Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Deep in the Woods / Promenons-nous dans les bis (France, 2000)

(Trailer.) Two years after his prize winning horror short Opus 66 (1998), director Lionel Delplanque's proves in his first full-length horror film that he has more than what it takes to make an engrossing, effective and even beautiful horror film.
Promenons-nous dans les bis is a French take on body-count films, and visually it is probably one of the most aesthetic Euro-horror flicks since Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (1971). And, in view of the general lack of acceptance it has been met with in the US, much like Kümel's film, it'll probably take years for Deep in the Woods to get the reputation it deserves. Much like many of the films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava, the Italian masters of blood-drenched cinematographic eye candy, Deep in the Woods is a prime example of style overcoming content – though talking about content in regards to slasher films is a bit of an oxymoron.
The movie's present lack of following can hardly be attributed simply to its bad dubbing. The mistake might possibly lie in part to its packaging: Packaged like a typically brainless by-the-number teen horror film ala Urban Legend (1998/trailer), Valantine (2001/trailer) and hundreds of other straight-to-video fodder, complete with the mandatory group photo of all victims to be, the orientation of the presentation is towards people who like their blood unadulterated, their films without plot or atmosphere or style or irony. This makes about as much sense as trying to sell Delicatessen (1991) as a post-apocalyptic film. True, Delicatessen is indeed a post-apocalyptic film, but face it, people who like Cyborg (1989) or 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) are not going to like that modern French masterpiece from 1991. Deep in the Woods might have too many blatant structural and narrative mistakes towards its resolution – including an unbelievably inept and badly staged final scene – to merit being called a masterpiece, but Delphlanque's film is definitely something different, something new, something beautiful, something special. And definitely not something for the average masses who think that The X-Files or Lost are (or were) alternative, non-mainstream entertainment.
Actually, some of the flaws in the story could possibly not be flaws but rather much too subtle swipes at the stereotypical conventions of the genre. (A situation much like that of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001/trailer), in which he took the piss out of the conventions with such a straight face that all irony died and the end product became not only an example of what it tried to satirise, but a truly unbearably bad example as well). The best example of this in Deep in the Woods is probably the cop (Michel Muller), whose brief appearances leave the viewers scratching their heads. He serves no real purpose other than to be the cop that shows up in every film, to be yet another suspect and (eventual) victim and to set up one of the funniest ironic jokes in the film: Of course he tells everyone not to leave the house (since a rapist-murderer has been followed to the area), but no sooner is he gone than do four of the characters promptly go outside and wander around in the wood, one by one drifting off and disappearing. (No way in hell the director is serious here – hell, he doesn't even bother showing them leave the house, but simply cuts directly to the forest.)
Against all trained expectations, no one dies out there at this point, though we do get treated to a quick scene of the beautifully muscular back and butt of Wilfried (Vincent Lecoeur) as he bonks the beautiful and mute Jeanne (Alexia Stresi). Like most Euro horror, the viewer is treated to a bit more sex and flesh and (what the prudish call) decadence than the average American product. Aside from some full frontal female nudity complete with non-silicon breasts and bush, there is a brief lesbian love scene and some prolonged homoerotic (and one-sided) flirting between the eccentric Baron Axel de Fersen (François Berléand) and Wilfried. And if the victims of the average slasher films are generally faceless stereotypes introduced simply to die, Delphlanque plays with this concept by populating his film primarily with highly attractive "fuckables" with interchangeable personalities. As we all know, beauty is only skin deep; (s)he who is seen as likable and as an asshole changes scene to scene, the anonymity of their background being emphasised through their equal attractiveness, a trick that also serves to make them all equally suspect of being the murderer – at least until the given character dies. (In truth, however, one could also argue that the conventions of the genre are all so stereotypical that they simply gain an irony when they are filmed from a slightly different slant – which, of course, is one of the main aspects behind the average Kevin Williamson script.)
Deep in the Woods opens with a wonderful tracking shot through a keyhole and into a room where a mother is reading Little Red Riding Hood as goodnight story. In a scene that can only be taken as a tribute to Dario Argento's classic opening scene of Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975/trailer), momma does not live long. Aside from setting the stylistic and visual tone of the film, this scene also introduces the reoccurring theme of the classic fairy tale which runs throughout the film. The five victims-to-be are all young actors hired by the wheelchair-bound Baron Fersen to stage a private production of Little Red Riding Hood for the birthday of his decidedly disturbed young nephew Nicolas (Thibault Truffert). Soon after hearing on the radio that a rapist-murderer is believed to be in the area they arrive at the enormous and remote estate, located in the midst of an immense forest. The housekeeper is gone for the night, so they are alone with the eccentric Baron, the autistic Nicolas and the Baron's equally odd gamekeeper Stéphane (Denis Lavant). Their performance over, the Baron soon disappears, his bed bloody, and soon they begin to die one by one, killed by a mysterious person wearing the wolf costume from their own production. Who is the murderer? A stranger or perhaps one of themselves? Who will survive and how can they escape?
Delphlanque plays with the classic questions and situations of the body-count film with style, injecting his film with both atmosphere and a claustrophobic feeling (despite the immense nature of the locations) and more than a little blood. Almost gothic in tone, Deep in the Wood does fall apart towards the end, especially after it begins to concentrate on Sophie (Clotilde Courau), but on the whole it retains a visual aesthetic that is not only seldom found in an English-language mainstream production but is also an appreciatable change from the norm. The murder in the shower alone is worth the price of admission, as is the battery acid in the face followed by an animal trap in the chest.
For all its flaws, Deep in the Wood is definitely a film worth seeing. One can only hope that one day the film will finally be recognized as an unfoundedly ignored and under-seen prime example of contemporary Euro-horror. Odd that since Deep in the Woods Delplanque has only made one other film, an aesthetic but odd (and totally forgotten) political thriller entitled President (2006).

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