Into the murky depths of the great beyond, I reach my hand down into the Grab Bag once again, and this time come up with a movie I’ve wanted to see for a while. With the to-do about French horror with Inside, Martyrs, and Frontier(s), I wanted to check out the French film that has already garnered an American remake. (Unlike the other three which I’m sure are being watered down as we speak.) Tonight’s film departs from the visceral aspects of the aforementioned films, and instead it culminates in a forty five minute thrill ride that left me hanging on the edge of my seat. The film I’m here to talk about tonight is Ils, or Them (2006) directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. The plot is so tiny that it practically doesn’t warrant explanation. It’s not at all the reason this film is good, but I suppose a brief summation might be in order.
Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) are a young French couple living in Romania. She is a French teacher at a local school, and he is an easily distracted writer (Is there another kind?). One evening, Clem awakes to noises outside, and she is convinced there is someone there. She wakes Lucas, and as they investigate they find there are several hooded individuals in their house who begin to terrorize the couple.
Just take a minute to think about how you’d feel. It’s the middle of the night. You hear a sound. You look out your window expecting to see a limb scraping against something or at the worst maybe a stray cat or dog, but instead there is someone there. Someone faceless behind a hood, shrouded in darkness, and they’re coming into your home. Ils perfectly captures this panicked feeling, and while the plot is only wafer thin, the filmmakers make up for it with a buffet of sights, sounds, and shocks.
The film kicks off with a short sequence where a woman and her daughter are killed after crashing their van into a telephone pole. Without resorting to jump scares or gore, Moreau and Palud build tension in the scene very effectively, and I was sure after seeing what they could do in less than five minutes that I was in for a good time. The scene also caps off with an image which I believe to be one of the main themes of the film. As the daughter is strangled in the front seat of her car, her arms flailing, desperate for help, a car speeds by without a second glance at the wrecked van. This illustration of violence as real, brutal, and part of everyday life sets the tone for the film. It’s the scary stuff on the fringes that we don’t notice because we’re busy living our lives, Ils takes this moment (and one other deeply in spoiler territory) to remind us of this simple fact.
After the shocking opening scene, the film becomes still for the next half hour as we get a look into the life of Clem and Lucas. Because of how sudden the opening scene comes and goes, the tension remains though the quiet times. As the couple go about their lives in their country home, I was aware of every noise, everything that looked out of place, and every shadow. As an audience, you know what’s going to happen. Someone, or perhaps Some-them, is going to come get these folks. The directors take it right up to the point where it would become unbearable before bringing on the baddies. Wisely, the killers are kept more menacing by keeping them a mystery. No reasons, no faces, no talking, and they’re in you’re house to kill you.
Even though Bonamy and Cohen are given little character development, they both turn in excellent performances. Bonamy is especially good. During the last third of the film, she ends up in some cramped quarters, and due to her actual claustrophobia, the fear on her face is very, very real. Cohen also puts in a good performance, and the two of them have a great natural chemistry. It’s s good thing too because the film plays out like a slice of their lives. They needed to seem like a comfortable contented couple, and that’s just what comes across on the screen.
With little plot and minimal acting, the real stars of the film are the cinematography and sound. Axel Cosnefroy handled the cameras here, and he gives a wonderful disjointed feeling in the thrilling sequences. While we never see much of the killers, the camera often moves like it is stalking the characters. The real high point of the film is the sound editing. No, really, seriously, I’m going to talk about sound editing. Sergei Rouquairol, you are the man. As I said, there is very little of the killers on the screen, but you hear a lot from them. Bangs, weird noises, and footsteps all combine to provide many little shocks that build on each other. Again, the jump scare is avoided. There are no huge noises that will pop you out of your seat. Instead the well placed sounds make the tension grow and grow, and they make the experience feel real.
Ils, if you have not guessed, was remade in 2008 as the Liv Tyler/Scott Speedman flick TheStrangers. I personally can’t comment on that film as I haven’t seen it, but I have a hard time believing it would have taken its cues from the original subtle thriller. (I don’t want to think how bad the recently announced The Strangers 2 would be.) Ils is a short film with a running time of less than 80 minutes, and it rolls along so quickly that it’s over before you know it. Keeping the film short gives it more impact as everything feels immediate. I’m hoping you folks get an immediate feeling too, a feeling that you should check this one out. While it is very different from the more gruesome fare the French have been putting out in recent years, it is an effective film that will please anyone who likes a good thriller.