SOMBRE (PHILIPPE GRANDRIEUX, 1998)
I have a confession to make.
I am ridiculously more harsh in my reactions to contemporary cinema than I am towards the films of the past, specifically those of the 1960s and 1970s. It is admittedly a bias, and I try and try to fight against it, but it is very rare that a film shakes up that bias.
Part of me feels justified in my preconceived notions; if I can name a hundred amazing, close to perfect films off the top of my head that were made in the 60s and 70s, then people making films should at least be somewhat aware of the fact that film has done amazing things. Not only should filmmakers have awareness, but they should also recognize that they have had more or less 40 years to learn from and make progress over the films that I call my favorite.
There are, of course, exceptions, and these exceptions stick out like a sore thumb to me because it proves me that some filmmakers have learned from the past, and have made progression, while still keeping the ability to tell a great story. The most recent example of a film that I find exceptional, and incredibly progressive in terms of it's construction and execution, is David Lynch's Inland Empire. Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre might be another film that I can add to my list of great contemporary films, but I'm not quite sure yet.
It seems fitting that David Lynch came up in this article before Grandrieux himself did, as I think Grandrieux owes quite a bit to David Lynch. Luckiliy, it's not the Lynch-ian "weirdness" that everybody seems to assume is Lynch's raison-d'etre, rather, it's more of a kinship to Lynch's technicalities and often-overlooked aesthetics.
Grandrieux's film, which follows the exploits of a quiet serial killer and a woman who may or may not have fallen in love with him, is primarily a sensual film. The narrative is secondary, but never overlooked. I suppose a better clarification would be that the film is extraordinary due to it's sensuality (in the literal sense), rather than it's narrative, which is somewhat overdone but handled in a remarkably refreshing manner (the "from the eyes of a serial killer" subgenre is not something that I generally can stand behind).
The visuals of the film are overwhelmingly beautiful, and it is fairly apparent that Grandrieux has some familiarity with the avant-garde. He keeps most of the film balanced carefully in the dark, illuminating only the tiniest details within the frame that is more often than not engulfed by the unknown; the dark. And it is amazing how well he has balanced the film against the light; while an amateur cinematographer would undoubtedly lose most of the detail, and the resulting images would end up incomprehensible, Sabine Lancelin (who has also worked with such experimental/art-house crossover filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Raoul Ruiz) handles the job wonderfully, and every single frame looks impeccable, hiding far more than is revealed.
Many of the shots are often very uniquely framed, a decision that has occasionally been inaccurately regarded as "amateur," "pretentious," or "pseudo-artsy." Taken out of the context of the film, I could see how these adjectives could possibly be fitting, but within the context of the film, I can't see how one could arrive at them. The uniquely framed shots, above all else, heighten the tension established by the narrative, an erratic, cold-hearted confusion. It's simply a matter of form following content, and a wonderful use at that.
The film's editing is remarkably caustic, which from a visual perspective creates a sort of divide between what the viewer understands that they are seeing, and what the viewer can infer from what they are seeing. There is a particular rhythm that is often established and then harshly violated, lulling the viewer into a sense of calm and then subconsciously shattering any trusting relationship the eye has established.
The film's visuals often play specifically to a sense of touch as well, the camera lingering relentlessly on the hair of the prostitute victims, abstracted by a lack of a signifier, existing solely as a texture that is present in the frame. Nature is treated the same way as the camera shifts through varying depths of field from character to grass, to ocean, to something that is outside of both the viewer and the anti-hero, Jean.
There is an excess of the out-of-focus frame, and this too adds to the heightened sense of terror that Grandrieux seems to be going for. The film doesn't allow the viewer to get comfortable for more than 30 seconds at a time, as all of the sensory details that the film offer stimulate us away from the level of comfort that the cinema generally provides.
Of course, even when a film has a remarkable visual style, sound is always important, and thankfully (once again), Grandrieux is aware of this as well, and this is where another possible connection to Lynch arises, as sound design is something that viewers tend to pay attention to in a Lynch film. Grandrieux's sound design is similar, working to both echo and undermine the visual, playing into the same idea of tension and terror mentioned above. This is also the second film that I've seen make a remarkably good use of the Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead"--the other being The Hunger which is conventionally pretty and oneiric, but not as successful as this film.
In this film the song comes at a pivotal scene in which Claire and Jean have left a club with two rather despicable and annoying men. During this scene Elina Lowensohn (who plays Claire) displays an incredible talent, alternating between pure terror at her situation ("I am in danger") and pure drunken ecstasy. All of the actors in the film play their roles perfectly, but it is Lowensohn who has the most demanding role, and she handles it admirably.
Of course, sensual films don't succeed solely on the merits of their application to sight, sound, and touch, rather, it is the use of these sensual stimulants in the creation of mood that makes the film stand out. Grandrieux is smart to understand the fact that if a worthwhile, heavy atmosphere has been established, it can carry a film, and extraneous plot or narration does nothing but disrupt the flow of the atmosphere. This is what I mean that the film's narrative is secondary; the plot is conveyed via sound, image, and montage. Dialog is kept to a minimum, and the film is obviously more about the mood it has created than the elliptical narrative that drives it.
The film ends with the suggestion that both Claire and Jean have found love, for the first time, in each other, and neither characters can handle the newfound feeling. Jean wanders off in the night, next seen killing yet another prostitute, and Claire is last seen blatantly lying to a woman who picked her up off the road about Jean being her husband, the two having kids. This ostensibly admirable emotional state, which many individuals spend their whole lives desperately groping for, has no place in the psyche of the two main characters.
Despite the film's successes, it's not perfect. It often draws far too close to being too open, in the sense that the atmosphere almost becomes lost and the experience of the film is lessened, but these flaws are generally redeemed within a scene or two and the tone is re-established.