Monday, 25 October 2010

LFF #2: Deep In The Woods (Benoît Jacquot, 2010)

Well, I didn't see this one coming. The LFF guide proclaims that Deep In The Woods echoes Herzog's The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1972) and Truffaut's L'enfant sauvage (1970) - the latter a particularly interesting case, for its reported roots in fact. These comparisons reflect period setting but the film shares a more recent ancestor. Although it is not thematically similar, the intensity and deranged psycho-sexuality of Jacquot's film recalls Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009). That film dealt with multiple themes including grief and gendercide but to a greater extent it was an essay on misogyny - a dark excursion into the woods where woman took her revenge for years of persecution. Believing her gender to be the root of all evil, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) takes control of "Satan's Garden" (nature) and performs a series of increasingly violent and troublesome acts on herself and her husband (Willem Dafoe). Deep In The Woods is the story of what happened on the other side of the woods, two centuries ago, when a dark magician named Timothée (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) takes control of a woman named Joséphine (Islid Le Besco) for his own perverse fantasies. Much like Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) in L'enfant sauvage, Timothée is primal - as much a part of the earth as the grass and trees. But he's also dangerous. There's a shade to his eyes that speaks of a thousand sins, dirt under his nails and a flicker of his tongue like a snake. The journey will be one of evil...

The first hour of Deep In The Woods is sensational. There will be some who cry out that the film is misogynist - Joséphine, completely entranced by Timothée's dark spell, is stripped and raped several times during the film. She tries to run away but always comes back to him and further into the film she seems to find joy in his sexual assault. She finally sees her repressed reflection in the troubled soul of this young animal, and her primal instincts take over as flesh embraces in a violently erotic way. A scene in a lake sees her embracing him with a smile on her face... is she still under a spell, possessed, or has she been lured to the dark side? Has this man stripped her of her identity for his own animalistic will? Has she become a mere object, both for him and the audience, to take pleasure in leering at? Jacquot's camera spends a lot of time admiring the fractured state of Joséphine's naked body - the lens poring over her flesh - but it is far from misogynist. There are deeper themes at work. The middle third consists of the couples relationship reaching dangerous heights as they have sex in the dark woods - one scene sees Joséphine in control, as she heaves her body over Timothée in a primitive sexual mass. In a way this section recalls Nagisa Ôshima's In The Realm Of The Senses (Ai no korîda, 1976), but abandons the blood red interiors of obsession for a natural foray into instinct and depravity. Fans of that (much criticized) work will remember that the relationship between Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) began with an act of violent molestation and rape. Reportedly based on a true story, that film explored the intensity of dangerous desire, culminating in an unforgettable ending. In fact, put In The Realm Of The Senses, Antichrist and L'enfant sauvage in a blender, with a little bit of Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981) and you've got Deep In The Woods. It just falls apart towards the end.

Jacquot's direction is perfectly fine, wildly improving on the observational coldness (although that was intentional) of last years Villa Amalia. That film was also scored by Bruno Coulais (Coraline, Henry Selick, 2009), one of the most underrated composers working today - who has created a moody, shrieking and evocative score for this film. If the film lets itself down in the final third, the score never does, and it's a shame that a soundtrack CD for this masterwork doesn't appear to be on the horizon. The problem is that the film gives up everything that it was working towards and becomes a strange drama of morals. Joséphine is rescued and Timothée sent to prison, but the film spends too long dwelling on what happened in the woods, and attempting to add some kind of leverage to the actions. It all becomes rather muddled and boring, and what I thought the film was became the centre of a pointless debate. It feels almost like an apology when really what the film needed to do was up the ante and go completely mad - reveling in the disturbance and sexual oddness. It's sad that such a confident film ends with a whimper and not a scream of rage.

Most divisive of all will be the performances. I can't really describe them in words, but Le Besco is hypnotic. Her brave performance is a physical and mental one - her body speaking a thousand words when she can't, in a state of possession. Her violently tilted neck, as if it were broken, and haunted stare into nothingness are incredibly powerful. It's unlike anything else at LFF this year and deserves to be seen by everyone. Like most films this interesting however, it probably won't be. And that's the real shame...

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