Lucie (Chloé Coulloud) is a young trainee home caregiver who’s being shown the ropes while she’s introduced to some of her elderly patients by a cynical, seen-it-all-and-couldn’t-care-less older nurse and mentor Mrs Wilson (Catherine Jacob), in a gloomy, deadbeat coastal region of Brittany in North-Western France. The skies are grey and stormy and the landscape dominated by ancient Celtic stone cruciform crosses -- and the kind of sombre, rolling windy moors usually only found in 19th Century Gothic literature or Kate Bush songs. Meanwhile, ripped, half-forgotten tatty old posters in the bus station near the harbour where Lucie waits to meet Mrs Wilson, ominously tell of the numerous children who have gone missing in and around this area over a period of many years. The last of the residents on the trainee’s visiting rota lives alone inside a crumbling, ill-kept Victorian chateau on the edge of a desolate moor, and was a former ballet instructor of some repute in the early part of the twentieth century. The children of the great and the good from all over France once came to this isolated place -- a former ballet school, now long since fallen into disrepair – in order to be trained by the renowned Deborah Jessel, for the stage; but now what remains of that ancient, skeletal, utterly comatose old lady (Marie-Claude Pietragalla) subsists in a semi-darkened bedroom behind a velvet curtain cocoon -- an oxygen mask clamped to her shrivelled, tissue-white face while she continues to survive only through the agency of mysterious transfusions of blood administered regularly by Mrs Wilson.
The chateau is like a time casual of late-Victorian décor -- a large gramophone dominating the bedroom along with creepy china white dolls; animal head wall-mounted taxidermy and yellowing photographs of the dance instructor’s former child ballet students adorning the walls of the staircase leading to the upper floors. During idle chatter as she tends to the needs of her insensible patient, Mrs Wilson casually mentions that the old lady is supposed to have once hidden a hoard of ‘treasure’ somewhere on these premises, although adds wryly that she’s never been able to find it herself. That evening, Lucie meets up with her fisherman boyfriend Will (Félix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) and tells them of her odd experiences, prompting Will, long since fed up with the lack of prospects in this insular fishing village, to propose breaking into the chateau that night in order to search for Jessel’s hidden fortune. After all, in her mummified living-dead state, it can’t possibly be of that much use to her! After Lucie is reluctantly talked into this dubious scheme, the three youngsters set out across the moors under cover of darkness, and manage to gain entry -- much to Lucie’s displeasure -- by breaking into the old building through a downstairs window. Filching an old brass key to one of the locked upstairs rooms, that’s kept on a chain around the desiccated crone’s neck, the trio unwittingly enter a dangerous world of supernatural terror and uncanny threats beyond their imagining -- while Lucie is soon to discover that she has actually been led here deliberately, for a very macabre purpose …
In those blissful days of innocence during the mid-noughties, a few years before the advent of such delights as “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)”, “A Serbian Film” and “The Bunny Game”, a much-lauded new wave of French horror films appeared on the scene, headed by the work of a young writing and co-directing duo by the name of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, whose visceral 2007 film “Inside” at the time seemed like the last word in a voguish, transgressive new body horror of the extreme; its unique, taboo-shattering take on the home invasion sub-genre dragging the modern horror film kicking and screaming towards an apparently unsurpassably bloody apex (if you’ve seen the film in question then you’ll know which part of it I’m referring to, here). After various aborted American projects (a proposed re-boot of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” and the follow-up to Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake both bit the dust because of artistic disagreements), the duo have now returned to their native France with a beautifully dark supernatural work that sees them following the same trajectory as those other former pioneers of realism-based torture porn, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who followed up their overly influential “SAW” with a superior low-key Gothic fantasy called “Dead Silence” (if you’ve not seen it, then do so – it’s great!). “Livid” similarly abandons the shockingly gory realism Maury and Bustillo pioneered in their debut feature for an unexpected and evocatively lush foray into the realm of the cinema fantastique and the occult -- touching base with Dario Argento’s two supernatural masterpieces of the late seventies and early eighties rather than the Italian maestro’s classic giallo format (which served as one of the main inspirations for “Inside”) by way of some lyrical and fantastical imagery of a kind Guillermo Del Toro appeared to have all but trademarked up until recently. At the same time, the film boasts attentively detailed and moody period production design and art direction (by Marc Thiébault) which conjures pleasing associations with British Gothic traditions of a Hammer Horror vintage, much as did the company’s recent rebrand vehicle “The Woman in Black” – an observation which encourages the hopeful thought that this type of poetic adult fairy tale sub-genre (Wan & Whannell’s recent “Insidious” seems to belong in this category as well) is finally staging a comeback after years of gritty, but increasingly tedious, torture-based realism once seemed to have sidelined it for good.
