Directors: Julien & Benoit Decaillon
Release date: 2009
Sometimes you watch a trailer and think wow, and then the film does not live up to that expectation. Other times you watch a trailer and think wow, then the film blows your mind and the trailer simply did not do it justice. Sodium Babies falls into the second camp.
What we have is a graphic novel drawn onto screen in live action, the film has all the sensibilities of the best examples of graphic novels. If you ever played the PC games Max Payne, we are on that sort of trip where the two mediums – in this case film and graphic novel – are sewn together seamlessly. More interestingly, from the point of view of this blog, the film comes up with an altogether new and interesting angle for the genre.
The film begins with scenes of Maurice (Benoit Decaillon) being chased through the countryside by a dog. He caries a shotgun and, as he runs, accidentally discharges it. As though that gives him an idea he turns and faces the dog, firing the second cartridge. Something approaches him as he reloads. Then we fall into the wonderful graphic novel art that peppers the film.
A deal is going down under the watchful eye of Prince (Julien Guibert), who is stood with Foss (Gautier Pras). Though we do not know it at this point they are vampires. Foss comments that, for a ghoul, Max (Edouard Audouin) is fairly bad ass. They are collecting the latest human traffic sent by Rhesus (Hugues Caron). There is a psychic flash and Max turns, distracted, to Prince. A girl runs – we later discover she is called Pussy Cat (Virginia Michaud) – but Max intercepts and carries her back to a cage – he calls her the Belfort Bitch. Two come in – one being Maurice – a can of kerosene is thrown into the air and the second man blows it up with a psychic blast.
For Maurice this is the revenge for a crime dating back thirty years. It is 1973 and Maurice has returned to his squat after a year in the army. He is back with his girl Marie-Jeanne (Camille Berthomier) and she goes for a shower before bed as he smokes another joint. It appears as though he is given a gun – but we do not see by whom. He stalks the house but in his mind he is chased by the dog. The film from the prologue (what he believes is happening) interlaces with the film of him stalking the house, his actions in each mirrors the other but, when he shoots the dog he actually shoots Marie-Jeanne.
Maurice ends up in an asylum for the criminally insane, clearly drugged and given electro-shock. He is removed by Max who names him Dead Dog and begins his education or, perhaps, that should say reprogramming. “Nosferatu” he is told “signifying nocturnal predatory, but lets go by the denomination VAMPIRE”. The scenes are wonderfully surreal but we discover that, due to the vampiric reaction to sunlight, they create ghouls.
Ghouls are beings enslaved by their master’s blood (injected like a drug). They are stronger, do not age, are resilient and can go in the sun. They drive prey towards their masters. When asked who is at the top of the food chain Dead Dog replies the ghouls – the response is “I need the right answer, Dead Dog, not the truth.” To me this is one of the most poignant lines in the film, signifying the entire undercurrent of the narrative. The drug simile is rather accurate and after the torturous education Dead Dog is rewarded with his fix
We see the decades pass, an endless parade of killing in the name of his vampire master, Prince, and discover that there is an enemy of Prince and he is a vampire named Duc Gael (Samuel Gally). Things reach a peak when a vampire ally of Prince, Siegfried (Pierre Biton), is slain in a club - shot and then staked he explodes in flames. Dead Dog was deliberately distracted by a girl – Pussy Cat. He is ordered to find her but discovers that she sports the exact same tattoo that Marie-Jeanne wore; it is enough to have him rebel…
The film is marvellous to look at and wonderfully inventive. The programming of Dead Dog and subsequent reprogramming is wonderfully surreal in such a way that it is almost Jean Rollin reminiscent and yet manages to maintain a tightness in focus that perhaps Rollin sometimes lacked. This is perhaps due to the graphic novel-like nature of the film or just because of the excellent structure that the Decallion Brothers maintain throughout.
We get very little in the way of lore other than that which I have already mentioned. The vampires are telepathic but we learn little about them and this is because they are seldom in the film. This is why I said that the film approaches the genre at a new angle. We are not seeing the film from the point of view of the vampire, the hunter or the victim. We are firmly in the world of the servants, the ghouls. Yet we can never shake away the presence of the vampires, looming like shadows behind all that occurs.
When I watch a vampire film I am already thinking, during its running time, about the subsequent review. As I watched this I thought to myself that it was certainly looking like an eight out of ten but that score could drop dependant upon what was done with the Dead Dog back story, depending on how it was explained and resolved. The answer was it wasn’t and that was the perfect way for the film to go. We don’t know why he did what he did, not for certain.
You see, the film has story elements breaking through the ground like bleached bones, fractured and incomplete and yet the incomplete narrative is not a problem, rather it is a deliberate device. Rather than be frustrating it becomes part of the pattern of the film and there is enough clue and exposition to lead one to explore the possibilities of what has happened rather than become frustrated with lack of resolution. We are watching through the eyes of a peon, we will never know the whole truth as he is only told enough to lead him along the path he treads.
This was a marvellous experience, a film surreal and thoughtful, beautifully drawn around us. Flashes of violence pepper through a film that leaves us exploring all we have seen once the film has ended. Various visual effects and film treatments keep the imagery interesting and lure us deeper into the world that the Decaillon Brothers draw around us. Certainly not for everyone, the film’s arthouse soul may put some off, but to me films should be challenging more often. I mentioned what I felt the score should be as I watched the movie and, as it concluded and then subsequently swam around my mind, it maintained a well deserved 8 out of 10.
At the time of review there is no imdb page but the film has a MySpace page here.
Monday, August 03, 2009
Directors: Julien & Benoit Decaillon