From French Film

La chambre des morts: Better Than a French Demme Knock-Off

La chambre des morts. 2007. Directed & Written by Alfred Lot; based on the novel by Franck Thilliez.
Starring Mélanie Laurent, Laurence Côte, Éric Caravaca, Gilles Lellouche, Jonathan Zaccaï, Céline Sallette, Fanny Cottençon, Nathalie Richard, Jean-François Stévenin, & Stéphane Jobert.
Métropole Film Distribution/Mongrel.
Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Crime/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER La chambre des morts, translated into English roughly becomes Room of Death, is a solid and under-seen French thriller that folds together crime, some horror, and a ton of mystery into a film which many compare to The Silence of the Lambs. Not sure exactly why that is, or well, I know why that is but don’t agree. I love The Silence of the Lambs, don’t get me wrong. However, the relationship between these two films only comes because of the hunt for a serial killer, supposedly intelligent psychopaths, and of course a strong female detective. These are big elements of the Thomas Harris adaptation.
Yet La chambre des morts isn’t a copy or a cheap knock-off. It doesn’t even particularly do any homage to the Jonathan Demme Hannibal Lecter romp. It remains its own film and provides us with enough macabre, sick thrill that you can easily find charm without relying on comparisons to other cinema. One major reason for why the film works is because it doesn’t stick with all the time honoured tropes of the crime-thriller genre. Neither does it totally rely on the stomping grounds of Clarice Starling in order for it to sell the fact women drive its plot. Writer-director Alfred Lot adapts the novel of the same by Franck Thilliez – a book I’ll soon need to track down a copy of – and he almost dares us to assume what’s about to happen next. Using strong directorial choices alongside the powerful acting talent of the lead cast, Lot crafts La chambre des morts into a work of crime-thriller cinema that’s worth far more than being relegated to the realm of a French Demme homage.
This has a lot to offer. Certainly one of my favourite French thrillers between 2000 and 2010. I do love some of the New French Extremity films which came out just before and around the same time as this one. However, there’s something to be said for a subtle, well paced, morbidly exciting work of mystery.
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I’m always a sucker for a good screenplay that’s capable of weaving several genres into one. Especially if it’s done seamlessly. Some of the best examples, in my opinion, are the classic Alfred Hitchcock slasher spawning Psycho and Zack Parker’s more contemporary horror-thriller Proxy. At the start, you begin to imagine this is less of a police procedural mixed with a serial killer dramatic thriller, and more a small, personal crime drama. Instead, the screenplay by Lot keeps you wondering. From one scene to the next, you’re never quite sure where things are headed. The plot and its events even get weird from time to time, in the best sense. Certain movies can fall into the trap of trying too hard if they’re switching between different elements, such as this one how it hops between the procedural format (similar to Demme’s classic) and the outright grim atmosphere of a mysterious horror. This is exactly where Lot gets it right with his directing style and writing. He balances the separate elements in a way that comes together perfectly near the end. There’s almost a Gothic-type feel to this story, as well. Not sure if that comes predominantly from the novel by Thilliez, or if this is something instilled by the director-writer Lot. Either way, the finale of the film does have a slight Demme-esque moment where you feel like Lucie is very much right next to Starling in spirit, but the Gothic tone and setting gives this a unique twist, allowing it to exist in a space with all its own creepiness.
