The balance sheet on Benoit Jacquot’s hits and misses gets an additional check in the negative column with “Deep in the Woods,” an unsatisfying costume psychodrama whose attractive sylvan visuals only modestly compensate for a deliberately ambiguous “did she or didn’t she” tale of mind control. Loosely based on the true story of a young bourgeois woman raped and possibly abducted by a semi-wild vagrant in 1865, the pic focuses on whether she went willingly or was held hypnotically; alas, the spell is less forcefully administered to the audience. Tepid Euro arthouse play is all that can be expected.
An undeniable fascination lies at the tale’s core, but Jacquot and co-scripter Julien Boivent throw out too many red herrings and add unconvincing side characters whose patent falseness impels viewers to pick apart the whole shebang. Filthy vagabond Timothee (Nahuel Perez Biscayart, “Glue”) turns up in a small community in the south of France and is instantly attracted to the local doctor’s daughter Josephine (Isild Le Besco), whose penchant for stepping onto precipices pegs her as either a sleepwalker or a disturbed woman testing herself to see whether she could take the plunge into oblivion.
Timothee takes advantage of the hospitality of the over-generous doctor (Bernard Rouquette), impressing the household — including Josephine’s lovelorn poet admirer, Paul (the distinctly un-period-looking Mathieu Simonet) — with his magic tricks and powers of hypnosis. After violently raping Josephine on the kitchen floor, Timothee takes off into the forest, with Josephine right behind, clothed especially for the occasion in a white dress.
It appears that the fetid tramp has some kind of hold on the young woman, who moves at times with the jerky twitches of an automaton. She tries fleeing his mental grasp but keeps coming back, either because he exerts a fresh mind pull or of her own volition. When the authorities finally catch up with them, Timothee is arrested, and viewers are left contemplating the odd couple’s mutual dependence.
Blind-alley ambiguities, including a superfluous interlude at a blacksmith’s, do nothing to explain either Timothee’s hypnotic hold or the possibility that Josephine stays with this bizarre, animalistic vagabond because it feeds some deep-seated need. As such, Jacquot seems to be delving into concepts of the Victorian “hysterical woman,” with all her Freudian characteristics, though in the end she remains as unreadable as she was at the beginning. By setting the action largely in a forest (shot in the Ardeche region), the helmer is also referencing medieval cautionary fables about unknown dangers lurking in uncharted woods, where day and night are equally menacing.
Audience receptivity will partly depend on the polarizing presence of Le Besco in the lead role, though her pallid features, disguising a steely strength, are well suited to the hysteric. Biscayart, speaking in a pidgin French combined with Provencal, Spanish and Italian, grimaces and leers in a feral manner, so revolting that even this fine protean thesp can’t make Timothee’s attraction understandable. But presumably, that’s the point.
Switching from regular d.p. Caroline Champetier to Andre Techine collaborator Julien Hirsch, Jacquot reveals the beauty of the forest while avoiding any visual signs of menace lurking within its shadowy glades. The final scenes have a short, almost staccato quality, quickly tying up the history, as if to say the characters are of little interest except when together.