As the latest transmission from the dark heart of French new wave horror cinema, “In Their Sleep” feels like a slightly more subtle affair than the two visually extreme and uncompromising works with which this film’s co-producers have previously been associated (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s “Inside” and Xavier Gens’s “Frontiers”) but that doesn’t stop this debut effort from sister & brother writing and directing team Caroline and Éric du Potet from slotting in perfectly alongside its more up-front and provocative cousins. Like the above mentioned films, and most of the others that have emerged from France tagged with the extreme horror label over the last five years -- such as Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs” and David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s “Them ”, to name but two others -- “In Their Sleep” starts off as yet another entry in the well-worn ‘home invasion’ sub-genre. As seems to have been the case with most of their French film-making contemporaries, the du Potets appear to have been brought up on a diet of Grindhouse exploitation and American slasher flicks; films such as “I Spit on your Grave” and “Last House on the Left”, alongside popular mainstream fare like “Halloween”, had evidently made a deep impression on them and inculcated a desire to replicate the same direct visceral energy, and gain attention through the use of shocking imagery and lingering depictions of extreme situations. Modern French horror stands above most of its rivals primarily because of its ability to combine this relentless fascination with gory imagery and uncompromising on-screen nastiness with a thoughtful, psychologically sophisticated edge that has seen it able to elevate its better examples beyond the prosaically exploitational or the superficially horrific imagery of, say, the glut of torture porn-based offerings now clogging DVD release schedules.
“In Their Sleep” never quite goes to the visually grotesque extremes of “Inside” or “Martyrs” but it deals in similarly dark, fatalistic and pessimistic themes, and doesn’t flinch from the on-screen representation of some uncomfortable acts of violence such as the stalking and subsequent murder of a young child, for instance. Built around the stalk and slash dynamics of the generic slasher flick though it undoubtedly is, and dealing in some well-oiled mechanics of suspense -- building tension with the tried and tested techniques of the genre -- this taut dark horror thriller is actually just as indebted to the work of countrymen Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol, augmenting a string of nerve-shredding suspense sequences with the added suggestiveness that comes of its lightly-sketched and nuanced psychological perspective on a central relationship that eventually begins to feel like a strange, dreamlike dependency, forged between the hunter and his potential prey; the two filmmakers have succeeded in creating a work that is at once intelligent and evocative but also tense and, upon occasion, deeply disturbing.
In line with many films in this tried and tested sub-genre, “In Their Sleep” has a twisty plot that depends largely on continually wrong-footing the viewer with the gradual revelation of new information that begins to alter completely one’s perspective on events that have been previously depicted. This is done with rather unsophisticated flashbacks at various convenient points in the film’s narrative, but the two co-writers/directors manage to avert the sense that they’re pulling a fast one (always a danger with this kind psycho-thriller plotting) -- firstly, thanks to a compelling and intense central performance from the striking and utterly riveting Anne Parillaud, whose character undergoes a far more complex development than the apparently simple story-line would at first seem to suggest, and secondly by the clever decision not to fully explain and underline every last plot point, thus leaving room for an ambiguity that makes the film’s denouement all the more disquieting and affective.
Parillaud plays Sarah, a middle-aged but attractive housewife who lives with her husband and teenage son in an isolated thatched cottage, which the family are in the process of renovating at the start of the film and which is situated in a verdant and idyllic looking part of the French countryside. This bucolic bliss is shattered by the strange death of the son -- found by Sarah after having apparently jumped from his bedroom window and been impaled on some iron poles stacked up to be used in the later construction of a brick wall in the garden. The action then jumps to about a year later: Sarah now lives alone in the same house (the husband’s whereabouts is never mentioned), journeying by car to town each day to her job as a nurse caring for coma patients. We learn that she’s been taking on some of her colleagues’ shifts for extra money and that she suffers from chronic insomnia. The grief of her son’s death has obviously been worn heavy on her shoulders; she is falling to pieces and her illegally long hours have finally been noticed by the hospital superiors, who send her home and insist that she get some proper rest. During the night-time drive, a young man emerges from the woodlands and rushes into the path of her car. Distraught, the boy (whose name is Arthur [Arthur Dupont] and who is about the same age as her dead son) claims that he is being pursued by a burglar whom he had disturbed while the criminal was in the process of robbing his family’s home that night, not knowing that Arthur was alone in the house. Sure enough, another car appears and trails them for some time before Sarah finally appears to lose it on the winding dark roads. Feeling guilty for the injury she inadvertently caused Arthur when he ran into her car’s path on the road, Sarah insists on taking him back to her cottage to treat his wounds and allow him some time to rest – but there, the nightmare begins when the mysterious assailant tracks them to her isolated location. Fiercely determined to protect Arthur from a violent and resourceful foe, Sarah must engage in a cat-and-mouse game with a deranged and psychotic killer.
