Tag Archives: French horror



Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Release date: 6 May 2016

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic

Writers: Lucile Hadžihalilovic, Alanté Kavaïté

Cast: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

France 2014

81 mins

Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s follow-up to Innocence is as poetic, disturbing and elusive as its predecessor.

Ten years after her wonderfully disquieting debut Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilovic returns with a tale that feels intimately close to it, thematically and atmospherically, despite the differences in setting. Here again, birth and transformation are elliptically explored through the creation of an immersive, sensory world infused with slow-burning unease. Just like its predecessor, Evolution starts in water and ends with an ambivalent coming out of the water – symbolic birth? Escape? Expulsion? Abandonment? But where Innocence revolved around a little girl’s education at a peculiar boarding school, the protagonist of Evolution is a little boy who lives on an island seemingly peopled only by women and other young boys. After seeing something alarming while swimming in the sea, a boy begins to question the way in which he is brought up. Soon he finds himself in hospital, the reason for his treatment unclear.

Is what we see just a manifestation of a little boy’s anxiety at growing up, or is the reality of life on the island truly sinister? Just as in Innocence, Hadžihalilovic skilfully treads an ambiguous line, leaving us to interpret what we witness. Although at first view the film could be seen as the male pendant of Innocence, its real focus is once more on the female. Choosing to tell the tale from a young boy’s point of view allows the film to present the women as incomprehensible creatures with strange bodies and customs, and to underline the alien, disturbing nature of human reproduction. Innocence looked at the rituals that marked a young girl’s transformation into adolescence and adulthood. Here, the emphasis has switched to worrying, unexplained mutation, and to the weirdness of living matter in all its squelchy, mushy monstrousness. This comes to a head in a few moments of startlingly horrific imagery, which punctuate the fluid flow of oblique impressions, all the more powerful for their sparseness.

Imbued with a mythical quality, Evolution is constructed from simple, but unsettlingly effective motifs: water, a starfish, the colour red, the decaying white village and the decrepit hospital, the women’s red hair and odd features, their identical outfits, either austere khaki dresses, or quaint white nurses’ uniforms. These elements subtly draw on legendary and filmic creatures, suggesting aliens, sirens and monsters, giving the story a deeper resonance. A beguiling mix of art and horror, Evolution is a richly evocative, intensely physical experience, an eerie, darkly poetic meditation on the strangeness of organic existence. Hadžihalilovic makes a cinema of textures, colours and sounds, a cinema of ideas embodied in sensations, a rare, precious kind of cinema that is both sophisticated and visceral. Let’s hope it doesn’t take her another 10 years to make another film.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.



Director: Romain Basset

Writers: Romain Basset, Karim Chériguène

Cast: Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head

France 2014

89 mins

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.

Pierre Kapitaniak

This review is part of our Etrange Festival 2014 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

The Returned

The Returned
The Returned

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 July 2013

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Robin Campillo

Writers: Robin Campillo, Brigitte Tijou

Cast: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot

Original Title: Les Revenants

France 2004

102 mins

Those with only a fleeting interest in current TV listings would still be hard pressed not to have noticed the groundswell of interest in and (largely) glowing reviews of Channel 4’s new Sunday night supernatural series, The Returned. This slow burning, eight-episode French import posits a scenario in which random, dead ex-residents of a small, isolated town are inexplicably resurrected. With the Z word only mentioned once to date – and the resurrected showing no outward signs of their official post-mortem state – The Returned is focused more on the interpersonal and familial tensions wrought by the situation than it is by the ‘horror’ of it. To coincide with the series’ UK airing, Arrow Films are releasing the original 2004 movie by full-time editor and part-time director Robin Campillo on which the series is based. Originally released under the title Les Revenants (The Returned) in its homeland and as They Came Back on the international market, Campillo’s directorial debut is every bit as engrossing, creepy and atmospheric as its small-screen sibling.

Fans of the TV show worried that watching the movie mid-series might spoil both versions can rest easy, as only the concept of the original survived the transitional process from a feature length to long-form narrative. Though Campillo’s tale is on a wider scale – with some 70 million people worldwide having returned to life, and 13,000 alone in the town in which it is set – the tight focus on the lives (no pun intended) of the dead and those they left behind gives the film an intimate feel, making for a wholly engaging viewing experience more akin to brooding, arthouse human dramas than it is to visceral genre movies.

