shockingly erratic pace, which constantly compromises mood in a bid to cram as many superfluous murder victims  as possible into the short runtime. Apparently discontent with the initial set-up, in which Sarah is caught alone in her house and forced to fend for herself against a very determined assailant, the screenwriters felt it was necessary to add several unrelated characters, not only cops but family members and co-workers as well. Hence, they quickly turn Sarah's house into the stage of some macabre vaudeville where characters constantly pop in and out of the scenery like so many dancers in a stale musical number. Every narrative development subsequently feels like an empty excuse to drag the film from one kill to the next, with some frankly annoying implausibilities serving as rough stitches to keep the ensemble together.

If one removed all one-dimensional support players, all of which exist solely to be butchered, then and only then could the film achieve any real sense of tension, as Sarah would thus be truly trapped with her dark counterpart. The screw could then turn and turn tighter and the protagonist's fear could become intelligible to us over time. But as the film is built, the arduously-staged moments of tension are all systematically cut short by the sudden apparition of an outsider, breaking the mood and leaving us only with an empty, tedious scene where the villainess manages to catch the outsider off guard and stab him. She does that a number of times, and each of these times, it seems like the cog is spinning to no avail, especially since the lacking narrative importance of all murder victims prevents their deaths from forwarding the plot in any significant way. In fact, these deaths actually hamper the plot by shifting the focus away from Sarah and the pain she has to endure, creating a vicious circle in which the spectator constantly loses track of the ball. The sheer stupidity and helplessness of these murder victims further makes them appear like mere cogs in a backtracking wheel...

In the end, what the film's inefficiency boils down to is the directors' unwillingness to take the more arduous path of psychological observation and the slow development of any sort of meaningful antagonism between the two stars. It stems from them preferring the obvious spectacle of gore over the careful depiction of tension, and their opportunistic casting of Béatrice Dalle as a prepackaged high-strung individualist willing to violently impose her will and claim her due without consideration for others. Luckily, they sought the help of many talented latex artisans, whose unrestrained gore effects constitute some of the film's only assets.

In closing, I would like to play a fun game called "battle of the posters", which will allow me to indulge in my interest for contrasting visual representations across different cultural contexts. Above is the original French DVD cover of the film. Below is the international English DVD cover. Esthetically speaking, the French cover is way superior, using light and shadows to great effect while graphically suggesting a complex, at once complementary and antagonistic relationship between the two main characters. The international cover screams exploitative camp, which is definitely the main selling point of the film. Since the complex relationship of the two women suggested by the French cover (one is light, one is darkness, but in reverse while they seem to perfectly complement one another as an awesome graphic match is seamlessly achieved) never actually happens in the film, leaving us hungry for more, I will have to give the international cover a victory by KO. This latter poster is perfectly crafted. It's ugly, and it says everything you need to know about the film, namely that it involves bloody scissors, a baby in danger, and the collision of the two. It further manages to thrill you with the disturbing perspective of a cesarian performed with dirty scissors, which the film does deliver (pun intended).

1,5/5: This good-looking but boring film fails to create affect because it privileges the mindless spectacle of indulgent gore over the careful development of tension and meaningful antagonisms.