Guaranteed to send auds either straight to the exit or into paroxysms of rapture, “Sombre” is an impossibly arty, totally noncommercial construct that ends up, for those prepared to stay the course, as a surprisingly creepy look into the tortured mind of a serial killer. A small career in more outre festival slots beckons this first feature by former video installation artist Philippe Grandrieux.
Though the film ended up unprized by the Locarno jury, it provoked the most heated discussion among the panel of all competing titles, plus an official statement: “Half of the jury” — led by Robert Kramer, with whom Grandrieux has worked in the past — “would like to call attention to ‘Sombre.’ Our jury split between those who were morally offended by the film and those who saw a purpose in its darkness, and in the strength of its mise-en-scene and images.”
That pretty much sums it up. Even when the viewer’s patience is being stretched to the limit by the underlit, out-of-focus, minimalist photography, there’s a growing feeling as time wears on that Grandrieux’s movie is exploring areas hardly touched by mainstream killer-thrillers — such as complicity between victim and murderer, and the sense that the killer instinct is present in all humans but simply suppressed or only in vestigial form in “normal” people.
Pic marks time in the first 25 minutes with an array of hand-held, jagged, home-movie-like images as the central character, Jean (Marc Barbe), drives around France, casually strangling women. No information is imparted about Jean (apart from a briefly glimpsed bear suit), and much of the lensing has a day-for-night look, as if shooting straight into the sun.
Story proper begins when he picks up Claire (Elina Lowensohn), whose car has broken down, and the two set off with Claire’s racier sister, Christine (Geraldine Voillat), to escape the women’s cloistered family life. Though it’s clear Jean is a major weirdo, the sisters stick with him — Christine largely for the fun of it and the virginal, screwed-up Claire out of some unconscious need to be a victim.
But things rapidly turn nasty when Jean attacks Christine during a swim in a lake, and later terrifies both of them back at their hotel. Claire manages to free Christine and put her on a train to Paris, but then — in a genuinely scary last act — stays on to face the demented Jean and try to “save” him.
Thankfully, Grandrieux does not maintain the aggressively experimental tone of the opening, though through sound and out-of-kilter imagery he manages to convey the sense of dislocation from the real world that consumes Jean’s mind whenever the need to kill rises to the surface. With Barbe largely a mute non-presence as an actor (given that the film is largely from his point of view) , most of the acting weight falls on the shoulders of Lowensohn and Voillat, with the former rising superbly to the challenge of a complex victim/take-charge role that essentially carries the second half of the pic.