The above rather prosaic synopsis doesn’t give much of a clue to the layers of plot that eventually get unveiled by the unfolding narrative, but, to be honest, subsequent revelations do not come as that much of a surprise to the seasoned viewer of such fare. The set-up is masterfully accomplished though, and Sarah’s quiet pain is indicated with great subtlety and sympathy, making the predictability of subsequent narrative somersaults irrelevant to the film’s triumphs. The willowy Anne Parillaud, most famous still for her iconic role in the 1990 Luc Bresson thriller “Nikita”, is perfectly cast in the role, presenting the taut, wiry persona of a nonetheless highly maternal figure whose natural proclivities have been thwarted by cruel circumstance – a woman who is damaged, but is desperately soldiering on and attempting to heal herself. She appears tough, determined and resourceful on the surface, yet there is vulnerability and a brittleness there that could see her crack at any moment. The film starts with a number of images that suggest the central character’s deep attachment to nature (and thereby indicate her profound maternal affiliations): the first mysterious and strangely peaceful image is returned to and expanded upon at the very end of the film, where it takes on a whole new significance. Then the ambiguous opening shot is followed with Sarah shown in the garden, placing a plant in the dark soil with her bare hands. The house is situated in a womb-like glade, surrounded by, and with a backdrop of, greenery and trees, like something out of a child’s fairy-tale. When the soon-to-die son has a petulant teenage argument with his parents (over their being stuck in the middle of nowhere), Sarah is depicted taking him up lunch to his room like a caring mother would. What she then discovers there of course is the end of her family forever. The obvious (and foregrounded) similarity in appearance between her dead son and Arthur is an obvious spur to Sarah’s protective maternal instincts: If she can protect him from his pursuer then in a small way she can dissolve her confused guilt over the death of her own son and family.
When a flashback reveals that the killer’s MO involves him invading the homes of his potential victims while they are away on holiday (sleeping in their beds, eating their food and invasively rooting through their personal belongings, even appropriating and wearing their clothes) – and then, when they come back, hiding and eavesdropping on them until the middle of the night, when he emerges to slit their throats with a box cutter while they sleep (hence the film’s title), the antagonistic connection between a woman pining for a lost family and an assailant who lives to destroy them couldn’t be clearer. Bu the film takes a deeply odd turn when the killer develops an infatuation with Sarah from discovering the circumstances of her personal grief, when he overhears her sleep talking and re-living her son’s death. The insomnia that Parillaud’s character habitually suffers from is, ironically enough, briefly revoked only by the sheer exhaustion she experiences when attempting to fight off the assailant’s determination to kill Arthur; there are several other occasions in the film when Sarah is suddenly overcome with extreme weariness as a direct result of certain violent events, and only then finally gets the relief of sleep and a certain amount of peace from her grief -- meaning that the relationship between her and the killer becomes confused and somewhat warped by their complementary psychological needs. The strange circumstances of Sarah’s son’s death seems to suggest that the killer might have been responsible all along, and has merely come to reclaim the last family member still living in the same spot, but this thought is never explicitly invoked – indeed the son’s death is left a bizarre mystery. All these partially submerged considerations make the film’s climactic scenes highly emotional and ironic though, leaving the viewer with a dark, pessimistic sense of fatalism as the film comes full circle to restate the pastoral peacefulness of its opening sequence, but now in an entirely new context. The film is shot with cold, detached, noir-blotted iciness, overcast in either the blackest of forest shadows or dawn gloom throughout. The whole experience could be read as Sarah’s damaged psyche attempting to decide whether to go on living or whether it is time to give up the fight, with the killer cast in the role of black angel offering everlasting release from the pain of grief.
The UK DVD from Optimum offers only a trailer as an extra but displays the film in its original perfectly fine looking 1.25:1 aspect ratio transfer. The French 5.1 audio is also pretty good and a 2.0 stereo option is included. The removable English subtitles are large, but there is very little dialogue in this moody, largely atmospheric film where the images carry most of the story. “In Their Sleep” is low-key in comparison to its bloody French contemporaries but it deserves a look, is well made and could be the herald of further good things to come from Caroline and Éric du Potet.