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January 8, 2005

Sombre, 1998

sombre.gifWhile I'm not at all enraptured by the murky, elliptically fractured, and characteristically amoral transgressive cinema of Philippe Grandrieux, I also cannot help but be drawn to certain aspects of his filmmaking that I find undeniably sublime in the sensorial purity of their realization. One such moment occurs in an early episode in Grandrieux's debut feature film, Sombre: an eerily silent shot of Jean (Marc Barbé) looking away from the camera at a vacant lot (a recurring image of the back of his head that prefigures the psychological ambiguity and enigmatic motivation of Olivier in Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son) juxtaposed against the crashing waves of a turbulent stream. The seemingly unstable, unfocused image drifts into and out of frame, intermittently revealing the outline of a female form lying violated and lifeless near his feet. Grandrieux's introduction to Jean is also ingeniously conceived - a disorienting tracking shot of a lone automobile on a dark, tortuous road set against the foreboding, ambient, mechanical drone of an engine that cuts to the sound of children screaming as they watch a puppet play at a guignol, where Jean, uncoincidentally, performs as a puppeteer. This introductory image of primal reaction, instinctive terror, manipulative control, and possession compactly (and evocatively) sets the tone for the film's thematically (and visually) dark tale of impossible love as the restless Jean carves a violent path of sexual encounters - and serial murder victims - until a virginal, stranded motorist named Claire (Elina Löwensohn) momentarily offers him a glimpse of the possibility of intimacy and complete love.

As convenient as it would be to be completely dismissive of Grandrieux's provocational cinema, there are certainly traces of visually abstract, but innately cohesive - and emotionally lucid - elements within his style that are difficult to find fault with, particularly in the implementation of complex, raw, and highly textural visual strategies that complement Jean's primal, aberrant psychology. Moreover, there is a discernible process of authorship at work in Sombre that betrays an overarching deliberativeness towards the film's construction, from echoes of Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance (and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo) that can be seen in Jean's aimless driving through desolate roads (often to cruise for prostitutes who will unwittingly become his future victims), to Grandrieux's exposition on the blurred delineation between passion and violence - and the psychological rapture that both acts achieve for the antihero - that would be similarly echoed in Claire Denis' subsequent experimental horror film, Trouble Every Day. It is this underlying intelligence that ultimately makes Grandrieux's film a worthwhile, though irresponsible and morally bankrupt experience.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux


...not morally bankrupt so much as morally vacant, a structural circumstance necessarily and perfectly mimetic of Jean's stillborn conscience. The characterization "irresponsible" brings to mind Roger Ebert's myopically puritanical dismissal of "Blue Velvet", although I wouldn't contend that "Sombre" is capable of sustaining serious comparison with Lynch's film. The introductory tracking shot seems to me reminiscent/derivative of the opening of Kubrick's "Shining".

Posted by: Equivoke on Jul 02, 2007 1:39 AM | Permalink

Good point, I guess "ambiguous" would be closer to what I was thinking. The choice of the word "irresponsible" is a tough one to re-analyze, since it's been a while since I saw the film and wrote the piece. I think my train of thought was along the lines of the polarization of Bruno Dumont's films and how the choice of the parting shot can almost make or break the tone of the film (for instance, had Flanders ended in a moment of violence or Twentynine Palms with the attack in the desert, they would have been very different films). If I remember correctly, Sombre's ending was more unresolved, or perhaps again, ambiguous.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 02, 2007 7:56 AM | Permalink

What's your take on the significance of the Tour De France?

Posted by: Reid on Oct 27, 2008 7:56 PM | Permalink

Hmm...I thought the Tour de France connection might be more visual than anything, since he spends a great deal of time driving around France looking for victims. And the shot from the cyclists' perspective at the end seem to reinforce that idea of "cruising" too. Also, if I remember correctly, there was an early sequence that had a menacing atmosphere to it, with a helicopter hovering around the tour route, and in the previous scene, the blind boy had just discovered the woman's body. There's a sense that the search is misdirected (the helicopter is focusing on the riders and not him), and he's hiding in plain sight. The cycling shot seems to reinforce that randomness of encounter too.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Oct 27, 2008 9:04 PM | Permalink

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