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The female element in this story is what drives my interest most. Not often are there serial killer films which tackle a woman’s perspective. Certainly not one which extends to several lead characters. Even The Silence of the Lambs remained focused solely on Clarice Starling, and that was excellent. La chambre des morts is able to encompass several different aspects of womanhood: the main character Mélanie Laurent plays whose responsibilities lie between being a tough single mother to being a tough police officer tackling gruesome murder cases; likewise, one of her superiors is female whereas other movies might opt for a typical older policeman; and well, you’ll figure out the other one.
So for a crime-thriller, this one finds itself in a small group where women get to take on the serial killer, they get to play all the roles usually reserved for men. With somebody like Laurent, the main character Lucie is so well performed. She isn’t some typical cop, neither in writing nor in how Laurent portrays her. Lucie is not a burnt out detective, she’s not particularly cynical or optimistic. She sits somewhere in the middle; a new mother, a woman that takes her job seriously and knows it just as well. We’re always going to be reminded of Jodie Foster as Clarice when it comes to these types of films. Although Laurent injects this character with enough of her own talent to not let this role be defined by another. This is the first movie in which I’d seen Laurent and I’ve gone on to enjoy her hugely in Enemy most of all. She’s an excellent actor.
Both Laurence Côte and Céline Sallette are equally as compelling as Laurent. The story of their characters alone is interesting enough. But more than just that they give us highly emotional performances that are tragic. Between the flashbacks and their relationship within the frame of the film’s plot we discover the deep sadness that exists within these women. Most of all, I love that these characters are women because so often men get these complex nasty characters they play while women, in crime-thrillers such as this, often wind up as the nagging wife to a career oriented cop, or some other stock character of the genre. Here, Côte and Sallette play terrifying people, though they are the complex and rich sort of characters women are not yet afforded enough. This is a great example of how interesting a serial killer thriller can get if only you allow for atypical characters that Hollywood isn’t giving much of, if at all. Between these two and Laurent this film is stacked with talent that adds authenticity and, more importantly, emotional weight to the writing.
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This movie is far too slept on by many. If you have an aversion to subtitles, get over it and start watching these get French films you’re missing out on! La chambre des morts is absolutely worth watching. Not only does it have a fresh perspective, the story and its various plots come together in such a fascinating way that it provides an exciting finale to take you through its conclusion. Laurent helps sell a huge part of the film, as do Côte and Sallette. In fact, all the supporting cast do a spectacular job with their roles, too. Nobody misses their mark.
The direction of Lot and his adapted screenplay from Thilliez’s novel makes for such a wonderful experience that I’m honestly at a loss as to why more people don’t know (and love) this movie. All the unique elements work together, which are exciting, disturbing, wild. That leaves the rest of us who’ve found our way to Lot’s movie a little French treat that is likely to remain in your mind long after those credits roll across the screen.

