French newcomer Helene Angel’s “Skin of Man, Heart of Beast” examines the crushing effect of violence on a family through the eyes of two children. Tough, cogent and resonantly chilling, this slow-burning drama continues the vein of harsh realism seen in recent Gallic cinema including “La Vie de Jesus” and “More Than Yesterday,” and like these films, its isolated, rural township setting appears to foster unpredictable, often ugly behavior. Premiered in Locarno, where it won the Golden Leopard for best film and a Bronze Leopard for leading actor Serge Riaboukine, this arresting debut feature should segue to further festival, TV and limited arthouse exposure.
Unfolding during summer in the rocky hill country of southern France, the story kicks off with the unexpected return to his family of Coco (Bernard Blancan) after disappearing 15 years earlier. While they don’t entirely swallow his explanation of having joined the Foreign Legion, he is welcomed back by his mother (Maaike Jansen), his younger brother, Alex (Pascal Cervo), and older sibling, Francky (Riaboukine), a burly, womanizing cop recently suspended from the force after the breakup of his marriage.
While helmer Angel and her co-writers, Agnes de Sacy and Jean-Claude Janer, plant the seeds early of the violence to come, the script slyly diverts anticipation of it to center on Francky, who is given to wild behavioral swings. But the real threat of danger comes from Coco. The adults appear oblivious to his erratic moods and suspicious ways, but his presence in the house unnerves Francky’s angry adolescent daughter (Virginie Guinand), while her 5-year-old sister (Cathy Hinderchied) responds to Coco’s vulnerability with warmth and trust.
Often uncomfortable to watch, the film creates a potent climate of fear as the family reun-ion inches toward tragedy. While the full extent of Coco’s madness becomes evident only gradually, additional conflict and tension are fueled by the instability of all three brothers, their unresolved feelings regarding their father’s suicide and by volatile situations in which the eruption of violence is a constant threat. These include some rough dalliances with the town tramp (Guilaine Londez) and several edgy scenes in a hooker bar whose sleazy owner is grooming Alex for an executive position.
In this latter strand and in Alex’s ultimate steps to stop Coco, the often brutal drama risks becoming slightly overblown. But Angel’s rigorous, unflinching direction and the story’s sharply drawn characters make this for the most part an uncommonly mature first feature.
Riaboukine is highly charged and scary as explosive, bearlike Francky, Blancan makes Coco a quietly baleful figure and Jansen effectively walks the agonizing line between maternal love and fear. But it is Angel’s able direction of the two girls that gives the visually unfussy film much of its force and some of its most original touches, particularly in the final scenes, when their resilience crumbles.