A famous scene in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) shows a woman’s naked body reduced to a troublesome lump in a potato sack, under the murderous, psychotic force of a man’s rage. Commentators sometimes overlook perhaps the most striking and shocking moment of this scene: its coda, when the dead woman finally spills out onto the road at night, and is suddenly, obscenely illuminated by the stark, white light of another car’s headlights. Too much brightness, too much flesh, too much spillage and jerky, uncontrolled motion: in a film devoted to the stiff, stuffy propriety of British manners (on all levels: speech, behaviour, clothes, food) this moment knowingly transgresses the overall system of the film, forcibly smashes the taboos of its form and content alike.
Philippe Grandrieux’s astonishing Sombre (1998) has two moments that echo and amplify the shock of that moment in Frenzy. Here, the film’s system, on the most elemental level of style and form, is far more severe: so much of it is literally ‘sombre’, plunged into a nervous, jittery, out-of-focus darkness, where figures and actions alike are often difficult to see and identify. When the serial killer Jean (Marc Barbé) picks up one of the string of prostitutes that he murders in the course of the story, there is a moment of her dancing, semi-naked, in front of his car’s headlights: the horror, the indecency of it, is palpable – and also the air of menace and dread it instantly evokes, since we already know that, as is the case for Hitchcock’s villain, any strong sign or evidence of female sexuality is what triggers the violence of the disturbed, psychotic male.
Then there is Claire (Elina Löwensohn), the heroine of this strange tale, on a collision course with Jean. While he is the man of darkness – absorbing all the world’s matter, animal, vegetable or mineral, into the black, formless hole of his violent impulses – she is all light, pure light. An image of Claire as she approaches Jean after they have experienced their impossible moment of sexual consummation and love, shows her illuminated, incandescent, other-worldly: she is as unreal and almost as spooky as he, a picture of sublimity to match his contagion of abjection.
What kind of film is Sombre? Although it relates to the recent genre of crime films and novels devoted to the grisly deeds and police pursuit of serial killers – from McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) to Fincher’s Seven (1995) – the narrative here is so minimal, so devoid of conventional suspense, as to constitute a mere platform or skeleton. Sombre is also almost completely devoid of naturalistic scenes of any sort: those that Grandrieux and his co-writers include (the family gathering around Claire, and her encounter with a woman who speaks to her of ‘mad love’) are rendered, in their isolation, emblematic, as strictly stylised as anything else in the film. The information they convey – about social class, familial history and relationships, everyday life – become instantly absorbed into Grandrieux’s grander, archetypal design.
These two relatively naturalistic scenes stand out, also, because they are the only major dialogue scenes in the whole film. Sombre, for the most part, proceeds without spoken words. There are many vocalisations in the rich, dense soundscape – children’s screams, the cries for help from Claire’s sister Christine (Géraldine Voillat), Claire’s disturbed breathing, Jean’s animal-like grunts – but few words. This decision helps abstract the action of the film, and raise it to the level of a fairy tale. References to fairy tales and ‘pop culture myths’ abound in the film: Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, Frankenstein and his Bride...
At its paroxysmic height, Sombre’s fairy tale concerns a mad, impossible, sublime love match between Man and Woman. This Man is blindly rapacious, violent, sunken into his most bestial state of Nature; and this Woman is (explicitly) the Virgin, about to embark on a sacred rite of erotic initiation. The connection between them, when it comes, is blinding, fleeting, earth-shattering; its pathos and emotion hinge on the possibility that the love-gift offered by the luminous Virgin will lead Man away from his relentless, driven, murderous path – that he will be civilised in the same amorous moment that she is brought to full flower as a yearning, sexual being.
Man cannot change: he returns to the forest and the sea, to the darkness, to
serial repetition of his accursed, violent act; while the last image of Claire
shows her head as if she is suspended, floating, unable to integrate herself
back into the real, everyday world after her revelatory experience. Sombre’s wisdom derives, assuredly, from
How is one to take this film, accommodate it within the normal, daily frame of one’s values, experiences, politics? Sombre is a profoundly divisive, profoundly ‘other’ work; many recoil from it, repulsed or offended. Yet offence is a too easy – in fact, highly defensive – response to the singular force and power of Grandrieux’s achievement. I have heard the film dismissed as portentous and pretentious, silly and risible – responses partly triggered, I suspect, by the unblinking graveness and solemnity of its tone, a seriousness that allows for no comic relief whatsoever, no variation in mood that lightens the exacting demand placed on the viewer. More reflectively, the film has been accused (by Jonathan Rosenbaum) of indulging the image of ‘rapist/serial killer as Dostoyevskian saint’; (1) or (by Françoise Audé) of reinforcing a reprehensible, apolitical, death-driven ‘cult of evil’ associated, since the William Burroughs revival of the '80s, with the grimmest manifestations of ‘grunge’ and ‘industrial’ culture in music, film and literature (Throbbing Gristle, Eraserhead , Elias Merhige’s Begotten , etc). (2)
It is certainly true that Sombre plays, relentlessly and remorselessly, on the registers of dread and menace, fear and terror – crystallised in the early sequence of children screaming in near-orgasmic terror as they witness, all-absorbed, a Punch and Judy puppet show performed by Jean. Is there really something unforgivably sadistic, or intellectually narrow, or regrettably anti-human in the film’s project? Again, the persuasive, utterly compelling force of Grandrieux’s artistic gesture is what, above all external considerations of moral or social worth, must guide our evaluation. In Sombre we enter a cinematic realm that, in its sustained intensity and fierce, formal consistency, far outstrips Haneke’s calculated preying upon the spectator in Funny Games (1997), or the scattered flare-ups of body-horror in Leos Carax’s oeuvre. Grandrieux’s debut is, in this regard as in many others, an event: few films since Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) have put audiences through such a merciless, pitiless gauntlet of light-and-dark sensations, half-glimpses of unimaginably horrible action, and great walls of indistinct, pulsating sound (neither clearly musical nor natural) – with the mechanical, doom-laden rhythms of Alan Vega and Bauhaus (both introduced to Grandrieux by the actors on set) providing the most obvious index to the industrial culture sensibility.
