Sombre – Philippe Grandrieux
I direct music videos, and I’ve been lucky enough to have three of them premiered here on CVLT NATION – The Gathering for Young and In The Way, Fall With Me for Liar in Wait and Meredith for Empires of Light. I’m really interested in how images can be as powerful as music, and I really want to share with you some of the strangest, most unsettling and powerful films I’ve ever seen. These films may not be widely known outside of a small obsessive audience, but they are all films I think the readers of CVLT Nation will love.
For Sombe, I’m going to steal a user-submitted plot synopsis from imdb (because it’s a perfect description) – “A car, following the Tour de France. Children screaming in front of the puppet show. Women, often prostitutes, trying to scream as they are being strangled. Then he will meet Claire, the virgin who will give herself to him, and perhaps deliver him…”
Why am I recommending this film to you? Because nothing has scared me like this film. Nothing has got under my skin like Sombre. Where as most horror films tell you to look at the monster, Sombre tells you you are the monster.
It’s hard to say anything about this film without saying that the film is mostly very dark and very out of focus. And this is it’s brilliance. But never try to watch it in the daytime. Watch it at night with all the lights off. And get some good headphones or some quality speakers – the film is filled with deep ambient drones (by Suicide’s Alan Vega) that hum like obsessive thoughts in the killer’s head.
It’s a serial killer film with the strangest of plots; a man stalks suburban France nominally following the Tour de France and performing a puppet show to kids; along the way he meets and dispatches a selection of young women. But then (sort of) he falls in love with one of them. And it becomes a (sort of) romance. A really (really) fucked up romance. It’s a great inescapable romance. There is no logic to their love, like all the best relationships you ever had. Everything screams run away, but she can’t escape.
Maybe even this description does not get across the full nerve-wracking, visceral, physical horror of the film. Grandrieux presents us with sense impressions as much as images. Landscapes, a car driving in the hills, crowds, massive silent faces of screaming children, a caravan in the dark. And then the first murder, where body parts and moments of violence emerge from that ever-present oily darkness. The murders are long and suffocating, the hand-held camera nervously and voyeuristically observing. We hear the screams, the gasps for air, the tears and the pleading.
Then we are asked to understand that the killer can and will be loved.
Sombre never tells us why he kills. He just does. There is no comforting reasoning about childhood trauma or the nature of evil. There are no police investigating his crimes. He is unstoppable, not because he is super human, but because everyone else is all too human – too human to care about the fate of others. The victim’s fate is unavoidable. They appear in his car. We never discover his secret technique or the history of the poor souls who he will murder. He kills, there are victims and this is how the world works.
Grandrieux picks all of this out with a roaming hand-held camera, a physical camera that pushes your face into the gloom. Around twenty five minutes in, there is an simple sequence where the killer looks out at a lake. The camera nervously sweeps around and picks out the very edge of a corpse in the bottom of the frame. It jerks away and up to the clouds – it cannot look at the body before returning slowly to rest on the body again. Now it observes obsessively.
We also never know why she stays with him. Maybe she feels that she can save him. It’s not a spoiler to say she doesn’t. In one extended sequence, a parody of first date, he takes her clubbing but forces her to get so drunk beforehand that she can’t run away. She attempts to tell others on the dance floor that she has been kidnapped, but she can’t stop laughing or dancing. No one believes her or listens to her, as all the men want to have her. The scene that follows this has the best ever use of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” A vision of terrifyingly normal horror where we end up wanting the killer to be her saviour. The killer’s urges aren’t so far removed from the guys on the dance floor of any small town night club on a Friday night.
Luckily, the whole film is available on Youtube. You’ll need to be able to speak French to get the most out of it (no subtitles I’m afraid). Even if you just watch that wordless opening, you’ll get some way to experiencing the power of the film. You should then check out his second film, La Vie Nouvelle, which is thankfully mostly in English. Oh and he directed Marilyn Manson’s “Holes into Happiness” video, but I’ll let you decide if you want to watch that.
You can see my own work at jbradburn.tumblr.com or at facebook.com/jpbradburn. If you’re interested in filmmaking or music videos, then get in touch and I’ll be happy to share what I’ve learned so far. If you’ve got films, then I’d love to see them too. Just get in touch at email@example.com