Arthouse cinema does torture porn: that's the glib and to some extent accurate summation of Daniel Grou's bleak, disturbing and genuinely harrowing French Canadian thriller "7 Days" -- a film which attempts to extract some kind of dreadful poetry out of the human soul reduced to its most abject form and depicted in the most squalid context. The story deals with possibly the biggest taboo and the most perennially emotive subject in human affairs: the murder and rape of a child -- and examines the equally horrendous consequences for one man as his extreme solution for dealing with the unimaginable tragedy that befalls his family takes him to the very edge of the abyss. It's filmed in long silent takes of brutal minimalism with no music score whatsoever. Colour is so drained and blanched of life that only sickly pale tones of green and deathly greys remain. The film is quite pure and clinical in confronting its awful subject matter: the unavoidability of the moral black hole down which the main protagonist disappears. No matter how utterly heartbreakingly vile are the acts towards which he finds himself inescapably drawn, it is what is going on inside him all the while which becomes the most horrifying element of Grou's uncompromising depiction of the darkest night of the human soul.
Bruno Hamel (Claude Legault) is a surgeon, living in a quiet and well-to-do suburb of Quebec with his family: his wife Sylvie (Fanny Mallette), his eight-year-old daughter Jasmine (Rose-Marie Coallier). When Jasmine doesn't turn up again at school in the afternoon after coming home for her lunch one day, a police hunt is initiated, overseen by weather-worn veteran detective Hervé Mercure (Rémy Girard), still himself attempting to come to terms with the senseless death of his wife six months previously; spending nights forever rerunning the same grainy security-cam footage depicting her brutal murder at the hands of the petty criminal who robbed a convenience store at gunpoint while she happened to be a customer. Wrong place, wrong time.
Grief stricken Bruno insists on joining the hunt for his daughter in a local copse. His wife sits at home by the phone, a nervous wreak. When a body is discovered, Bruno cannot be restrained from entering the scene, and is confronted by a sight of unendurable horror. The terrible injuries to Jasmine's crumpled lifeless body make it all too obvious what sickening fate befell her before her eventual death.
Days later, Mercure phones the Hamels with the news that a suspect has been arrested. He's a manual labourer called Anthony Lemaire (Martin Dubreuil) with a previous conviction for sexual assault. DNA evidence makes his guilt a sure thing as far as the police are concerned. Telling his wife that he is going back to work at the hospital in order to 'try and forget', Bruno instead meticulously sets about planning vengeance. Finding a remote and deserted cabin in the woods, and paying several local workers to help him as well as to keep their mouths shut afterwards, Bruno manages to kidnap Lemaire while he's being transferred on remand to await trial. He drugs him and then brings him back to the cabin -- which has been kited out as a torture dungeon; and he's also managed to steal some medical equipment and supplies from the hospital.
What follows are seven days leading up to what would have been his daughter's birthday, in which Bruno attempts to avenge and heal himself through the infliction of every type of physical degradation he has it within his power to devise, upon the tormentor and killer of his beloved offspring.
Bruno starts by inflicting some basic (but squirm-inducing) physical harm on his naked and chained victim, smashing his knee cap with a heavy mallet and whipping him into unconsciousness with a chain, and then urinating on his prone body. Bruno's imaginative tortures soon begin to exploit his medical skills as well, though: paralysing him with curare and keeping him conscious but breathing with an artificial respirator, Bruno performs a hideous medical procedure on the stricken pedophile, perhaps one of the most hard to watch sequences in the annals of the torture porn genre, not because it's necessarily nastier than the sort of stuff you might see in, say, the SAW franchise, but because of the quiet, methodical approach the director takes to its presentation, and because of how, at one point, Grou's camera slowly pans in on a single tear issuing from the eye of the victim as the horrendous event occurs. While all this is happening over the course of the seven days, Bruno keeps up a dialogue with his wife and with Detective Mercure and the whole event becomes something of a media circus.
The subject of the film, of course, is the legitimacy or otherwise of vengeance. An obvious way to tackle the issue would have been to make the accused turn out to be innocent, but this easy get-out clause is not taken up: not only is the man in Hamel's custody entirely guilty of the crime against the surgeon's daughter, but it is also made clear that he's also raped and murdered several other little girls as well. At first Lemaire attempts to deny his guilt, but eventually, not only does he own up, but, in an effort to make Hamel kill him the more quickly to end his torment, he actually goads the surgeon with the grisly details of his daughters rape, as well as owning up to the other crimes. The film then opens up to debate society's attitude in general to the thought of vengeance against people like Lemaire: Hamel contacts the press with the names of the other girls Lemaire has claimed to have killed, and they in turn ask the parents of these children if they approve of Hamel's actions. Most of them encourage him to continue with his torture of the pedophile killer. At one point, a girl behind the counter of a petrol station stop recognises him; but instead of turning him in, she has only words of support.
Only one of the parents -- a single mother -- voices disapproval of what he is doing, and it is Hamel's reaction to this disapproval which takes him into a realm beyond the audience's general sympathies.
There is a crude but effective visual metaphor, referred to in a subplot which resurfaces throughout the film, concerning Hamel's attempts to dispose of the corpse of a dead deer, which he discovers in the woods on the first day of his seven day odyssey. At first, the deer lies crumpled but Bambi-like in a clearing, and is a haunting image much like that of his dead daughter, seen earlier in the film. But, as the days go by, and, try as he might to dispose of it -- either by burying it under fire wood or sinking it in a nearby lake -- the corpse keeps reappearing again and again, looking ever more decayed and rancid, and it becomes obvious that it is a symbol for Hamel's own increasing corruption.
The film is never glib in its apparent condemnation of the urge for vengeance. Both the cop grieving for his dead wife and the mother who has buried her grief by pretending her child's killer no longer exists are shown to be suffering still, despite their rejection of Hamel's methods. Mercure cannot even enter the bedroom where he and his wife used to sleep and instead sleeps on his couch, re-watching the exact moment of her death on video -- a chilling portrayal of his inability to come to terms with the murder, even though his wife's killer languishes in prison. Vengeance is shown to be utterly soul destroying, but also understandable and a totally human response to such hideous events.
Grou presents the atrocities in a clinically un-showy manner and manages to transcend the generic torture porn label and craft a film which presents the internal state of grief on screen through standard horror movie images but also through strangely moving scenes which might be supernatural or just allegorical in their nature, such as when Hamel seems to come face to face with the ghostly silent image of his dead daughter in the cabin, and cleanses her wounds, as though in this act he might cleanse his own soul and come to terms, finally, with his loss.
"7 Days" is a tough film to watch. If you're a new parent or find the subject matter beyond the pale, it is perhaps one to avoid. But the intentions behind it seem pure enough and, shorn as it is of all the most manipulative elements of cinema such as an emotionally priming music score (the trailer does add a piano motif which is never heard in the film itself) or overt melodramatic incident, it succeeds in avoiding all the more obvious pitfalls of the exploitation genre that might have blunted its raw power.
The UK disc from E1 comes without any extras besides the theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer looks great. Recommended if you can bear such material.