Contemporary French Horror Comes Of Age With Inside's Female Villain
France's contributions to cinema are among the world's greatest, but its horror offerings have been pretty meager, especially compared to Italy. It's produced Georges Franju's classic 1960 Eyes Without a Face and cult auteur Jean Rollin, but little else. In the past few years, a few young French directors have turned to horror movies as a gateway to Hollywood, but the likes of High Tension and Them didn't live up to the hype. With 2007's Inside, undistributed in the U.S. and out this week on DVD, France has finally made a horror movie of which it can be proud. Directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo may have made it as a résumé padder--their next project is a remake of Clive Barker's Hellraiser--but they don't lack ambition or talent.
Inside's Sarah (Alysson Paradis) survives a car accident that kills her husband. Nine months pregnant, she plans to spend Christmas Eve alone before inducing labor in the hospital on Christmas. A mysterious woman (Béatrice Dalle), who goes unnamed, knocks on her door. Suspicious, Sarah doesn't let her in, calling the police. Distracted by nearby riots in Paris' suburban slums, they arrive but don't do their job very thoroughly. Dalle returns, stalking Sarah. It eventually becomes clear that she wants to perform a homemade C-section, cutting Sarah's baby out of her stomach and claiming it as her own.
Although written and directed by men, the movie's anxieties rest on motherhood, including the awful possibility of killing one's own mother. Inside is a disreputable cousin to a number of female-directed French movies that flirt with bodily horror, such as Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (which also starred Dalle), Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, and Marina de Van's In My Skin. Its sexual politics are hard to pin down, which makes them all the more compelling.
Inside isn't exactly feminist--it gets too much pleasure out of a woman's pain. Nevertheless, it's not simply misogynist either. It takes place in a world where women both inflict and suffer violence while men are disposable victims. They're absolutely useless at rescuing Sarah; despite the appearance of several possible candidates, no patriarch saves the day.
Inside also creates one of the horror genre's few iconic female villains, a potential new Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Even before her actions become overtly threatening, Dalle exudes menace and weirdness. Inside calls for a brooding, charismatic intensity that few actresses can deliver, and it takes real chops to act as bizarre and demonic as the scissor-wielding Dalle does and still come across as a believable person. For most of its running time, the movie offers no explanation of Dalle's obsession with another woman's unborn child, although it's a real, if extremely rare, mental illness.
And much like Dario Argento's best work, Inside mixes formal beauty and extreme violence. Without copying J-horror directly, its use of light and shadow suggests the influence of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. When it comes to piling on gore, Maury and Bustillo are anything but subtle, but they know how to use sound design and darkness to suggest as much as they show. Their direction contributes greatly to the nightmarish atmosphere.
The Genius/Dimension Extreme DVD comes with one bonus, a documentary on the making of Inside. While full of the usual testimonials about how great everyone was to work with--as well as a producer's laughable comment that the movie has "no pointless violence"--it suggests that the set was stressful and anguished. Paradis shows a remarkable lack of vanity, while Dalle insisted on wearing a hoodie on the set to cover up her more grotesque makeup effects.
Without wanting to overstate its modest but very real merits, Inside plays like the splatter equivalent of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, examining the boundaries between life and death. Sarah's fate is akin to Mr. Lazarescu's; both movies track a person gradually being beaten down and turned into a lifeless object. (By the end of Inside, Sarah is bathed in blood from head to toe.) In metaphorical terms, there's something interesting going on here: Dalle incarnates the fate awaiting all of us as one generation gives way to the next. As gory as Inside is, and as much as it clearly revels in upsetting squeamish viewers, there's nothing cathartic about its violence. Improbably but quite effectively, it manages to unite horror fanboy glee and real tragedy.