The remote and recently vacated orphanage of the title, circa 1958, is a less-than-ideal locale for an unwed mother-to-be to wait out her pregnancy in “Saint Ange.” An incredibly stylish but ultimately hollow tour-de-force, first film by scripter-helmer Pascal Laugier is a triumph of production design and smart lensing in the service of a story that most moviegoers have already seen enough variations on to last a lifetime. A few mild shivers and the feeling that one will be hearing more from this particular talent almost make up for a tepid punchline.
In an eerily atmospheric prologue that establishes pic’s look and feel, a creepy accident affects two cute moppets who venture into the orphanage’s cavernous communal washroom one stormy night. Shortly thereafter, Anna (Virginie Ledoyen) is met by stern director Francard (Catriona MacColl) at the rural bus stop in the French Alps near Saint Ange, a foreboding Victorian structure no bigger than Buckingham Palace.
After the remaining kiddies are all shunted off to foster homes and principal staff decamps, Anna finds herself virtually alone on the sinister premises, with only girlish nutcase Judith (Lou Doillon) and plump cook and washerwoman Ilinica (Dorina Lazar) for occasional company. Anna keeps her burgeoning belly bound up tight.
Things go bump in the night, mirrors and faucets loom with implied significance and there are intimations of young arrivals suffering from too little space and staff back during WWII. In a nicely scored widescreen feast of scant dialogue and evocative settings, Laugier revisits the Spooky Iconography Handbook with assured flair.
Ledoyen provides a game human presence in a prematurely ghostly domain. But unless the audience has never seen a horror movie, in a post-“Scream” world one should have a twist lined up a la “The Others” to make even the sleekest visual journey worthwhile.