And as for the politics, Sombre is indeed an act of provocation in the present ‘politically correct’ climate. I am not convinced that it presents Jean’s evil as exactly ‘saintly’ or holy, but there is no doubt that, in order to let oneself enter into the soul of the film, one must accept that Jean’s power over his chosen women is virtually Satanic – and that these women, accordingly, acquiesce (at least up to a point) in their sadistic-erotic victimisation at his hands. In fact, the aesthetics of dread and the anti-politics of the sublime come together in one of the film’s most unsettling and ‘black magical’ transitions: from Claire and Christine in the front of their car, having cunningly escaped Jean’s savage clutches, now staring at him standing before them; to another indoor scene of the women being brutalised, prisoners once again of his malign power, as if his mere appearance prompted the instant surrender of their will to resist or even survive.
A better context for the appreciation of Sombre can be proposed. The film instantly took me back to a mid-1970s text by video artist Thierry Kuntzel (a former collaborator with Grandrieux) in which he proposed that the ‘ideal film’ would be "a film of sustained terror" (3) – sheer, unmitigated, ceaseless terror. Kuntzel’s remark has since been misunderstood, for instance by American feminist Tania Modleski (in Studies in Entertainment, 1986), who decries the prevalent critical fondness for (to her) misogynist forms like the Halloween-style slasher movie. But Kuntzel was not talking about the horror genre per se – although he did have in mind special films of the fantastique like Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), which have also so clearly marked the sensibility of Grandrieux. More importantly, Kuntzel was not talking about the contents of these dreamlike fantasy films (murders, zombification, voyeurism, hypnotism, etc) so much as their form or aesthetic.
What is terror in formal terms? From Hitchcock to Polanksi, from De Palma to Dario Argento, from Mario Bava to Wes Craven, even in Jaws (1975) or Jurassic Park (1993) by Spielberg, commercial genre cinema has given us its own termitic answer to this question: terror comes from intense moments of sound-and-image confusion, illegibility, chaos, uncertainty, agitation – abrupt camera tremors or plunges into darkness, parts of human figures that cannot be discerned, mysterious apparitions, zones of blur or superimposition in the image. But this is also, of course, a project dear to avant garde or experimental cinema, particularly when it partakes of signs of horror – think of Manuel DeLanda’s Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (1980) or Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971).
Grandrieux has made, finally, not a modish serial killer movie or an advertisement for a neo-gothic subculture, but a truly experimental ‘walk on the wild side’, using the crucible of emotions, actions and sensations inherent in his slender, mythic fiction as a bridge to compose a new language of image and sound, figure and gesture.
For Kuntzel in the '70s, the ideal film was something like a mystery film which would never resolve its enigmas – in which each pristine sign, each image or sound event, would remain suspended, trembling, never fully absorbed into a pattern of meaning or narrative ("one in which the initial figure would not find its place in the flow of a narrative, in which the configuration of events contained in the formal matrix would not form a progressive order, in which the subject would never be reassured"). (4) The terror would thus be all ours – the terror of finding all our normal expectations transgressed and reversed – but also, the eventual pleasure, the radical jouissance, would be all ours too.
Near the start of Sombre, straight after the spectacle of the screaming children, we see a disquieting tableau that is never remotely explained by anything in the rest of the film: a blindfolded child, obviously being prompted in one direction or another by an unseen presence, with an odd, pyramid-like construction looming near him, its silhouette darkened against the blinding sunlight. It is, all at once, an image from a fairy tale, a horror movie, a suspense thriller, and a film fantastique set in a science-fiction landscape. The image trembles, blinks, and disappears – leaving us only with the trace of its wounding, mysterious memory. This is, in a microcosm, the genius and originality of Grandrieux’s film.
© Adrian Martin August 1999
2. Françoise Audé, Positif 456, Feb '99 back
3. Thierry Kuntzel, Camera Obscura no. 5 (1980) back
4. Ibid. back