You know that feeling when you have no expectations whatsoever, and it turns out you hit gold? Well, that’s exactly the feeling I had when a good friend of mine, a fellow movie buff, advised me to give this little French gem-of-a-movie a shot. Thankfully he didn’t prepare – that is influence – me in any particular way, except for showing me some of its horrific content. Which wasn’t such a bad idea, considering this movie isn’t for the faint of heart! I wouldn’t dare show this to a pregnant woman, unless I wanted her never to have kids again.
French film has in recent years been steadily building a reputation of exquisite horror-making. And I salute them for this heroic feat! It isn’t easy to make a truly great, original horror movie that rises above its pigeonholed genre. In some ways you could even maintain – as I do – that it is easier to make a profound drama, than a memorable horror. The genre is so infamous for its mind-numbing clichés, predictable plotlines, and easy to please adolescent male audience, that it is not unfair to say: It’s full of crap… A director should be extremely wary of the many, many pitfalls that one so easily falls into. Not to mention the scorn of his fellow directors he’ll attract for even considering making one. Going down this path doesn’t earn you much recognition, to say the least.
Yet here we are with a little movie (83 min) by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury that is so much more than “just another horror flick”. Outstanding performances, beautiful visuals, daring subject matter, outrages storyline, and a consistent claustrophobic atmosphere, all add up to an unforgettable experience. Its English title “Inside” (2007), as translated from French, will provide us with the key for analyzing this fine piece of cinematography. But before moving on I want to point out two factors I consider to be of importance in the rise of French horror, as well as relevant to the movie under discussion:
1) Audacity, something the French have always been known for, especially when it comes to film making. Taking great pride in their culture, they aren’t a shy and timid bunch, but always on the cutting edge of cultural innovation be it in French theory or art. This characteristic boldness has led some ‘crazy’ young filmmakers to approach the genre seriously, and that is precisely what Alexandre and Julien did with “L’intérieur”. And they did it with typical French confidence that allows for play, and the occasional wink at the audience.
2) The second point would be a newly acquired taste for the macabre. Judging from recent movie output, many French filmmakers seem to espouse a cynical worldview and morbid sense of humor[i], which lends itself perfectly for horror. Perhaps the ascendency of Japanese horror spurred them into competition, but this bleak and often merciless outlook is – to me – typical of French movie making these days. It might have to do with France’s traditionally overbearing ‘international ambitions’ and the modest role it’s forced to play in today’s world. But more likely it has to do with a related legacy, that is its current domestic political situation, which cannot be a great source of happiness.
To take up the last point: I don’t think this movie is merely colored by this sad state of domestic affairs, but actually takes it up as its main theme, albeit indirectly or metaphorically. There are numerous clues throughout the movie that suggest an allegorical reading, indirectly commenting on it. The first and most apparent clue would be the sudden appearance of a zombie, which is nothing less than shocking and a genuine stroke of genius! Not only because the last thing you expect at this point in the story is a zombie, but also because 1) it signals the movie is more than it appears to be, 2) the director is confident or brazen enough to play with the rules of the genre, and more importantly: 3) the zombie symbolizes ‘life & death’ (central theme of the movie) as well as apathy (related theme). It also adds to the overall surrealness of the story[ii]. That said, the film is obviously first and foremost about pregnancy, motherhood, lethal envy, and a battle to the death, and can of course be thoroughly enjoyed as such!
The title “Inside” can be explained on different, mutually reinforcing levels. The first let us say ‘superficial level’, simply indicates the pregnancy or baby inside the widow, Sarah Scarangelo, who’s on the brink of motherhood. The second closely related level implicates the house Sarah lives in as another ‘inside’, and similarly stands for ‘security or safety’ and ‘intimacy and familiarity’. Both the house and her pregnancy are connected – especially in combination – to extreme vulnerability, cleverly adding to the suspense. Her jealous rival, the deranged antagonist of the story, continuously violates this inner sanctum in the most gruesome fashion imaginable. First appearing as an apparition lurking in the darkness, she gradually comes ‘into focus’, before finally completing her transformation into baby-stealing witch.
This allows for a third reading of the movie, namely as metaphor for the seemingly irresolvable immigration issue playing in the heart of France. This analogy isn’t as farfetched as it might at first sound. The ‘immigrant’ features in the film in the form of the arrested Abdel, and could represent the ‘threatening foreign element’ introduced in the French ‘body politic’. The immigration issue itself, could thus be likened to a ‘difficult pregnancy’ France might not survive. In light of all this, one should understand the car crash at the start of the movie as a critique on rampant Western individualism, resulting in egotism and apathy: of people living their lives oblivious of one another. Like Democritus‘ blind atoms, occasionally crashing into each other with dire, unforeseen consequences[iii].
