In January 2006, in the wake of the ‘Pyres of Autumn’ that lit up the Parisian suburbs, Jean Baudrillard spoke of ‘a kind of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honour of the Unknown Immigrant’. Baudrillard saw the dispossessed arsonists of les banlieues as ‘savage analysts’ of the disintegration of Western society. ‘Today it is precisely â€œthe bestâ€ it has to offer - cars, schools, shopping centres - that are torched and ransacked. Even nursery schools: the very tools through which the car-burners were to be integrated and mothered. â€œScrew your motherâ€ might be their organising slogan. And the more there are attempts to â€œmotherâ€ them, the more they will.’
The debut feature of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, Inside (2007), a story that involves a tremendous amount of apparently meaningless and at times extremely gruesome violence towards a heavily pregnant mother-to-be, might seem at first glance to be little more than another regrettable symptom of just that disintegration. All this mindless sadism, we might say to ourselves, shaking our heads ruefully, a sad indictment of the decline of traditional Western values. But what this initial conservative reading misses is the degree to which this film offers just such a savage analysis of the malaise of which it is a symptom, both exploiting and dissecting the bourgeois fear of a threat no longer external. ‘This year,’ the movie tagline goes, ‘the terror is Inside‘.
The film opens with an almost pathetically ridiculous CGI foetus, resembling somewhat those brief glimpses of humans in Pixar animations. A voice-over soothingly says, ‘My baby, finally inside me. No one will take him from me’ before a violent crash jolts us out into live action. A car accident filmed with such high gloss as to resemble a car advert, albeit a car advert imagined by Paul Virilio. Almost the very first ‘filmed’ (as opposed to animated) shot in the film then, is of a burning car. A title card then sends us ‘four months later’; Sarah (Alysson Paradis), still scarred from the accident that killed her husband, is due to give birth the following day. While spending her last childless night at home, she is harassed, at first by nightmares of a violent birth, and then by a mysterious, nameless Woman (Béatrice Dalle) intent on murdering her.
Inside was released a year after Baudrillard’s article, and the conflagrations of 2005 form the backdrop to the film’s slender narrative. Mentioned a number of times near the beginning of the film, they are dismissed by Sarah, who makes money as a photographer taking pictures of such events, as ‘just kids having a blast, ’cause they’re bored’. The figure of the immigrant, as it were, returns at the very end of the film, in the form of Abdel (Aymen Saí¯di), a prisoner held by the police who turn up in the film’s third act. The choice of Sarah’s profession questions the ethical position of the artist who profits from the appropriation and exploitation of the image of the other. The close proximity of photographer to filmmaker likewise suggests a certain auto-critique of the film as exploitation cinema. Though the suburban outsider is never presented directly as a threat in the film, it is as though he is repressed, and forced to reappear in another form both more violent and dehumanised.
The thread that joins the banlieue fires to the Woman is lack. What does the Woman say? ‘I want your baby.’ She wants Sarah’s baby, because she herself has none, because, as she sees it, Sarah ‘stole’ it from her, just as she also ‘stole’ the symbolic identity of the suburban immigrants in her photographs (in fact, the very first thing Sarah tries to do to the Woman is photograph her, only to find that she cannot - as though, like a vampire, the Woman lacked the solidity necessary for her image to materialise on film). It is as lack that the grievances of both the socially and politically excluded residents of the banlieues and the Woman are expressed - a lack that is represented not by less but rather more, marked by a terrifying excess, most frequently expressed in the film as an overload of gore í la Herschell Gordon Lewis. In her impassive insistence, her nameless anonymity and her seemingly unstoppably destructive drive and apparent (near-)invincibility, the Woman resembles a god. She stands metaphorically for the divine violence of the people, the brutal return of the politically repressed like a swarm come from heaven.
The terrifying encounter with the suburban other lies behind the violent imagery of the film, and in that respect it is comparable to the French films of Michael Haneke, particularly Code Unknown (2000) and Hidden (2005). But where Haneke proposes an almost dry, patient cinematic analysis, Inside uses the generic codes of the horror genre, forgoing the analytic position to become both symptom and diagnosis. Body horror becomes the horror of the social body, spilling speechlessly over the boundaries of sense, like a scream without a tongue. When terror comes from inside, no fortification is possible. Such is the axiom of a cinematic mode that consists, as Baudrillard says of the Parisian arson attacks, in ‘successive phases of a revolt whose end is not in sight’.