Monday, August 27, 2012

Livid – review

Directors: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury

Release date: 2011

Contains spoilers

Vampire films that emerge from left field are great fun, for me, because I tend to keep an eye on production and release of films from the genre and then to just stumble across a new one in a store with no knowledge of it at all… it triggers a real sense of discovery.

So I sat down and watched Livid, a French language film by the directors Bustillo and Maury and was lost within a stylised, gothic and brutal world of adult fairy tale. If I were looking for a comparison, on the fairy tale level, I might cite Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Not that this film marks a passage into womanhood but that both are fairy tales, dark, bloody and adult.

reminiscent of Rollin
It begins with a beach and it immediately brought the works of Jean Rollin to mind, the beach being a favoured location, and then we see a human face decaying in the sand, followed by urban/social decay a car abandoned, boats rusted, beached and titled, and cemeteries. Finally we see (what appeared to be) missing posters. It is Halloween, day time, and sat beneath them, in a bus shelter, is Lucie Klavel (Chloé Coulloud). A car pulls up and the driver, Catherine Wilson (Catherine Jacob), checks it is Lucie.

Chloé Coulloud as Lucie
Lucie gets into the car. Wilson is a nurse employed to visit elderly patients in their homes and Lucie is a new trainee, with her for two weeks. Wilson notices that Lucie has eyes of two colours (with a further suggestion of Strabismus) and suggests that it indicates two souls, she asks if Lucie smokes (denied but a lie) and suggests the girl calls her Catherine but Lucie prefers to call her Madame Wilson. We follow them on their first couple of visits, in which Wilson proves to be quite jaded and Lucie displays a caring side. Then they reach the gates of a large mansion on the moors… Wilson tells her to wait in the car.

Madame Jessel
Lucie is quickly bored and ignores the woman, following her into the grounds – we later hear that the mansion on the moors is the stuff of local legend – the mansion itself is dilapidated, overgrown but Lucie goes in and climbs the stairs, eventually entering the room where she heard Wilson speaking. Inside is an ancient looking woman called Madame Jessel (Marie-Claude Pietragalla), who is comatose, on a respirator, with an intravenous blood transfusion and whose nails have grown into talons. Wilson seems more impressed that Lucie followed than angry. Jessel, she explains, was a famous ballet teacher but is now trapped in a coma. Lucie questions why she has blood transfusions but Wilson does not know, explaining that she is no doctor. Wilson has Lucie pick a book at random, from nearby shelves, and when she opens it a moth flies out (we’ll come back to moths). Jessel wears a key round her neck and Wilson suggests that there is rumour of treasure but she has tried every lock and never found it. Madame Jessel was said to have had one daughter, Anna (Chloé Marcq), who was mute and is long dead.

the slaughtered lamb
Lucie is dropped at the docks where she waits for her boyfriend, William (Félix Moati), who works a fishing boat with his father. Whilst we wait we see Wilson drive past a girl on a bike, the film image screeches to a halt and it is no surprise later when we see her butchering the girl in a bath. Lucie and William then go to the bar run by William’s mother, where his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) works. The bar’s sign should be noted here, and the name, which I understand translates to the Slaughtered Lamb (and of course the mansion is on the moors). This is all in reference, of course, to An American Werewolf in London.

Lucie mentions Jessel’s house and the treasure but gets upset when he suggests robbing the woman. We discover that Lucie’s father has money woes (since her mother died) and that William has been in jail. She goes home to find that her father is moving a new woman in (it has been eight months since her mother died), this makes her summon a vision of her mother, a suicide, and pushes her to decide to contact the brothers and arrange to rob Jessel. There is an eerie moment en route where they are surrounded by a group of costumed trick or treaters and a moment on the moor where Lucie finds a will-o’-the-wisp. This is reminiscent of the blue flames seen by Harker as he is transported to the castle in Dracula and also is tied in with vampire folklore as grave lights (a similar phenomenon) can be reported in allegedly vampire haunted graveyards.

undead mechanical
They manage to find one basement window through which they can enter the house and explore it. The house is a visual treat for the audience, a decaying monstrosity with taxidermy (including a mechanised doll’s tea party where all the dolls have taxidermy animal heads). Eventually they find a locked door and get Jessel’s key. The door is not opened by the key – Ben breaks it down – but inside they find the corpse of Anna, in a ballerina’s outfit and placed on a clockwork mechanism that the key activates – she is the centrepiece of a life sized music box and this is the hidden treasure.

Jessel awakens
Once the corpse dances all Hell breaks loose, though Lucie realises that the girl with her eyes pinned shut is not actually a corpse (rather she is undead). In flashback we see that Anna (and her mother) are vampires but her mother – pushing her dancing – broke her back and then added in a mechanical device to make her a permanent ballerina. I don’t want to spoil too much here on in as it is a surrealist nightmare that should be experienced but it is also from here that I have seen issues raised about the film on IMBd so want to look at these, as it is from here that the film becomes slightly flawed.

ballerina attack
We gain a rush of imagery, mini-ballerinas slitting the throat of an intruder in a room he entered through a mirror, and which has no door, and then the corpse attacking his brother, for instance. Who are the ballerinas, why don’t we see them again, what power possesses that corpse… Nothing is answered and purposefully so, we are transported into a nightmare and in nightmares things do not have to make sense. That said a little more explanation around the lore would have helped.

in the sun
There is an aspect around moths… which was nice. They are shown as a vehicle for a vampire’s soul and this fits in very well with some folklore that shows the moth or the butterfly as the vampire’s soul – as was explored in the film Leptirica. The vampires cannot leave during the day and we see, in flashback, Anna’s face cracking in the sun as she floats in the air – almost like smoke on a breeze. But they can also not escape during the night and we see the house floating in a vortex and this is not explained. Such lack of explanation can be written off as an aspect of nightmares but some will find this frustrating.

Personally, what I found frustrating was a lack of explanation around a final relationship (that I won’t spoil) but ultimately I think the film, like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, is a psychodrama. Unlike the earlier film, however, it doesn’t explore the blossoming of womanhood, rather it explores the loss of a parent – or the escape from parents, perhaps – the problem is that the filmmakers do not make the subject matter clear enough within either the narrative or the imagery, and therein lies the flaw. The images are beautifully macabre, the gore hidden in night shot a little but certainly there and the soundtrack is superb. Ballerina Marie-Claude Pietragalla brings an unnerving otherworldliness to Jessel and Chloé Marcq brings so much to Anna with so little to work with, bar expressions.

taxidermy tea party
Catherine Jacob is interesting as Wilson and Chloé Coulloud gives us a stimulating and sympathetic protagonist as Lucie. Unfortunately I think the brothers worked less well as characters and the actors were given less to work with but, ultimately, they are only pieces in the psychodrama, a means to get from one world to another. The film might be flawed in its ultimate exploration but it is a beautiful nightmare that deserves 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

Great review! I haven't heard of this one either. Your review intrigues me though. I loved Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, so I'll probably enjoy this one. Adding it to my list! Thanks!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Margaret, hope you enjoy it.... just keep in mind it is a feel iro Valerie more than anything, perhaps a genre similarity... but that said I think should you loved Valerie (which you do) you'll get a lot out of this :)