Written and Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Starring: Chloť Coulloud, Catherine Jacob, and Marie-Claude Pietragalla
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Itís been four years since French new extreme directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury stabbed their way onto the horror scene with their visceral slasher tour-de-force, Inside. Understandably, they became a hot commodity States-side and ended up getting attached to everything from the Hellraiser remake to Halloween 3; however, as is often the case with those Dimension properties, both became fluid situations, so the two headed back to their homeland to craft Livid. They kept one thing in tow from their flirtation with Hollywood: the Halloween setting, and theyíve also erected a big, creepy mansion that every kid would want to avoid for trick or treating.
The house in question belongs to Jessel (Marie-Claude Pietragalla), who is over a hundred years old and only alive thanks to life support. Lucie (Chloť Coulloud) is a caregiver-in-training whoís charged with the task of monitoring the invalid. When she learns from her supervisor (Catherine Jacob) that Jessel has a hidden fortune in her mansion, Lucie and her boyfriend (who brings his brother along) scheme to break into the house and steal the treasure in order to start a new life for themselves. Instead, they find a literal house of horrors, as decades-old secrets about Jesselís long-deceased daughter emerge to haunt the intruders on All Hallowís Eve.
Thatís a vague way of putting it, anyway; I wonít say more because the nature of the houseís secrets are central to the filmís mystery. However, you might still be left in the dark once you exit the theater, as Livid goes big and bold with some surreal fantasy elements that ultimately cause the film to get away from itself a bit. It really couldnít be more different from Inside; whereas that film was realized with razor sharp, incisive directness, this one sprawls with dreamlike logic and ambiguity. Though it starts quite simply (itís juts a big olí haunted house/heist gone wrong hybrid at first), things get quite elliptical once the narrative begins to reveal itself in clunky fashion via some flashback sequences that provide some hints of just whatís going on. The main thrust of the story is eventually easy to grasp, but the film lurches on for about ten minutes longer than it should--thereís actually perfect ending had Bustillo and Maury shown some restraint.
But itís hard to deny how gorgeous and atmospheric this film is; while its aesthetics donít allow it to completely transcend its narrative missteps, it is a powerhouse of style. Given the title, youíd probably expect a hysterically intense affair, but I donít think itís inspired by the general use of the term ďlivid.Ē Instead, it seems as though Bustillo and Maury had an alternate meaning for the word on their minds: ďimparting a deathlike luminosity.Ē This is obvious from the opening shots of a desolate beach (which has a severed head washed up onto the shore), as weíre introduced to a somber, dreary world thatís completely devoid of joy (which should come as no surprise if youíre familiar with Inside). Much of the film is a low-key affair, particularly early on; in fact, we see a body being eviscerated in a bathtub, and itís presented with a steady, unsettling calmness.
Livid only gets spookier once night falls; the frame is drenched in moody darkness as the characters trek through some foreboding woods. Of course, the ominous landscape seems downright inviting compared to the gigantic gothic mansion thatís everything a haunted house should be: desolate, dank, angular, and decrepit. Thatís just the outside--as youíve probably guessed, the inside isnít exactly hospitable, either. As the trio skulk around the mansion, they stumble onto some eerie stuff; for example, one room houses some life-size marionettes featuring the mounted head of animals--itís like a really bizarre update of Tourist Trap in a way. Eventually, Lucie gets separated from the two guys, which is where most of the action begins to pick up; itís here that she begins to unravel the big mystery, while her companions become slasher fodder.
I donít think itís too much of a spoiler to reveal that Jessel isnít exactly what she seems. She eventually makes for a fine horror villainess due to her pale, sickly visage thatís covered by an oxygen mask. As sheís a former dance teacher, the film takes advantage of that; one of the weirder moments involves a trio of little girls who apparently carry out Jesselís slashing duties, which speaks to the sort of funhouse quality the film is attempting to achieve. On a surface level, it certainly succeeds, as the pure visuals create a moody tension that's punctuated by some stark violence. Rest assured, this is just about as unrelenting as Inside in terms of gore, particularly the pulpy climactic gag, which is quite spectacular. Also, Bustillo and Maury continue to do for scissors what Hitchcock did for butcher knives.
Itís almost become a clichť to describe films like this as a dark fairy tale, but thatís what it feels like. While the old dark house starting point feels like the stuff of urban legends and campfire tales, Livid is a fanciful update of a lot of stale horror elements (if nothing else, it can claim this). Some images, such as the stunning shots of a little girl in a lily-white dress soaked in blood, present that haunting mix of innocence and death thatís reminiscent of the brothers Grimm. At the center of this tale are motifs of love and loss between mother and child; one of the main reasons Lucie decides to go through with the robbery is so she can escape her home, where her dad has already found a new lover just eight months after his wifeís suicide. Lucie is haunted by visions of her motherís strangulated body, and her desire to be with her mother eventually finds a counterpoint in the relationship between Jessel and her own daughter, who shared quite a twisted relationship. These threads entangle in sad, bizarre fashion; this might ultimately be a tale of kindred spirits, both of whom are in search of a better life (it just so happens that death might be better for one).
Livid is quite a mouthful; I honestly canít wait for this movie to open in wide release because the ending is sure to be a talking point. I think Iíve talked myself into begrudgingly accepting the surreal beauty of it (or at least my interpretation of it), but it's still problematic. I have a few more reservations about the film, such as the underdeveloped characters (Chloť Coulloud is strikingly beautiful but isnít given a lot to do besides explore a haunted mansion). The Halloween setting is similarly undercooked, though Bustillo and Maury toss in one of the best horror movie references in recent memory (if youíre thinking Carpenter, youíre only half right). I will say this: Iím very much looking forward to revisiting this film at some point, so it must have done something right. Evocative in style and lyrical in narrative, itís one thatíll probably take a couple of viewings to fully digest. Buy it!
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