Saturday, October 29, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Them

David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s ‘Them’ precedes the fear-of-children/hoodie horror boom, exemplified by the likes of Tom Shankland’s ‘The Children’, James Watkins’s ‘Eden Lake’ and Paul Andrew Williams’s ‘Cherry Tree Lane’, by at least two, if not four, years. But it keys into a particularly unpalatable strand of the genre that goes back to Wolf Rilla’s ‘Village of the Damned’ (1960) and arguably finds its most contentious exposition in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ (1976).

Reduced to its generic elements, with its handful of specific details stripped away, this is the film’s basic story: unaware of the brutal killing of a girl involved in a road accident near her isolated home, teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) leaves the school she teaches at drives to said domicile, having picked up some groceries in order to cook for her partner, novelist Lucas (Michael Cohen). One assumes his income from the writing outstrips hers as they live in what can only be described as a mansion, albeit a very run-down one, with one wing under reconstruction and exposed to the elements apart from the sheets of heavy plastic that cover every square inch of it. (Kudos to Moreau and Palud for establishing the layout and decrepitude of the house so economically and without making a big deal of the reconstruction, all the better for jangling the audience’s nerves when the cat ‘n’ mouse business spills over into the renovation.)

After an extended but effective first act that fleshes out Clementine and Lucas’s personalities and lets the viewers observe them interacting as a couple, their evening is interrupted by a rapidly escalating series of events: prank calls, loud music from outside (their house is in the middle of nowhere, remember), Clementine’s car suddenly re-parked in a different spot and then made off with; and then finally – if the word “finally” can be applied to a sequence that takes its protagonists from complacent to terrified in less than ten minutes – home invasion.

And so far, so effective. The death-of-motorist prologue throws a shadow over the next twenty minutes. The camera frames Clementine and Lucas at weird angles: after she catches him playing computer games on his laptop in the greenhouse rather than writing, they banter flirtatiously while an Argento-like POV shot spies on them. But whose POV? That’s Moreau and Palud’s masterstroke: they keep their antagonists offscreen (a silhouette here, a close-up on a shoe there) for as much as their kettle-drum taut 73 minutes as is humanly possible.

When the home invasion element kicks in good and proper, the film ramps up to a degree of tension that never loosens its grip. The spatial mise-en-scenes that follow delineate as: the house; the wing undergoing renovation; the woods surrounding the house; and the sewage system running underneath everything. And, to be honest, the film starts to flag the moment it reaches the woods. The extended subterranean sequence delivers a twist that telegraphs itself in the loudest way to anyone who has seen ‘The Wicker Man’. The final moments, playing out as a series of title cards, labour a certain point and do so tediously.

Labour what point, I hear you ask?

Okay, let’s fill in some specific details. ‘Them’ takes place not in France but near the border of Romania. Bear in mind “near the border”. Clementine teaches French and condescends to an indigenous staff member “my grasp of your language will never be as good as yours of mine”; her opposite number immediately grovels self-deprecatingly “my French is a disaster”. Later, Clementine states that she’s given her class dictation as a punishment for poor behaviour. Meanwhile, Lucas is all swagger and smart dialogue when he’s working on his novel but fuck all good to anyone when the scary stuff starts.

All of which might have made for an interesting satire on French attitudes to foreigners/neighbouring countries, however Moreau and Palud lose no time in identifying completely with Clementine and Lukas, and using every trick in the nascent horror director’s playbook to back said perspective up; the revelation re: their teensy/teeny attackers comes too late in the day to score any effective points.

So; quick recap:

The pre-credits “based on real events” – I’ve struggled to find anything online that bears this out;

Clementine’s teaching placement as on the Romanian border;

Clementine’s intellectual superiority over her indigenous colleagues;

Lucas’s artistic/intellectual superiority period.

Now factor in Clementine and Lucas’s immediate flight or fight response before they have even identified a quantifiable threat.

Now imagine a Brexit-era British version of the film where a middle class couple try to educate some poor illiterate Polish types only for the ungrateful fuckers to turn nasty and a group of children (metaphor shorthand: the next generation) set out to do them harm. How are you doing imagining that? Having difficulty? Does it come across as a UKIP propaganda film?

There is an incipient xenophobia that runs through French culture like the lettering through a stick of rock. It’s there in France’s essentially legislated Islamophobia. It’s there in the ban on the burka. It’s there in four armed police officers coercing a Muslim woman to remove her “burkini” on a beach. Four men. Armed. Making a woman strip. Can I get more fucking outraged?

This is the mindset that informs ‘Them’. It’s a technically brilliant horror-thriller that milks every second of its brutally succinct running time. Its cinematography is commendable and its score creepily minimal. Its performances are damned good. But for all that, it’s no better aesthetically than ‘The Triumph of the Will’. It is parochially arrogant and monstrously racist.

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