Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sombre (1998)

Being Film #11 in Hail Horror 5.  Thanks to Leaves for the recommendation.

Extra Note:  One week later this movie still sits like a bad meal in my gut, proof (perhaps) that there's more to the film than my experience and consequent write-up get across.  Leaves came back with a lengthy comment that goes into detail why he thinks the film works, and it's a great counterpoint, so I link to it here and heartily recommend checking it out.

SOMBRE, the debut film by experimental artist Philippe Grandrieux, eschews straight narrative, opting instead to provoke visceral reactions in the viewer.  It succeeds in its goal.  Everything is dark and oppressive, even in daylight.  Images are either ramped up or slowed down to such a degree that even the most innocent activity - children being delighted by a puppet show - turns into a Lynchian nightmare.  The story centers on Jean, a serial killer who preys on prostitutes until a chance encounter with two women in a broken down car on the highway provides a new diversion and a chance to consummate the act whose failure seems to drive jean to his murderous acts.  There is the barest hint of fable in this, but its glow is dampened by enough abuse and violence to take any artistic message SOMBRE has and leave it by the film's end abandoned on the side of the road.

Or at least that's my impression.  I knew after about 15 minutes I was going to hate this movie, although part of that reaction could conceivably be Grandrieux's whole point.  Unlike the stylized (though equally brutal) acts of violence perpetrated by Mario Bava or Dario Argento, there's a depravity and bluntness to Jean's sadistic acts that leaves you sick in the stomach.  This feeling is only enhanced with numerous dead scenes of driving on highways, evil looking children, and sickly pale yellow light when there's any to be found.

So, yeah...not a movie I even remotely enjoyed or recommend.  However I'm open to the chance that I'm just not the target audience for this kind of thing (my tastes running more classic Universal, Hammer, and giallo) so in the interest of fairness there's an in-depth review of the film available at d+kaz which really picks the film apart.  I can definitely see all its points, but it doesn't do anything to improve the experience I had with SOMBRE.

That's it.  One more quick review done in pictures, and then a final 13th review for one of the most anticipated horror television series in a long time...


  1. I typed up a lengthy response that got eaten, but... I randomly stumbled on this blog, and here I am.

    I disagree with d-kaz's approach greatly. I prefer this one:

    d-kaz says what the film 'needs to do' - this guy says that the film teaches us something new: 'Instead, we learn to care about the how, and the way, the feeling, the sense of the presence, not of the actual happenings, because the films are not realistic, but the presence of the director, filtering, flirting and dancing with the events that are taking place.'

    I think Sombre works largely through deconstruction of typical horror film elements into their most elemental parts - a slasher film follows a group of people around in the dark while dread is generated through the threat of a deranged man pursuing them and their fear is transferred to the viewer, most especially through screams; Grandrieux isolates the screams as an element and focuses on them; later he isolates the simple threat of a deranged man as an instrument of dread and places him in close proximity with another and we get the sustained dread simply through their existing, not any plot mechanics; darkness, the drone of audio, and immersive cinematographic approaches create pure oppressive atmosphere independent of narrative thrust. It works for me, anyway. I think your favoring of Irreversible in theory set you up well for this film, given that it works largely through deconstructing the exploitation genre by reducing its 'vicarious revenge murder' to 'murder', and by transforming its 'revenge murder motivating rape' into 'rape' by reversing its narrative thrust and stripping its climax of buildup and rendering its context-less buildup tragic. The two deconstructions do differ, though, in that Noé's film uses long takes to prevent obscuration of terrible things through long, unbroken takes while I feel that Grandrieux's film phases out these elements by obscuration and then utilizes this obscuration to generate mood and dread through 'pure cinema'. By Un Lac he has completely rid himself of the violence, and yet the dread remains, even while the film is a rather beautiful love story. But, you know, nothing is pre-determined, and that's why we wade in. I do think that Grandrieux's approach is unique and interesting, and perhaps someday your sensibilities will align more closely with his - who knows? I'm not happy that you didn't enjoy the film - but I won't apologize for greatness!

  2. Leaves - IRREVERSIBLE was constantly on my mind, both as I watched SOMBRE and as I was writing it up afterward.An equally visceral experience, I think the reason I favored it more than I did SOMBRE was the horrible sense of tragedy Noe creates in the structuring of his film, where the beautiful innocence of the "beginning" is informed by everything we've already seen happen. I didn't get that sense from SOMBRE and, moreover, didn't feel like I had a character to connect to.

    I think your analysis of the film and Grandrieux's intent are spot on and in fact a great counterpoint to my own experience, so I'll link to it in the post. Still, although I didn't care for it, I appreciated the recommendation!

  3. My favorite aspect of the film is the winnowing away from character, the realization of the mood of horror through non-narrative methodology and increasingly non-representational imagery - that the characters are so difficult to connect to is great! It's not quite the chaotic scramble of an abstract painting, closer perhaps to the intentional blur of an impressionistic painting, but I think you can see the gears grinding toward a form of pure cinema, free of attachment to representational figures and embracing the evocative power of other methods. Irreversible is definitely not deconstructing things in this manner, so they're definitely not two peas in a pod, but I think there's an interesting relationship between the two treating violence in new but diverging ways. I'm interested in wildly divergent forms of filmmaking, so Grandrieux's style is not completely foreign to me, and that definitely aided in my being able to settle into his rhythms. In fact, I watched it relatively soon after watching Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies so it was really just another step in the same direction. Someone else mentioned Claire Denis, which is definitely another good comparison given her propensity to obfuscate, texturize, and evoke mood through similarly impressionistic techniques (L'intrus is a pretty good comparison - and the few characters are even more difficult to connect to!). It's not for everybody, but you never know until you try, I guess.

  4. I need to watch this film. i'll be focusing my film watching on French directors like Philippe Grandieux, Andre Techine and Maurice Pialat.