Psssst. Wanna see a vile, vehement and vitriolic outpouring of hate against a film? I mean a real, full-on hatchet job, the critical equivalent of a murder suspect spending half an hour in a windowless room with a James Ellroy protagonist and a telephone directory?
Then just head on over to IMDb and read the user reviews for Pascal Laugier’s ‘Saint Ange’ (you’ll find it under the blandly generic US release title ‘House of Voices’). You will find Laugier impugned (“he is a pseudo-director and an even worse writer”), tales of antagonistic screenings (“people here fell asleep or walked out of the movie”), aspersions cast upon the film’s overall aesthetic (“pure crap and tastelessness”), and controversy over the denouement (“the end is just rubbish put together to wrap the film up and when the credits appear you feel robbed”).
Actually quite liked it, me. While being able to appreciate just why it would piss a lot of folk off. Short of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ and its half time crime-thriller-to-vampire-flick transition, I can’t think of another film that changes horses in mid-stream to quite such contrapuntal effect. True, there are plenty of films out there which hurl narrative curveballs at you with demonic glee – James Mangold’s ‘Identity’ for example, or Laugier’s own ‘Martyrs’ – but precious few that ascend to the diving board of one genre only to gracefully swandive (or messily bellyflop, depending on the eye of the beholder) into the deep end of another.
‘Saint Ange’ starts with a couple of children – a boy and a girl – exploring by torchlight the corridors of the creaky old orphanage where they live. This place is the province of stern-looking nuns, dusty classrooms and dilapidated communal bathrooms. It’s into the bathroom that our pre-pubescent protagonists of the moment sneak. The boy hauls himself up onto a sink the better to peer into a grimy mirror. He sees something and rears back, startled.
Cut to the aftermath of the incident. It’s 1958. The orphans are herded onto buses which will take them to their new foster parents. The orphanage is effectively mothballed, left to the caretaking of a skeleton staff, while the relevant authorities investigate the accident, review the quality of care provided and decide upon the future of the facility. Anna (Virginie Ledoyen) is employed to assist Mathilde (Virginie Darmon) in the upkeep of Saint Ange. One of the residents – the adult but still somewhat infantile Judith (Lou Doillon) – has remained behind and gradually forms an attachment to Anna.
Anna is hiding a pregnancy – an elliptic flashback and a smidgin of dialogue (the film is rich in suggestion and allusion but almost totally free of exposition) heavily imply that the pregnancy is a result of rape – and the almost deserted Saint Ange is the ideal place to hole up until the child is born. Anna’s only there a short time, though, before her decidedly non-maternal feelings are in conflict with her increasing need – her obsession – to unravel the enigma of the fate of a number of children sequestered at Saint Ange during the war.
The first forty minutes are so slow-burn that it would only be partially inaccurate to say that bugger all happens. Narratively, there are some suggestions of a haunting. Hints – very, very nebulous ones – are dropped about Anna’s past, Judith’s emotional/mental state and the history of the orphanage. In terms of character study, however, Laugier’s turning up the heat by almost imperceptible degrees.
Then, roughly around the halfway mark (just like what ’e bleedin’ went ‘n’ done in ‘Martyrs’, guv’nor), Laugier pulls the rug, throws the switch, loops the loop and generally headfucks the audience in cavalier fashion. I’m not giving anything away; suffice it to say that what follows (certainly in terms of mise-en-scene) points the way towards ‘Martyrs’, while anticipating, viscerally, the dark vision of maternity arrived at Fabrice du Welz’s ‘Vinyan’.
The crunchiest bone of contention – at least in the cross section presented by the IMDb user reviews – is that this climactic section is both oblique in its meaning and stylistically at odds with everything that has gone before. The shadowy corridors and eerie imagery that earlier marked out ‘Saint Ange’ as a classic period-set haunted house movie are replaced by something more akin to contemporary horror, or even possibly sci-fi. The implication, at least in my reading of the film, keys into the spectre of Nazi-ism that is inevitably conjured when Anna’s determination to find out what happened to the billeted children stirs up memories of the war. Just how much of her final discovery is manifested supernaturally and how much by a mind besieged by its own traumas remains the film’s central, insoluble enigma.