The ambiguous feelings Sarah has towards her unborn child fit snugly within this reading. Because on some level it appears she selfishly blames it for her husband Matthieu’s death. Instead of being grateful for what she still has and the future and promise her unborn child holds, she seemingly sinks away in gloomy self-absorption with the way things were. The motive of the unwanted child also refers to the immigrant situation. Here we should mention that Sarah occupies her house as though it were a fortress, built to keep the world out, that is: to keep foreign elements out. I think the fact Sarah is a photographer working for a newspaper, serves as a further illustration of the distance or verfremdung from her environment. The strange woman first appears unclearly in her photographs. Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget the way she alienates the people trying to help her, which isn’t surprising though, considering her traumatic experience.
Taking a closer look at her adversary, I honestly can’t say I’ve seen a more disturbing and malicious portrayal of a woman[iv] since Takashi Miike’s riveting “Audition” (1999). Her sadism truly knows no bounds, it is gruesome violence and gratuitous gore, galore! Lately a lot of films, such as “Vinyan” (2008) and “Antichrist” (2009) have been successfully reviving an age old theme: the connection between nature-women-evil. The idea being that women, inscrutable to the male gaze, formed a dangerous link to the unknown. Especially frightening because of their supposedly semi-divine powers of fertility and the taboos of uncleanliness surrounding it. Women were also considered weaker, both physically and mentally than their male counterparts, making them exceptionally vulnerable to various forms of ‘possession’. By looking at the historical development of the idea of hysteria for example, and its relationship to the ‘wandering womb’, it is possible to trace this way of thinking all the way back to ancient times. Seen from this perspective, women traditionally accused of witchcraft turn out to be misunderstood outcasts, thereby turning Sarah’s mysterious assailant into her mirror image, or ‘negative’ as it were.
“L’intérieur” plays off all of these connotations and oppositions, in particular: 1) woman as boundary between the natural and unnatural, and 2) the ambiguity surrounding the unborn child as foreign invading body[v] and intimacy pur sang. Which brings me to the role French theory plays in the film. It’s hard to miss for anyone remotely familiar with feminist and psycho-analytical[vi] writings, of say, Julia Kristeva or Jacques Lacan, or the anthropologies of Claude Levi-Strauss or Mary Douglas, or the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, to name but a few. What all these theorists have in common among other things, is their unremitting focus on ambiguity and dichotomies (inside/outside) and their tireless investigations thereof. Central to this postmodern way of thinking is the concept of xenophobia, or the fear of the strange and unfamiliar that structures our worldview, dividing it in ‘us’ and ‘them’. To put it in other words, the link I suggested with France’s immigration problem is written all over the movie.
So what is the message, or admonition the movie leaves us with? I’ll leave that for the watchful viewer and observant reader to find out, but I can say this: it ain’t pretty! Whether you agree with the political subtext and its conclusion or not, is I think a second, subordinate question. Because the way it is subtly woven into the fabric of the film, makes it all the more compelling, and nothing less than thrilling to watch.
And for that, I say chapeau!
“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
“The Mourning Bride” (1697),
by William Congreve
[i] I’m thinking of movies like “La Haine” (1995), which is also about the French immigration issue, or “C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous” (1992), “Dobermann” (1997), “Irreversible” (2002), “Haute Tension” (2003), “Calvaire” (2004), “L’ennemi Public n˚1” (2008), or most recently: “Un Prophète” (2009). And even the dark, macabre fairy tales of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro come to mind.
[ii] The police check-up on Sarah marks the start of the typical horror frustration with the illogical way characters act. But in this case the frustration only adds to the quality of the movie! Making it that much more suspenseful and surreal (amplified by the sudden strange and jolting camera effects). Of course the whole situation is utterly bizarre, so this might excuse some of their actions… The ‘police check-up’ is basically where the movie turns from a horror-thriller, into a supernatural fairytale slasher.
[iii] The car crash at the start of the movie is also highly symbolic on multiple levels. First: It could be read as another metaphor for birth since it ‘opens’ the movie (don’t forget the Christmas setting in this context). But also in the way people nowadays pursue careless, casual sexual intercourse with sometimes disastrous, unforeseen consequences. In this case: the birth of vengeance through a ‘chance encounter’. Secondly, a link with apathy, since the way the car crash is shot, suggests a clinical, non-caring attitude towards the victims involved. In fact, you’re completely left in the dark about what happened to the second car (essential to the plotline).
[iv] It also reminds me of Alexandre Aja’s sensational “Switchblade Romance” (2003) because of its gruesomeness, its strong female protagonist and antagonist, and because of the way ‘intimacy or vulnerability’ gets repeatedly brutalized (not to mention the French vibe and setting).