Dealer’s Refn-Inspired Parisian Crime

Dealer. 2014. Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot. Screenplay by Samy Baaroun & Herbulot.
Starring Dan Bronchinson, Elsa Madeleine, Salem Kali, Bruno Henry, Hervé Babadi, Dimitri Storoge, Fatima Adoum, Didier Mérigou, Emmanuel Bonami and Franck Boss. Multipass Productions/Mad Films-Mi.
Unrated. 75 minutes.
Action/Crime/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER
Ever since Nicolas Winding Refn brought the Copenhagen drugworld out in all its gritty, raw glory with Pusher twenty years ago, many other filmmakers have tried their best to attain the same level of magic with their own tales of the mean streets in various countries. Most recently, I loved Gerard Johnson’s Hyena, which definitely pulled from Refn yet kept its own vibe in tact with lots of dubious police morality, a few nasty splashes of blood and plenty of the ole ultraviolence.
And now, we have Jean Luc Herbulot coming at us with the 2014 crime-thriller Dealer. There are absolutely bits and pieces of the film which exhibit influences of Refn. At the same time, there’s a little more action here, more dialogue, and certainly there’s the differing narration in this movie which sets it apart from any of its influences, Refn or otherwise. And while it isn’t a perfect crime-thriller there are a ton of impressive sequences, well-written scenes, as well as debilitating moments of violent action which propel us into the French underworld, filled with odd and quirky characters, drug dealing pieces of shit, murderers, and a whole lot more. Herbulot may not succeed on every note, hitting a few that call to mind too much other films. But outside of that, Dealer is a lot of fun – grim fun, at that. If what you’re looking for is another guided tour through the drug life of a middle man dealer in the gutters of Paris, or what could be any major city with a taste for illegal substances, then this is certainly a film you don’t want to pass up.
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Always dreaming of going to Australia with his daughter, drug dealing Dan (Dan Bronchinson) is in a bad way. His life isn’t exactly stellar, trying to navigate a rocky relationship with separated wife Léna (Maïa Bonami), sleeping with a prostitute named Chris (Elsa Madeleine), all the while attempting to exit the cocaine business to make his dreams come true.
When Dan is offered a once in a lifetime opportunity he must remain a little longer as a cocaine dealer. Except in a twist of fate, the drugs he’s given – worth 70,000 francs – end up disappearing, which leads Dan and his tenuous associates on a fast thrill ride through the underbelly of Paris looking for the culprit. And worst of all, his family finds themselves in the cross-hairs of his disgusting business, and the conclusion will be tough; for every last person involved.
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One sequence I loved is where Dan walks the streets, mourning the loss of his cocaine and stressing over where to get the money he owes for it. His red jacket is the only colour visible in the frame for a while, as he smokes and pushes through crowds of people. Best of all, he sees everything from cellphones to shoes to jackets, and more, with price tags next to them. Tallying up how much he’d have to steal and hawk in order to make up the 70,000 francs, which is the equivalent of nearly $100,000 in American and Canadian dollars. This whole sequence is great and gives us more than just the raw style director Herbulot goes for most of the film; not to say I don’t enjoy that, it’s just nice to see more than one technique displayed.
Above all, it’s the intense pacing of the film I enjoyed. Whereas many crime-thrillers, particularly those with twisty plots, sometimes find themselves with a slow pace due to heavy dialogue, too much exposition, or any number of issues, Dealer succeeds in keeping things fast paced, exciting, from the very beginning straight into the finale. That’s one thing that helps Herbulot distance his movie from Refn – not that he needs to, but you know what I mean. The fact Herbulot keeps the film speeding from scene to scene is impressive work, as we could easily find ourselves bogged down in so many details, too many characters, too much violence. However, this never ever happens. Not once was I looking at my watch, as has happened in the past with other similar films. In fact, the 75 minute runtime whittles away incredibly quick, and I was surprised during the final 15 minutes when I realized everything was almost finished. The lasting impact of the few final scenes is especially resonant. Again, it brings to mind quite a bit of the way Refn ended his first Pusher. Although, I found the writing here from both Herbulot and Samy Baaroun leaves Dealer in a much more intense, chaotic, and even scary place. Refn did a much better job on the whole, but Herbulot could certainly pick up and make his own Pusher sequel, that’s how well executed this film comes off.
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With a few pieces I thought could’ve been fine tuned a little more, Dealer is still a 3.5 out of 5 star crime-thriller. Plenty of action, lots of the grime and grit we seem to expect these days from stories such as this, and on top of that the performances are full of energy, which matches the pace Herbulot and Baaroun set with their screenplay. You can certainly do a whole lot worse if you’re looking for a thrilling crime film to pass the time. Apparently the lead actor has experience in this sort of world, quoted as saying almost 70% of it is straight out of his own life. So that’s another wild aspect. Regardless, this holds excitement, brutality, and even the rare touching moment near the end. Dealer certainly keeps up the future of crime films, joining the ranks of Refn, Gerard Johnson and others who have depicted the criminal underbelly of the world in a highly stylized and intriguing fashion. I’ll be keeping Herbulot on my radar from now on. Hopefully he’ll follow up with something equally as impressive.

White Skin Seeps Into Your Blood

Peau Blanche a.k.a White Skin. 2004. Directed by Daniel Roby. Screenplay by Daniel Roby; based on the novel by Joël Champetier.
Starring Marc Paquet, Marianne Farley, 
Frédéric Pierre, Jessica Harris, Julie LeBreton, Lise Roy, Joujou Turenne, Raymond Cloutier, Marcel Sabourin, and Jude-Antoine Jarda.
Zone Films.
Rated 14A. 89 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Mystery

