Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. A L'intérieur, 2007. (French language film)
|Ouvre-moi ta porte…que je t’ouvre le ventre (Open your door…so I can open your womb). This is the tag-line from a recent French horror film that evokes the fear of pierced borders at its most primal level. A l’intérieur (2007) stages a blood-drenched battle between a pregnant Parisian woman and a scissors-wielding intruder determined to steal her unborn child straight from the womb.
Taut and unrelenting in its dark tone, the film refuses to indulge in the playful irony typical of so many American horror films. Neither has it succumbed to the ghost-in-the-machine mania of the Asian horror wave. In fact, the only creepy woman you will see peering angrily through long, dark hair is decidedly not a ghost, but rather a frighteningly resolute and oddly sympathetic invader masterfully played by Béatrice Dalle.
The cat-and-mouse set-up recalls the 2006 film by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, Ils (see my review co-written with Corry Cropper in Lingua Romana vol. 5.1). Both films use isolation and invasion of domestic space to play on French fears about a threatened cultural identity. In Ils, Moreau and Palud exploit anxieties concerning Romania’s accession to the European Union by portraying the murder of a young French couple at the hands of savage Romanian children. With its heavy handed symbolism and “based on true events” premise, Ils barely qualifies as allegory. But while Ils comes across as xenophobic and just plain silly, A l’intérieur artfully blends visceral terror with more nuanced social commentary. Had A l’intérieur wanted to hype the “true story” angle, it could have pointed to the real-life murder and fetus snatching in Kansas just three years ago. Instead, a different ripped-from-the-headlines moment storms at the periphery. As the fight between a pregnant woman and her attacker rages within the confines of a small home, background television news footage anchors the action to the riots of 2005.
Violence erupted in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois at the end of October, 2005, following the accidental deaths by electrocution of two teenagers said to be hiding from police. By November, civil unrest outside the city limits had reached critical levels and the borders that separate the impoverished suburbs from the City of Light became the site of nightly violence. Those borders are often called l’enceinte parisienne—a term that refers to the walled fortresses that have historically protected the city from invaders since the time of the Romans; a term that, when translated literally, also means “pregnant Parisian.”
I attended the 2007 premiere of A l’intérieur in Paris in June, just one month after France’s former Interior Minister ascended to the presidency based in part on promises to protect a threatened conception of French identity. During his campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity—a polemicizing move in that it spelled out a link between the politics of immigration and the French national identity crisis. Son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy often touted his own success as a model of positive integration while disenfranchising those extra-muros immigrants he had infamously labeled racaille (rabble, scum) during his time as Interior Minister. In light of the political context both inside the film (the riot references) and out (its release date), the film’s title takes on greater meaning.
City. Home. Womb. The various levels of A l’intérieur resemble Russian nesting dolls that are twisted and pulled apart before the viewer’s eyes. The borders between inside and outside, between private and the public reveal their vulnerable permeability. Among the opening images of the film is a fetus responding to its mother’s voice just before the warm amniotic fluid begins to fill with blood. One level out from this internal drama we see the reason for the sudden violence: a car crash that leaves pregnant photographer Sarah (Alysson Paradis) a widow. Fast forward four months to Christmas Eve. Still grieving the loss of her husband, Sarah retires to her home to await her scheduled induction on Christmas Day. Those paying careful attention to chronological detail will notice that co-directors Alexandre Bustillo (also the film’s writer) and Julien Maury have taken artistic license with temporality—the riots having subsided by mid-November—in order to accommodate a delivery date rife with religious overtones. In that way, the film symbolically conflates the menace to the beautiful lone mother “with child” and the violence of the banlieue barbarians at the city gates of Paris. A more formulaic slasher flick would place Alysson Paradis in the role of a sexually promiscuous teenager rather than a saintly-looking mother-to-be. Here, the most vulnerable prey is the unborn Christmas baby. Will it survive? And if so, will it be raised by its mother or will its identity be changed by the invader?
Lest we begin to assume that A l’intérieur simply reflects right-wing paranoia, Bustillo complicates the matter by making the attacker more sympathetic before the film’s conclusion. Without giving up plot spoilers, I must note that Sarah is not entirely blameless and that the violence gains context that problematizes easy conclusions.
For most viewers, the greater political context will be eclipsed by the sheer thrills and shock of a film that dares to take horror seriously—and this is another reason why A l’intérieur is at once artistically satisfying and commercially viable. Following Alexandre Aja’s leap from a French horror film (Haute Tension, 2003) to a big budget international remake (The Hills Have Eyes, 2006) and Moreau and Palud’s arrival on the international scene with the upcoming remake of The Eye, newcomers Bustillo and Maury have been chosen by Clive Barker to remake Hellraiser (currently set for a September, 2008 release). Meanwhile, Xavier Gens, French director of the upcoming border horror film aptly titled Frontière(s) (2008), is said to have accepted to direct a remake of Conan the Barbarian. Thus far, no one in Hollywood plans to remake the French films as they have done with Asian horror fare. So while French border horror may not yet be on your radar as cinema’s next big sub-genre, the talent emerging from a nation undergoing an identity crisis promises an ongoing supply of fresh blood.
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Lingua Romana: a journal of French, Italian and Romanian culture
volume 6, issue 1 / fall 2007