Indeed, “Livid” was originally conceived as an English language picture and was also even initially slated to be shot in the UK. The distinctive Celtic history of the Brittany region helps retain something of that brooding, wistfully melancholy ‘English’ ambience, which is still very much detectable in the landscape superbly foregrounded here during the initial opening act, even though the original scripted location was changed once the project became an all French production. The film is slim on plotting, Maury and Bustillo apparently favouring the simple beginning-middle-and-end three act structure, developing audience identification with the young Scarlett Johansson lookalike cast in the lead role during the scene-setting opening, before a middle-act storyline evolves to take its cue from the “A Drop of Water” segment in Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath”, when Lucie’s goonish boyfriend and his personality-light pal greedily go meddling in areas which are not of their concern, all for some ill-defined ‘treasure’ of a reward.
Lucie’s reasons for going along with this petty larceny, which involve her troubled connection to and ambivalent feelings towards her deceased mother who committed suicide (Béatrice Dalle -- seen in two blink-and-you-miss-them cameo appearances) and her estrangement from her father (Loïc Berthezene), provide the emotional core which allows us to forgive her this trespass, while the dark, fantastical sights of strangeness and horror she and her friends fall prey to in the mysterious chateau, culminate in a psychic flashback sequence which provides an outlandish fairy tale metonymy for Lucie’s own situation regarding her continuing unhealthy relationship with her dead mother, when the younger Deborah Jessel’s even-more-unusual parenting methods are examined with regard to her apparently vampiric offspring Anna (Chloé Marcq), in what becomes one of the centrepieces of the film.
The name of the movie’s diabolical mother figure is a sure fire reference to one of Maury and Bustillo’s favourite films: “The Innocents” -- Jack Cardiff’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw”, which combines the Christian name of the film adaptation’s star, Deborah Kerr, with the surname of both the film and the novella’s very own ‘woman in black’ -- the spectral former governess-turned-haunting presence, Miss Jessel. But Lucie’s discovery of Jessel’s certificate of graduation from a certain Tanzakademie in Freiberg, Germany soon clues the knowledgeable viewer in on the primary inspiration for this infestation of balletic, tutu-toting kiddie vampires and their witch-like overseer-cum-ballet instructor: Marie-Claude Pietragalla’s compelling portrayal of the movie’s central mother-monster strongly evokes Alida Valli in her role of the disciplinarian Miss Tanner from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”, just to drum an obvious connection home even more forcefully (the real-life dancer and choreographer-turned-actress also looks the spit of Béatrice Dalle, bringing further resonance to the theme). The final act of the movie is where the real ‘treasure’ lies for the lover of European Gothic: clockwork animal automata arranged around a child’s toy tea-table which come to seem more life-like than they really should in their quaint repose; blood-drenched vampire-like child ballet dancers in white; and a mummified Anna -- positioned as a life-sized music box figurine in an otherwise unfurnished room -- are just a few of the discoveries which both enchant and disturb the viewer in equal measure with their superbly rendered allusions to Freud’s concept of the uncanny as it relates to the depiction of the familiar rendered in an unfamiliar context -- such as dolls or machines that appear creepily life-like, or indeed animate beings that begin to seem more and more like mere objects. Argento’s fixation with evil, possessive and corrupting mothers is a central motif too, yet the film is emboldened with a quartet of strong female archetypes (Coulloud, Pietragalla, Catherine Jacob and Chloé Marcq) each battling the other for dominance in a faintly sketched plot (another way in which the film echoes “Suspiria” is the casual disregard for neatly tying up any of its narrative trails) which references the transmigration of souls and lays clumsy precedence early on for a certain important feature of later events, when it is mentioned that Lucie happens to have the eye condition Heterochromia (or varying coloured irises).
The film is indeed an atmospheric oddity, full of arresting images -- but that’s not to say that there isn’t also plenty of the red stuff visible in the latter stages of this film as well, and Maury and Bustillo even cheekily reference their own gory debut by making a pair of oversized scissors the weapon of choice for one brutal throat stabbing sequence which crops up late in the movie; there is also a smidgen of gross torture porn-style imagery (of a type) still included even here, but it now serves a much more surreal and hallucinatory purpose and is allied to the kind of unsettling, phantasmagorically dark, Brothers Grimm fairy tale imagery that still makes a film like “Suspiria” so appealing even today. The nicely photographed (by Laurent Bares) 2.35:1 framing looks fabulous in flawless HD and the region B platter comes with a strong DTS 5.1 HD Master and stereo mix. Extras are disappointingly minor but during the five minute interview with writer/directing team Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, we learn that they still consider “Suspiria” to be ‘the perfect film’. There are other equally brief interviews with stars Marie-Claude Pietragalia, Catherine Jacob, and Félix Moati & Jérémy Kapone (the latter two interviewed together). There’s a tantalising trailer and, finally, 17 minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage from the set which demonstrates the duo’s relaxed working method as they run through several scenes with the cast.
“Livid” is a gorgeously sumptuous-looking piece of Gothic fantasy horror, conjured up on a tiny budget but rarely showing it (apart from some slightly dodgy CGI near the end): it’s extremely likable as a visual spectacle and will certainly draw in those who appreciate the aesthetically more challenging end of the horror market, even if its story is slight and it takes a while to get going with it. Good performances from the female members of cast, old and young alike, helps considerably to paper over the hazy points of the narrative with some strong emotional glue. Well worth tracking down.