Dans la forêt. 2016. Directed by Gilles Marchand. Screenplay by Marchand & Dominik Moll.
Starring Jérémie Elkaïm, Timothé Vom Dorp, Théo Van de Voorde, Mika Zimmerman, & Sophie Quinton.
Les Films de Françoise/Götafilm International/Film i Väst
Not Rated. 103 minutes.
Mental illness has been demonised all across fiction. Ironically, Dans la forêt actually uses imagery suggestive of the devil, informed by folklore + superstition, and still manages to treat mental illness with intelligence. Gilles Marchand’s film takes an allegorical form, where every little thing becomes symbolic. From city to forest, the settings/all that inhabits them takes on significance. The story itself focuses on a divorced father taking his two young boys on a trip with him to a cabin in the woods. What begins as quaint adventure into a rural space becomes a strange, at times horrific odyssey.
Part of why Marchand does so well with his subject matter is not only allegory, it’s also in the way the audience’s experience of the plot mirrors the unsure state of mind one goes through watching someone deal with serious mental illness. Specifically, the father seems to suffer from schizoaffective disorder. Watching him unravel, now and then, also begs the question: is what we’re seeing reality, or HIS reality? The answer becomes clearer as the movie wears on. However, like many great works of art, the answer is never concrete. In the end, the ultimate meaning of the allegory rests in how the viewer interprets the youngest son’s journey in particular.
“It is he who keeps me from sleeping”
At first, the father (Jérémie Elkaïm) could easily be seen as simply having a general mental breakdown. He’s suffering after a divorce from his wife, he can’t bear to look at her in old pictures of their family or when she’s on FaceTime with the boys. After a scene at his job, it’s implied he might’ve gotten fired when he skips work the next day, or he doesn’t plan on returning. There’s a manic feeling to the way he whisks his sons off to go trekking through the forest to an old cabin.
The forest is a metaphysical place, as if the mind itself— a recurring theme throughout. Sooner than later the idea of schizoaffective disorder rears its head, too. It appears in both the father and his youngest boy Tom (Timothé Vom Dorp), they share a deeper connection than dad and his oldest boy Benjamin (Théo Van de Voorde). Signs of schizoaffective disorder come up in symbolism and also in sly pieces of dialogue. For instance, dad starts grabbing his tongue at one point asking Tom if his tongue looks big, too long— indicative of tactile hallucinations, exacerbating our constant worry about his mental state decaying while being alone and isolated with his boys.
Most compelling is when schizoaffective disorder/schizophrenia symptoms appear in young children – late adolescence/early adulthood is when many people experience their initial symptoms – they often blame an outside entity. Usually said entity winds up being the devil. No coincidence Tom believes he’s starting to see the devil, after seeing a man with a harelip (Mika Zimmerman). The man appears in the city, at dad’s apartment building, before they ever enter the rural space of the forest.
It’s worth a note how Dans la forêt uses folklore and superstition to inform its symbolism surrounding devil-man’s appearance. During the 17th century while people were driven into hysteria over so-called witchcraft, a child born with a harelip was said to be proof of its mother having relations with Satan. Marchand presents us with a silent man – clothing singed, sporting a harelip – creeping along the periphery in the darkness and influencing the kid and his father.
It isn’t only Tom who considers the presence of the devil— his father believes this devil is the reason he doesn’t sleep, why he’s deteriorating. Many people who suffer with schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder make themselves worse due to denial. Essentially, the father’s in an outright state of denial, blaming the devil for his mental illness instead of seeking proper help.
An interesting distinction Marchand + co-writer Dominik Moll make is between types of evil. Mental illness is evil, people with it it are not. It’s evil only in the sense those of us with it, no matter how serious, have no control— we can’t cure ourselves, we can only manage the illness to the best of our abilities. Then there’s the evil in things by which we’re controlled, such as parents and society. Here, the devil doesn’t appear sinister, he’s rather gentle. The father appears to us as sinister. We’re never sure if he kills Benjamin or not until the end. We’re constantly concerned he may murder Tom, as well. But the devil’s never gone.
Tom makes it out of the forest after he figuratively and literally embraces the devil, who carries Tom out and lays him someplace safe. When Tom wakes up he’s in a place where machinery is clear cutting trees— a metaphorical clearing of the mind, if we consider the forest itself a metaphysical space. Yet later, Tom tries concealing the devil’s existence from his brother. Marchand finishes the film on a few static shots of the forest moving through seasons, all the way to a frozen winter landscape. The suggestion is dad’s dead, out there somewhere, but the devil continues existing, the schizoaffective disorder remains in Tom’s mind. What seemed like a positive may only indicate the boy is learning to suppress his disorder outwardly, out of fear it might somehow infect others, like his father before him.
“He swallows everything”
Dans la forêt balances a delicate line. Where it succeeds best is, despite the devil as a symbolic character in an allegorical tale about mental illness, the plot+story never devolve into violence. There’s an air of potential horror, where the audience will worry if the father is going to do something drastic, a large reason for the perpetual air of suspense and tension. Other, lesser films might have gone that route, whereas Marchand and Moll write a smart story, opting for a less melodramatic and stereotypical vision of the effects of mental illness on a fractured family.
There’s enough subject matter and thematic material here to talk about for weeks. An under-seen film in North America, though it’s available through various VOD platforms online. I urge anyone interested in allegory, metaphor, and mental illness to check this film out. There’s many ways of reading Dans la forêt. This is but one of them.