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.
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.
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.
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.
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.