Directed by Philippe Grandieux
Written by Grandieux, Pierre Hodgson and Sophie Filliéres
With Marc Barbé and Elina Lowensohn
No distributor, but it plays in New York at the Walter Reade on March 13th and 14th
SOMBRE is an exercise in show'n'tell. It tells a story about Jean (Marc Barbé), a serial killer who prowls the backwoods of France looking for prostitutes to pick up and strangle. When he picks up Claire (Elina Lowensohn) after her car breaks down, she winds up accompanying him on the road and watching his murders. It also shows us a world in which sociopathy has become the human condition. This is a science-fiction film in much the same manner as CRASH: it presents a world whose denizens' psychology differs greatly from our own. The affectless alienation of Jean and Claire runs so deep that it makes the characters of CRASH look like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski.
SOMBRE may be the first avant-garde slasher movie - any votes for SE7EN? - and as such, its virtues are plastic rather than narrative. As violent as it is, its creepiest moments stem from editing and an abrasive orchestration of sound effects and music. (The excellent score was composed by Alan Vega, singer of the pioneering electronica/punk band Suicide.) Filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage are visible influences on Grandieux, and his use of handheld camera inverts the implications of its commonplace use as a marker of strong emotion and "reality." But when SOMBRE moves towards storytelling, it becomes nothing more than a formally inventive treatment of a variety of received notions: the romance of an outlaw couple on the road, the violent man seeking redemption in the heart of a good woman, and - most of all - the good ol' madonna/whore complex. In a world of de-humans, Jean's victims, all of them sexually active women, are the most dehumanized of all. Both Jean and Grandieux treat them as an endless string of disposable naked bodies to be fucked and killed, while Claire, the most substantial female character, is a virgin. In an interview in the February issue of CAHIERS DU CINEMA, Grandieux defends his film by suggesting that it's akin to a Grimm's fairy tale, with Jean and Claire functioning as mythic archetypes. While these mythic qualities are clearly present (as are reflections of several children's stories), it's impossible not to take its many images of violence against women literally.
Elsewhere in that interview, Grandieux discusses his desire to remove any social or psychological dimension from SOMBRE. (I'm bemused by the naivete of his notion that it's possible to make a film about a serial killer that without saying anything about the society that produced him!) He's right about its departure from psychological conceptions of character - Barbé's performance is particularly remarkable in this regard - but its treatment of the world around Jean is its most fascinating aspect. He, Claire and the people they meet are completely detached from their emotions, acting on the most basic physical urges of their body: physical motion, sex, drinking, eating and violence. Only with great difficulty can they participate in the most basic forms of human interaction. (There's so little dialogue and so thin a plot that one wonders why the screenplay required three writers.) Yet as the film progresses, one sees that they're not entirely without feelings; the rationale behind their interactions with other people and their own bodies has simply snapped.
Apart from CRASH, this kind of snap has best been depicted in Todd Haynes' SAFE and Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN. In their own ways, the people in these films struggle desperately - if unconsciously - to figure out how to live with their troubled, even mutant bodies. (The most radical of these films, JEANNE DIELMAN, suggests that being a women in a sexist society is enough to produce a profound disconnection between mind, heart and body.) The interpenetration between the human and non-human is one of the horror genre's most potent themes, and it forms much of the subtext of SOMBRE. After a shot of a snowy mountain, Grandieux cuts directly to the first shot of Jean's face. He wears a wolf costume to stalk his victims, and one of his murder attempts takes place in a gorgeous, isolated lake.
As it nears a conclusion, SOMBRE hints at a resolution: the reemergence of emotion. After Claire picks up a man at a dance club and brings him home, Jean experiences an apparent fit of jealousy. He attacks the man but winds up getting beaten himself. After an attempt at sex, he and Claire separate, with Claire getting a ride from a talkative woman, the only person in the entire film with anything close to a "normal" personality. However, one can't tell whether anything important will come of this - Jean seems much the same as before, only a little crazier and more desperate - and this inability to come up with a satisfying ending is symptomatic of the film's flaws as a narrative. Its rigor and iconographic force are admirable, yet the sum is less than the whole of its parts. While CRASH, SAFE and JEANNE DIELMAN all offer some clues into the social conditions that have made their characters behave so strangely, SOMBRE is so tightly focused that it doesn't offer any suggestion of the causes behind Jean and Claire's behavior. Their affectlessness simply is, and so is the presence of evil. I'm certainly not demanding a flashback revealing that Jean was an abused child - although I was intrigued by the cut to a "home movie" after his first murder - but I'm disappointed that Grandieux's fascination with evil leads nowhere. This is a film about a world where "depth" has vanished, and it partakes of the sensibility it describes so well.
The opening and closing three minutes are the best and most terrifying scenes in SOMBRE. Jean isn't present in these shots, nor do they depict any violence, but this absence doesn't make them any more comforting. Their chill lies not so much in their content (a montage of long shots of a car driving down a highway, close-ups of screaming children and handheld shots of a snowy mountain; a lengthy tracking shot of Tour de France spectators sitting by the side of the road) but in what their ice-cold view of human faces and landscapes suggests about the extent of the malaise that Jean suffers from. In fact, these sequences suggest that it may even have spread into nature. (Grandieux's decision to run a song over the final shot, rather than recording the spectators' conversations or roadside noises, contributes greatly to this iciness.) As a dystopian vision of a possible future, SOMBRE is quite convincing, and while I'm repelled by its Puritanical misogyny, I can't deny its visceral impact or the tremendous power of its glimpse into the void. Upon release in France a few weeks ago, it divided the press, with some calling it a masterpiece and others dismissing it as immoral trash. Even though I don't completely agree with either position, I can understand the reasoning behind both. See it for yourself - hopefully an American distributor will eventually release it, although it's bound for an NC-17 rating and hostile reviews - and decide if its void bears any resemblance to the world we live in.