Friday, June 17, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Sheitan (2006)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

I'm going to explain a bit more of the film's subtext than I'd strictly like in the course of the write-up, so anyone planning to see this with fresh eyes shouldn't read any further.

It's the night before Christmas. After being thrown out of a club thanks to the douchey behaviour of their friend Bart (Olivier Bartelemy), Ladj (Ladj Ly), Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan), the barkeep Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) and vague acquaintance Eve (Roxane Mesquida) decide to drunk drive to Eve's country home to spend some time there.

The folks' place must be far from Paris, because the group only arrives some time the next morning. There's no trace of Eve's parents at her place, only Dad's doll collection. The only people home are the family's satyr-like groundskeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel) and - unseen by the Parisians - his highly pregnant wife Marie (Georgette Crochon). Marie mostly seems to spend her time making a doll out of spare parts and hiding, but the city folk are too busy with other things to notice.

Ladj would really like to get into Yasmine's pants, merrily ignoring the fact that he has a girlfriend at home, while both the obviously douchey Bart, and the more subtly douchey Thai both feel very attracted to Eve, who for her part isn't exactly discouraging anyone (although I don't think these guys would notice if she were). Joseph for his part seems strangely interested in Barth, but for what reason won't become clear until much later in the movie.

Suffice it to say that these reasonably friendly country people have some rather strange hobbies, besides throwing smiling racist insults around. Everything Joseph and the country youth do has an undertone of violence and weird menace that people a bit more sensitive and sensible than our "heroes" would find creepy, if not outright disturbing. Of course, the violent undercurrent will come to the surface in the end, if in a different way than you would expect.

Kim Chapiron's Sheitan really is something different than you'd think on first (or even second) sight.
It all starts out as a French variation of the backwoods slasher, promising a gore explosion in the manner of much of the French horror renaissance for its final thirty minutes.

But the longer the film is running, the clearer it gets that this is not the kind of film it initially pretends to be. In spirit, it is much closer to the great weird European films of the fantastic made in the Seventies than its contemporaries, willing to give up on the notion of plot or characters nearly completely to better be able to drag its viewers into the realms of utter strangeness and dry, wrong-feeling humour.

Instead of the expected revue of kills, the film plays out as a series of increasingly disquieting, often erotically charged set pieces bound to confuse, annoy, amuse and confound anyone with their grotesquerie. While it is obvious to the film's audience (the characters are rather dense, I'm afraid) that something very unpleasant is bound to happen rather sooner than later, the film virtually wallows in not explaining itself too early. But, unlike in some of my other very favourite weird ass European films, everything happening does in fact happen for a reason. You see, it is important that Sheitan takes place at Christmas, because the child Marie is going to give birth to is the Anti-Christ, or at least that is what the country family thinks - there is nothing overtly supernatural going on. Much of what happens during the course of the movie happens as a twisted mirror of Christian tradition, sometimes more subtle and sometimes less (Mary and Joseph, anyone?).

Still, as I said, the film never does actually say this outright, and instead treats its high concept a bit detached and with a feeling of sardonic humour, like a joke it doesn't need you to get to find funny.

I'm very fond of the way Chapiron directs the film. It is steady, technically adept, but doesn't try to out-weird itself like a lot of modern horror films going for weird are wont to, very often to their detriment. This does not mean that Chapiron just points and shoots. Rather, he is building the mood of intense strangeness required for his film in more subtle ways and does not seem to need or want to put too much emphasis on his own abilities.

"Subtle" isn't a word I'd use for Vincent Cassel's performance here. From a certain perspective, he's chewing the scenery outrageously, but still manages to give this outwardly blustering performance a much more disturbing undercurrent, as if his outer madness is hiding something much worse (which it in fact does). Roxane Mesquida's performance as Eve is nearly as intense as Cassel's, but not as aggressively over the top. She projects a quiet eroticism that also hints at something different beyond or below it.

Our theoretical heroes are just as well played, but the characters the actors are left with don't have much depth to them. They're supposed to be a bit dense, a bit too aggressive, and utterly unlikeable, and they manage that perfectly. Of course, this isn't a character study, but a trip into the land of the weird, so I'm not complaining.

There isn't much to complain about in Sheitan anyway. Sure, it doesn't have a plot, but watching something this clearly in the tradition of 70s Eurohorror and demanding "plot" instead of a  moody trip into a strange place in someone's head is just wrong-headed, like complaining that the moon isn't made of green cheese.
If you let it, Sheitan can beautifully mess with your head, and make your mind a more interesting place for its ninety minute running time (and possibly afterwards). I couldn't wish for more.

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