★★★★
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I’ve been a longtime user of the Internet Movie Database, though not a fan of the message boards; mostly I dig trying to level out the ratings even in the slightest sense as one man, as well as doing shorter reviews for a few choice films here and there. As someone who’s seen 4,100 films and counting, I find it hard to just ask people “Hey can you suggest a movie for me?” because honestly – not trying to be grand here like a know-it-all, not trying to impress – but after that many movies it is damn near impossible for most people I know, who aren’t film buffs, to come up with something I’ve not seen. So, I end up turning to a lot of lists; other than a good friend of mine, a filmmaker by the name of Ben Noah, not many people in my circle(s) of friends are actually huge into movie watching.
Many lists, horror and otherwise darkly toned, end up suggesting La peau blanche (English title – which I’ll use from here on out: White Skin). The cover art alone always stuck with me, very literal with the white skin yet intriguing nonetheless. The guy on the front is white but a little less so, his eyes extremely blue. All contrast against the woman, her gingery near blonde hair flowing, then her face and neck almost disappearing into one as a wave of white skin, reddish lips around the middle. I’m often reeled in by interesting artwork for movies, some times this doesn’t work at all. But there’s something about a cool looking poster that can get me interested immediately. Not only that, when I hear words like cannibalism, vampire, succubus – these sorts of things – I tend to perk up even more. Add to all this the fact White Skin is a Canadian film, you’ve got yourself an interesting bit of work.
White-Skin_bedroom-lovageThierry (Marc Paquet) and Henri (Frédéric Pierre) end up in a hotel with a couple hookers one night. During their encounter, one of the women attacks Henri, leaving his neck bloody and wounded. While Henri’s family is out for justice, neither he nor Thierry obviously wants to pursue things any further due to the fact of what they’d actually been up to.
A little while later, Thierry ends up seeing a woman in the subway playing the flute. Strangely enough he finds himself attracted to her, even though he earlier admitted to one of the prostitutes that redheads make him sick, all due to their incredibly white skin; he says seeing the veins under the skin turns him off. Yet somehow this woman, Claire Lefrançois (Marianne Farley), turns out to lure him. One night he sneaks in to watch her play piano at a recital. Further and further he’s drawn to Claire, until they start to see one another regularly. Despite the fact she insists they ought not see each other any longer. Thierry falls harder by the minute, almost to the point of physical deterioration. Mentally he begins to slip, from school to everyday life. He discovers Claire has cancer. Of course he stays right by her side.
But once there are even wilder, more dramatic revelations, Thierry discovers an entirely different world existing right below the one he used to know.

We could discuss what’s eating you

The U.S. title for this movie is awfully on-the-nose. Too much. Part of the enjoyment here is the slow build. You know there’s something not quite right. Very clearly once Claire starts telling Thierry he should forget her, it’s apparent. But getting there, the journey is what’s important. Cheesy, and true. Not only is there an excellent plot development happening over the course of the film, the weird love story itself is pretty good. I’ve seen complaints in reviews online that this was an area where the screenplay lacked. Now I’ve never read the original novel this is based on, so perhaps that’s got something to do with it in comparison. However, I find the movie has a few amazing scenes where the love story comes out. You might say the entire thing is a love story. It’s more of a mystery, filled with drama and horror. Definitely a dark fantasy sort of feel at times, like a modern day fairy tale. So to each their own. White Skin definitely has an interesting story at its core, as well as it surprised me at times when I had no idea where things were headed.
defautcEven more than all that, the relationships are solid. Particularly I loved Thierry and his friend Henri. They have such a complex dynamic, not usual in a lot of films; something Canadian movies are always doing, the unusual in such a perfect way. There are numerous tense moments between Thierry and Henri, though, they feel like actual friends, as opposed to two characters written into a forced relationship. There are both sides of the coin – good times, bad times. So I think in a short time this friendship comes across well, the actors and the screenplay together make for proper character development between the two.
When all the horror aspects come flooding out, the movie gets fairly tense. Consistently I was never sure what might happen next. And man – did the ending ever catch me by surprise! It’s an odd finish to the film, yet at the same time it was fitting. Completely. It’s as if everything tangles into a big mix near the middle, then the last 15-20 minutes becomes pretty wild in moments, as well as some blood/gore sneaks in. All in all, I found the good relationships + the entire screenplay built up excellent tension. Afterwards, all the mysterious horror which breaks through only serves to be the cherry on top, so to speak. In the end, that big jumble of themes and character/plot development unravels into a nice finale.

I’m giving this a 4 out of 5 star rating. White Skin is a film all Canadians should see, simply to support homegrown cinema. Furthermore, it does a great job with all the elements from drama to mystery to horror. The movie is low budget compared to Hollywood, clocking in with one million dollars. At the same time, I don’t feel there are many instances where the budget shows in a bad sense. Most of the film is shot wonderfully, the actors are pretty much all competent at the very least, so anyone who says this is “too low budget” is only being foolish. Check this one out if you’re into semi-cannibalistic/vampiric stories, dark fantasy, or even if you just love a nice little mystery. Give it a chance. I was very happy with the DVD purchase – rare film, so I found it on eBay. Soon I’ll do a good DVD review, as there are a few quality special features included.