The Returned eschews histrionics and horror in favour of a studied look at the socio-political implications arising from the sudden return of the dead; do they still have the same rights? Are they entitled to walk back into their old jobs? How do governments – local and national – cope with the sudden extra demands on services and benefits? Issues surrounding grief, loss, love and the passage of time are addressed in an unhurried fashion, as the ‘dead’ and their loved ones try, some successfully, others not so, to adjust to the miraculous turn of events.

The clinical, observational air of The Returned brings to mind Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) and Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984), with their personal stories similarly acting as micro insights into a macrocosmic situation. The Returned drifts along for most of its running time as if in a daze, a tonal, stylistic and aesthetic decision clearly reflective of the physical and mental state of the returned dead – robbed as they are of a sense of being fully ‘in the moment’, somehow alive but ‘concussed’, as one of the doctors charged with helping their reintegration into society observes. Those with mental health issues, dementia sufferers, immigrants and ex-offenders could all be seen as being embodied by the ‘dead’, the space they occupy on the margins of society reflected in the faceless dormitories, sideways glances and openly mistrustful encounters experienced by the titular hordes. However, such is the general ambiguity of the film that whether Campillo intended any metaphoric intent is open to debate. Only in its final act does the film enter into anything resembling a conventional genre narrative, and even then it fundamentally remains an oblique mystery. Controlled, thought provoking and refreshingly elusive, The Returned is a sparse, engaging and stimulating experience.

Neil Mitchell

Watch the trailer:

In Their Sleep

In Their Sleep

Format: DVD

Release date: 14 February 2011

Distributor: Optimum

Directors: Caroline and Eric du Potet

Writers: Caroline and Eric du Potet

Original title: Dans ton sommeil

Cast: Anne Parillaud, Arthur Dupont, Thierry Frémont

France 2010

79 mins

One year on from the violent death of her son, Sarah (Anne Parillaud) is still clearly not the full shilling. Medicated and disconnected, she is sleepwalking through her job as a nurse. She is sent home to get some clearly needed rest, and driving down a narrow country lane she runs, literally, into Arthur (Arthur Dupont), a young man apparently running from a burglar he caught in the act, a bloodied lunatic (Thierry Frémont) who dogs them with his car as she tries to drive him to safety. Two police at a roadblock had indeed warned her earlier about a housebreaker in the area, but Arthur isn’t telling all he knows, and there are worse crimes than burglary…

Clocking in at a lean 79 minutes, Caroline and Eric du Potet’s In Their Sleep is a creepy little psycho-thriller that makes the most out of comparatively little; it has a location or three, some cars, Eric Neveux’s effective (Theremin!) score and a small cast, but exploits these resources to great effect. The du Potets have clearly spent some time working out their tale and how best to tell it; information about the characters and what’s going on emerges gradually in well-timed flashbacks, and as much through visual clues, physical acting and expression as through the minimal dialogue. While much of the business of the film will be familiar to genre fans (home invasions, chases, moonlit attacks, narrow escapes) it is made more interesting by the psychological dynamics. None of the characters appears to be quite in their right mind, and, as the title suggests, In Their Sleep is preoccupied with different states of consciousness: insomnia, death and coma, being knocked out and coming to. From the start, it has a fractured waking dream quality, where terrible unexplained things can happen in broad daylight, and from then on nobody has the full picture, and the truth remains elusive. We know more than any of the people on screen, but the filmmakers aren’t above screwing with our perceptions either.

Sarah and Arthur are the heart of the film, both are damaged in their own ways, and it’s their relationship that gives the film some bite and depth. She clearly begins to see a substitute son in Arthur, and can’t stop her maternal instincts overcoming her reason. He begins to find something in her that he clearly needs. It’s a goddamn Freudian minefield, and well played by Parillaud and Dupont as they swing through states of distrust and affection (and a queasy sexual attraction).

It’s a class act, and relatively restrained, which may be a problem for anyone expecting anything along the lines of Switchblade Romance or Frontiers, who may be disappointed by the paucity of overt violence or visual hysteria. But it walks its own path, the understatement just makes some scenes more unsettling, and while In Their Sleep is essentially just a neat low-budget thriller along the lines of many others, Arthur and Sarah will linger in the memory.

Mark Stafford