Friday, October 23, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: La Horde

If any country can lay claim to cinema as an art form, then surely it’s France. The birthplace not just the medium itself, but arguably its most important practitioners. France: the birthplace of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Jean-Pierre Melville; just the thought of a movie in black and white conjures their work. The smoke from a Gitane might just as well be curling over this paragraph.

But this is 13 for Halloween on The Agitation of the Mind and we’re leaving the leaf-strewn avenues and pavement cafes for grittier, starker locations. We’re bidding adieu to the old masters and cautiously making the acquaintance of a new generation of genre-savvy filmmakers who have transmogrified l’horreur from, say, the dreamy surrealism of Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans visage’ to the disturbing but thought-provoking brutality of Pascal Laugier’s ‘Martyrs’.

Laugier has also plied his trade in Hollywood (‘The Tall Man’), as have his fellow countrymen Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun and Xavier Gens; and with American cinema not exactly short of young directors focussing almost exclusively on the horror genre – Adam Green, Ti West, Joe Swanberg et al – a certain degree of cross-pollination was always going to be inevitable. ‘La Horde’ has an incredibly American sensibility, from its grim urban setting to its gleeful appropriation of Hollywood iconography. Superficially, it offers nothing the splatter fan hasn’t seen before. Nonetheless, directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher cannily anticipate audience expectations. Moreover, ‘La Horde’ packs its fair share of existential mean-spiritedness: if Henri-Georges Clouzot had made a zombie movie, this would be it.

The genre-spanning first act has more in common with a policier or a vigilante thriller. A group of cops, incensed at the murder of one of their own by a drugs gang, dispense with due process and storm the dilapidated tower block said gangsters have occupied as their base of operations. Internal tensions are rife and the plan of attack is badly thought out. Things swiftly go wrong and the gangsters gain the upper hand. At this point, the zombie apocalypse occurs, the undead lay siege to the tower block and two very dangerous and antagonistic groups of people have to band together to survive.

This latter is the film’s most Hollywood concept, however Dahan and Rocher avoid any redemptive undertones. No mismatched allegiances or declarations of brotherhood are forged in the furnace of this particular crisis; both sides continue to hate each other even as their numbers dwindle. The cops’ talk of honour and looking out for each other is quickly revealed as so much hot air. The gangsters are reduced to macho posturing, juvenile stupidity and, finally, pathetic vulnerability in the face of something they can’t threaten or bully or extort.

Interestingly, both groups seem to exist within a cultural frame of reference that doesn’t recognise the zombie as an existing trope: it takes a hell of a long time for anyone to cotton on to the old “shoot ’em in the head” modus operandi. Whether or not this idea was deliberate – à la the protagonists’ attempts in ‘Juan of the Dead’ to find a rationale for what is, to the audience at least, a self-evident phenomenon – it lends the film an urgency, as well as allowing the filmmakers a last-minute point about parochialism and social/political division. The final scene has the survivors emerge into a landscape that’s utterly unpopulated. The zombie threat has faded. A pall of smoke hangs over a ravaged but silent city. And that’s when the ugliness of the human condition takes centre stage again.

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