French Horror in Romania
Review of
Ils

Corry Cropper and Marc Olivier
Department of French and Italian
Brigham Young University
cropper@byu.edu or marc_olivier@byu.edu

If we decided to review this film by David Moreau and Xavier Palud (described as a “horreur à la française” in Pariscope), it is not because it is a good film. But even bad horror films reveal the deep-seated fears of their intended audience. Ils, in addition to playing on themes of alienation and annihilation, allegorizes and exploits French anxieties about the growth of the European Union.

In the tradition of Spielberg’s Duel, Ils (They) exploits a straightforward cat-and-mouse storyline—one meant to frighten all the more because it is “inspired by real events.” Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) has recently taken a job teaching French in an elementary school in Bucharest. She struggles with Romanian and complains to her boyfriend Lucas (Michaël Cohen) that her students are frequently out of line. She explains that she decided to make her students complete a traditional French dictée in order to “calm them down.”

After spending a happy evening together the two lovers (who live in a large dilapidated and isolated house outside of town) are awakened by mysterious intruders who turn the television set on and off, cut the power and phone lines and otherwise menace the couple who soon barricade themselves in their bedroom. As the danger escalates, Clémentine attempts to escape through the attic where she runs into one of the cloaked intruders and pushes him from the balcony to his death before retreating to her injured companion in the bedroom. While the other assailants attend to their fallen comrade, Clémentine and Lucas escape through the front door and run into the woods. The two separate at a tall fence that Lucas is too weak to climb, deciding to send Clémentine over for help while Lucas cowers in the woods. We soon learn, however, that one side of the fence is no safer than the other as Clémentine is quickly captured. Limping and bleeding, Lucas follows the sound of his companion’s screams through an underground labyrinth of abandoned tunnels until he finds her, held captive by an elementary school-aged boy pushing a bag up to her face: the characteristic paint bag used by Romanian street children to get high.

Only at this point do we realize that the terrifying attackers are all children. After Lucas kills one of them another appears and offers to lead the French adults to safety. He instead leads them to a group of his friends and Clémentine and Lucas are eventually killed. The final scene of the movie shows the children emerging from their underground tunnels to catch the school bus and to go to the school, we presume, where Clémentine has been teaching French. In a text epilogue we learn that the children later admit to the slayings, explaining, “They didn’t want to play with us.”

Since plot and dialogue are minimal, the film’s success hinges entirely on the shock generated by the revelation of the aggressors’ identity. The build-up is so long, however, and the final revelation so tepidly done that it fails to justify the preceding 70 plus minutes of tedium.

Our interest in the film lies instead in what it reveals about French attitudes toward the expansion of the European Union. Lucas, a novelist, stands as a symbol of France’s cultural patrimony, creating the very stuff that makes France unique and superior. Similarly, Clémentine’s job is to civilize the savages, to teach the Romanian children French via that most traditional tactic of Republican education: dictation. Her assertion of linguistic dominance gives her momentary influence in a world she struggles to understand (she tells a colleague how difficult the cultural adjustment is for her). But outside the controlled environment of the schoolroom, children are no longer recognizable as such. They seem to hiss and click like insects from all corners of her house.

The film emphasizes the technological and cultural backwardness of Romania: phones are unreliable, television programming is poor and in black and white, the police force is unresponsive and the food is bad. Like the house Lucas and Clémentine live in, Romania is dilapidated and in serious need of repair.

Further, because of a conservative political agenda under Ceausescu (who banned birth control and abortion to increase Romania’s population), Romania is filled with an army of homeless children who do not hesitate to turn to violence and take advantage of their more civilized neighbors. As a point of contrast, Clémentine and Lucas responsibly control their reproduction and have no children. Clémentine’s efforts to control the Romanian children, dictation notwithstanding, ultimately backfire and she becomes a victim of the very people she is trying to help.

With Romania’s accession to the European Union in January 2007, Ils implies that the fear of the “Polish Plumber” taking jobs away from their French counterparts has been displaced by the fear of being overrun by a throng of homeless Romanians who will challenge the autonomy and dominance of French culture. Like their Roman Christian ancestors, they will rise from underground and overwhelm the established culture. And as in the movie, the threat lives on both sides of the fence. The film allegorically suggests that the morally conservative primitifs from Romania will permeate France’s reasoned Republicanism, that the expansion of the European Union will continue to undermine French identity and that efforts to help acceding countries will ultimately drain France of its resources. The titular “They” of Ils, as the film’s epilogue reminds us, does not stand for those frightening Romanian others, but rather symbolizes the expatriated French couple who perish because they refuse to participate in the sinister children’s game.

The fear must be a real one in France: while we found this horror film to be decidedly unfrightening, French viewers and bloggers have widely praised the film as “an hour and a half of fear,” “a good scare [une bonne frousse]” (telerama.fr) with one reviewer writing, “we really begin to freak out [flipper] for the couple. . . . The fear becomes palpable” (scifi-universe.com). In France, it appears, Romanian children really have become the stuff of nightmares.