Promenons-nous dans les bois
***½/**** Image A- Sound A (French) C (English) Extras D+
starring Francois Berleand, Denis Lavant, Michel Muller, Thibault Truffert
screenplay by Annabelle Perrichon
directed by Lionel Delplanque
by Walter Chaw The newest generation of young Gallic filmmakers is involved in reinvigorating many of the thriller's forms: the hybrid, HK-influenced actioner (Brotherhood of the Wolf); the Cronenbergian investigation of parasitic identification (A Matter of Taste); and the Hitchcockian psychosexual wrong-man intrigue (Mortal Transfer). Perhaps inspired by countryman Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, and Leon (a.k.a. The Professional), the abovementioned movies are bathed in frosty blues and greens, filmed and edited with a smooth professionalism--the latest wave to wash through the French cinema is all about a carefully calibrated cool.
In keeping with France's post-modern revisionism, the best Dario Argento giallo since Tenebre is not the Italian splatter auteur's disappointing I Can't Sleep (as yet unreleased in North America), but rather Frenchman Lionel Delplanque's fantastic Deep in the Woods (Promenons-nous dans les bois). With the hallmarks of the Italian horror sub-genre joyously honoured (the bizarre mystery plot, the elaborate murder set-piece, the lurid set design and cinematography), Delplanque's feature debut is impossibly beautiful to behold and executed with admirable amounts of artistic gore and disturbing eroticism. Like the best of Argento's work, Deep in the Woods borrows heavily from Hitchcock, annexing the taxidermy, bird imagery, shower fear, and keyhole voyeurism of Psycho. It also relies heavily on Argento's forced point-of-view shots, close-ups, and infatuation with childhood trauma and nursery songs.
Moreover, Deep in the Woods provides giallo neophytes with a wonderfully fluid and accessible introduction to the highly-stylized form: it is absent of the strange pacing, awkward dialogue, and forsaken performances of much of classic euro-horror. Deep in the Woods probably bears a closer resemblance to Michele Soavi's groundbreaking slasher flick Stage Fright (1987) than to Argento's seminal giallo Deep Red (Profundo rosso), but regardless of its primary inspiration, the film functions as an expertly crafted tribute to Italy's gaudy reign as the key innovators of slasher cinema.
Reclusive millionaire Axel de Fersen (François Berléand) lives alone in his palatial estate with autistic grandson Nicolas (Thibault Truffert) and groundskeeper Stéphane (Denis Lavant). On the occasion of Nicolas's eleventh birthday, de Fersen invites a quintet of actors to his home to perform an existentialist adaptation of "Little Red Riding Hood." Notable mainly for their model-physiques and an admirable lack of inhibition in dropping trou' with little provocation, the strength of the five actors (Clotilde Courau, Clément Sibony, Vincent Lecoeur, Alexia Stresi, and Maud Buquet) is in the sexual friction between them.
After a tense banquet during which young Nicolas mutilates himself with a dinner fork, the troupe gets a little high and wanders out into the woods surrounding the mansion in their delirium to "capture" a rapist/murderer terrorizing the countryside. Quickly separated from one another, they return to the house to be slaughtered by someone in a wolf-suit, one by one, in increasingly Byzantine and perverse ways. (My favourites are a battery-acid attack and a steamy shower sequence that turns horrifying.)
Though much can be made of the film's literal ties to "Little Red Riding Hood" (not the least of which a "play within a play" acting out the fable), the key element transplanted from the fairytale is, as in Neil Jordan's disturbing The Company of Wolves, the tangle of erotic danger and discovery that greets children on the edge of the labyrinth of adolescence. Deep in the Woods is a thicket of Freudian knots (a mother is killed after reading a story to her child, the murderer punishes someone for touching a relic of his/her childhood, a child is mute witness to a string of sexually violent murders) and ripe with visual symbolism that can be read to comment on issues as diverse as the destructive nature of the male gaze and the self-consuming power of pornography.
At the end of the day, Deep in the Woods can be more simply encapsulated as a great-looking film that honours its forebears while providing the catalyst for a re-examination of "Little Red Riding Hood" from an essential psychosexual standpoint. Making the underground festival rounds late last year and finding its way to DVD only now, Deep in the Woods reminds of the elegant menace of Michael Almereyda's unfairly panned Trance (a.k.a. The Eternal) and the lurid and incoherent audacity of the Italian masters. It's a triumph of perversity and style, and an exciting harbinger of what is to come in the new French cinema.
Artisan's DVD release of Deep in the Woods is presented in both a 1.33:1 standard transfer and a 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer on the same side of a dual-layered platter. Though the compression results in some grain and artifacting for each presentation, the effect is more noticeable on a digital screen (i.e., a computer monitor)--my standard 4:3 television didn't accentuate the lower video quality. Still, the film is so hyperbolically gorgeous to behold, it seems a shame that the potential of the format was not explored with this release. Although you should watch the film with the lights off, shadow detail is strong and black levels are satisfyingly pitch.
The original French language track, presented in glowering 5.1 Dolby Digital, is a lovely platform for Jérôme Coullet's fantastic string, piano, and techno score. Coullet's score falls in the range of the neo-classicism of Philip Glass, a fact that not only augments the relative restraint and high-minded flair of the film but also again reminds more of Soavi's Stage Fright (as well as his La Chiesa and Dellamorte Dellamore) than of Argento's aggressively-scored pieces. The English dub (available as an option from the audio set-up menu) is also presented in 5.1, but with the looped voices, a good deal of sense is lost in addition to menace and atmosphere. The two sets of subtitles--one for the English hearing-impaired, the other for the French language track--points to how retooled the English dialogue is. If ever there was a film that demands to be experienced in its native track, this is it.
In a full-length commentary, "horror expert" Brian Yuzna, the director of such inexpert fare as Bride of Re-Animator, reveals himself to be stunningly banal, sitting quietly through most of the film and occasionally interjecting such sagacious deadpan gems as, "That was digitally inserted," or, "That was a fake hand." ("Hmm. Looks like she didn't get killed after all," takes the cake.) Most glaring is Yuzna's lack of insight and analysis into the aesthetic roots of the film. Though he mentions Hitchcock in the early going and The Evil Dead in passing, Yuzna ignores the influence of Euro-horror--an omission that, given the film, is more than mere oversight, some combination of ignorant and wilful. Not knowing your Argento, Fulci, Bava, and Soavi isn't a crime; not knowing them and making trade in calling yourself a "horror expert" should be. French and English trailers, sparse cast and crew biographies, and a brief photo gallery round out the DVD. Originally published: November 20, 2001.