With their second film – after the confrontationally extreme A l’interieur/Inside – Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury deliver an extended homage to France’s greatest contemporary maker of fantasy cinema, Jean Rollin. Beaches, vampires, old houses, female bonding, dolls, poetic flights, 1920s melodramatics, corpses covered with sea-weed and crabs, strong yet odd women – all present and correct. It has a problem with its thinly-conceived and irritating male characters, but they’re only in the film as a delaying tactic and to ensure a body count.
Lucie (Chloé Coulloud), a wall-eyed trainee nurse, begins an apprenticeship with the experienced Wilson (Catherine Jacob) – accompanying the older woman on home visits to the elderly and incapable. Lucie is given the option of not coming along on a to see a particularly demanding customer, a comatose former ballet teacher Jessell (Marie-Claude Pietragalla) – a former mistress at the Frieburg Tanz Akademie from Suspiria – who lies alone in a vast, cluttered mansion rumoured to contain a fortune hidden away. There are hints at the bleakness of the locality – missing children posters – and Lucie is still having odd visions of her mother (Béatrice Dalle, of Inside, in a wordles yet iconic cameo), who committed suicide. Her father wants to move his new girlfriend into the flat, and her fisherman boyfriend William (Félix Moati) seizes on her news to suggest a spot of burglary to net the old woman’s treasure – bringing along his marginally more sensible bartended brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) to help. The evening kicks off with creepy kids chanting the Silver Shamrock jingle from Halloween III before the sun goes down, and gets worse as the trio break into the house and find themselves trapped. Lucie laments that committing burglary with these two guys was a mistake, and the two crooks irritatingly wayward mood-swings and irrational acts are played slightly too broadly, as if the basic situation weren’t suspenseful enough.
The backstory of the diva includes a mute daughter-pupil Anna (Chloé Marcq) who disappointed her mother and has been transformed into a clockwork mannequin as part of a life-size music box. The house also includes a mad hatters’ tea-party with stuffed, part-human, part-animal attendees, and the expected booby-traps (veiled child-sized slasher killers) and secret spaces – but not, it seems, the treasure which has been the lure. The comatose woman is up and about, and we realise she’s a vampire – which prompts a mood-shift as we get away from suspense stuff about crooks caught in a tricky house (imagine a very goth bric-a-brac version of The Collector) into more poetic, fantastical material that involves an attempt to resurrect Anna in Lucie’s body which doesn’t pan out the way the monster matriarch expects because her daughter feels more kinship with the victim (also haunted by a mad mother) than she is supposed to and because Lucie has a special quirk of her own which dovetails with what’s done to her. Some have found the finale hard to take (check out the IMDb for the usual saddening but-it-made-my-head-hurt whining from folks who want their horror grounded and digestible), but it strikes me as a perfect, affecting way to play out the story and well in keeping with the surreal finishes of Lips of Blood or The Living Dead Girl (or, from Italy, The House By the Cemetery or Dellamorte Dellamore). It has new wrinkles on the vampire legend (when caught outdoors in sunlight, these vampires become insubstantial and start to float upwards) and draws on some less-familiar if well-established elements too (the blue flame will o’ the wisps from the first chapter of Dracula). And, yes, it’s a very beautiful movie.