Every year the Etrange Festival hosts its share of unreleased films, and this year it included the world premiere of the first feature film by a young French director, Romain Basset, who had already presented a short on vampires in 2008, Bloody Current Exchange, and another on ghosts in 2009, Rémy, at the same festival. Horsehead is his ambitious attempt at lifting the curse that has long prevented French cinema from producing good films in the horror genre.
After her grandmother’s death, Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) goes back to the spooky family manor, evidently loaded with dark secrets, where her mother Catelyn (Catriona MacColl, Lucio Fulci’s muse from the early 1980s) lives with her husband Jim (Murray Head) and George the gardener (Vernon Dobtcheff). Haunted by recurrent dreams since her childhood, Jessica has turned to studying the psychophysiological theories of lucid dreams, and her nightmares worsen with the proximity of her grandmother’s corpse. When she is bedridden with a strange fever (Fièvre was the working title of the film), she tries to control the visions of her grandmother’s ghost in order to communicate with her. Soon dream and reality merge, with reality altered by the unconscious, while the plot slowly navigates between the two states to unravel a shameful family secret.
The film seduces with its aesthetic choices. Vincent Vieillard-Baron, who was also responsible for the cinematography on Rémy, elaborates on a rich visual variation of The Nightmare, the famous painting by the 18th-century painter Henry Fuseli, whose title is literally represented by the head of a mare hovering over a sleeping beauty, on whose breast sits an incubus. The mare, or rather the eponymous Horsehead, becomes a character in the film, and Basset enriches Fuseli’s pun with a further paronomastic layer (which only works in French) between jument (mare) and jumelle (twin). It seems as if Basset’s intention were to base the whole plot on this Lacanian pun, and unfortunately, the result meets neither Basset’s ambitions nor our expectations. In particular, the film would have been better off without the religious imagery that blurs its main point. Jack of all trades and master of none, Basset cannot resist accumulating clichés. One can hardly grasp the need for Jessica’s nude crucifixion, let alone why anyone would want to have an abortion in a chapel, while the figures of the grandfather (described as an ‘Old Testament kind of man’) and of the Cardinal, mixed with the theme of immaculate conception, all seem strangely out of place in a plot whose main aim is a genealogical quest.
Basset errs on the wrong side of excess, unable to turn down ideas and desires when they arise, all in all less capable of controlling his opulent imagination than Jessica her dreams. To crown it all, hoping to fool the devil by opting for an English-speaking cast, Basset does nothing to justify the fact that the film was shot on location in the village of Argenton-sur-Creuse, right in the middle of France. Yet for all the imperfections of youth, Horsehead deserves the benevolent reception one usually grants a first film, though the French curse remains yet to be lifted.
Watch the trailer: