Livid (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, 2011)

by Chris Randle

As the directors said themselves before its TIFF screening, Livid is very different from the Maury/Bustillo debut Inside, a film that ratchets tension inexorably upwards until it becomes almost unbearable. I saw that one at midnight several film festivals ago, and I can’t think of many cinematic experiences that have been more intense (someone threw up in the aisles). It was less due to the considerable gore than the precise, farce-like pacing; as visitors continued showing up at the suburban Paris house where Inside’s hugely pregnant protagonist was fighting off a mysterious stalker, complications multiplied at nerve-destroying speed.

Livid develops far more slowly, spending its first half-hour setting a mood of eerie aimlessness. Unfortunately, Maury and Bustillo also decided to fill their expressionistic fairy tale with awkward exposition, dialogue along the lines of: “So my heretofore unmentioned partner is moving in with us. I know, I know, but your mother killed herself eight whole months ago! Also it’s Halloween, though the directors will forget about that after the following scene.” I kind of wish they’d abandoned coherent narrative entirely. But the creaky plot machinations do convince young Bowie-eyed Lucie and two accomplices to rob a necrotic, extremely creepy mansion, at which point things duly go all Suspiria.

What follows struck me hardest as a series of memorable images: veiled child-mummies, bodies filled with clockwork, a tea party populated by taxidermied animals. There’s this sublime sequence where a vampiric ballerina stumbles nonplussed from the house and out into the wider world, blood running down her chin. Maury and Bustillo seem to be fixated on images of femininity; they’ve only made two films, but the men are all either distant authority figures or fatally arrogant clods. (The greatest contrivance here: smart, fierce Lucie keeping her doomed asshole boyfriend around, though he does have good cheekbones.) Even their favourite weapon, the vicious-looking pair of scissors, is rather hermaphroditic as deadly phallic objects go. Playing another monstrous maternal figure for the duo, cruel dance instructor Mme. Jessel, Beatrice Dalle actually disturbed me more than her character’s ghoulishly made-up incarnation.

Also, Livid’s initial juxtaposition of desolate seaside vistas with missing-children posters weirdly recalls the ending of The Folding Star? No underwear fetishism or Belgian symbolist painters here, though.

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