Livide (2011)

I’d like to tell you all about one of my new favorite movies, Livide (2011). I’d like to go into detail about its sense of style… its amazing fantastique imagery… its references to horror icons, including one jaw-dropping throwaway scene that pays tribute to a very famous director through one of his least-appreciated movies. I’d like to analyze the ways writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside / À l’intérieur) subvert the conventions of the films they so clearly love, or wax rhapsodic over the way they combine reality and fantasy so that it’s difficult to decide which of the two is more believable.

I’d like to. But I can’t. At least, not as much as I want to.

For the truth is, Livide‘s plot is so slight that if I give away any more than the most basic details, I’ll have spoiled the wonder of it. If I tell you exactly what conventions are being overturned, what film references are being made, even what kind of monsters lurk in the shadows, I’ll have ruined the experience for any first-time viewer.

Normally, I don’t particularly care about including spoilers in a review, since most of the movies I write about are so old their secrets are well-known… that, or else they don’t rely so much on the first-time surprises to make them watchable. But this one… this one’s different. This one’s special. It will certainly bear repeated viewings after the twists and shocks have been revealed; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you decide you want to watch it again and again — starting from the very moment you’ve finished watching it for the first time. But the thrill of the discovery… the gradual unfolding of those secrets and shocks… that represents an experience I wouldn’t keep from anyone.

I suppose I can tell you a little bit, hopefully enough to whet your appetite. After all, the basic setup of the plot is so familiar and shop-worn that you may be tempted to pass the movie by, if you’re just going by bare outlines:

Chloé Coulloud plays Lucie, a 20-year-old student nurse on her first day of field training. Lucie lives in a small town on the northern coast of France. The only thing remarkable about Lucie is that her left and right eyes are different colors. The only thing remarkable about her town is the number of young children who’ve been disappearing from it.

(What’s happening to the children is revealed to us very early in the movie, so you needn’t pay much attention to that. The knowledge increases our sense of unease, but has much less to do with the unfolding story than you might think.)

Lucie accompanies an older woman, Catherine, on her rounds, visiting various invalids and shut-ins to give them their injections, clean their bedding and make sure they’re all right. It’s pretty uneventful and routine, and Lucie proves herself to be very good for a novice.

But then… the two women arrive at the house of Mrs. Jessel. Yes, Mrs. Jessel; no apparent relation… her screw is probably still loose. Anyway: Mrs. Jessel is in a permanent coma. Having no surviving relatives (since her daughter died tragically young), the old woman is left alone, silent, unaware of her surroundings, in her antique bed on the top floor of her ancient house.

The house is terrifying. If ever a house looked haunted, it’s this one… except you can’t help but think any sensible ghosts have long since fled, gibbering in terror. But poor old Mrs. Jessel seems like the perfect inhabitant for such a house: grey and still, rendered faceless by a respirator; smothered by the richness of the furniture and drapery; her fingernails grown to horny claws, and a bag of vivid red blood hanging by her bedside.

LIVIDE: The house.

Catherine confides to Lucie that Mrs. Jessel is rumored to have some sort of treasure hidden in the house. She’s even looked for it, in the brief times she’s been alone in the house; but she’s never found a trace of it. Later on, when Lucie half-jokingly tells her fisherman boyfriend William about what Catherine said, she’s horrified when he becomes determined to go look for it.

Eventually, thanks to some developments I’m not going to reveal, Lucie, her boyfriend, and their friend Ben end up going out to Mrs. Jessel’s house, intending to break in and look for the treasure. That’s right: young people trapped in the haunted house. Oh — and it’s Hallowe’en night. Naturally. Where have you heard that sort of setup before, right? What’s to differentiate this from, say, Spookies, or The Unnameable?

Forget your expectations. Even though I’ve explained the setup of the plot, I’ve told you next to nothing about what happens thereafter, and what they find.

Let me give you one tiny taste of the attitude this film has: when the three young people set out for Mrs. Jessel’s house, it’s emphasized that Ben’s car — which they’re forced to use, because Ben’s the only one who has a car, let alone a driver’s license — is in terrible shape, and never starts up the first time. Aha, we think. They’re setting up the old monsters-are-after-us-car-won’t-start gag. It’s a reasonable assumption. But after this expectation has been firmly planted in our postmodern 21st-century heads, the car doesn’t even reappear in the second half of the movie.

But perhaps I’ve already said too much.

Let me put it this way: the better you know horror movies, the more subtleties you will find to enjoy in Livide. But if you are familiar with 19th century French ballets, that will help, too. If you’re not so big on the horror, you may still find so many astonishing, beautiful, even poignant images in the movie that you’ll still find it rewarding. Maybe even more so: I thought the horrors lurking in Mrs. Jessel’s mansion were much scarier when they were lurking in the shadows, waiting, than when they were doing their terrible deeds. But that’s fitting, somehow: for all their skill in realizing the obligatory shock scenes, Bustillo and Maury seem less interested in them than they are in, well, everything else.

For Livide isn’t just another horror film: it’s an amazing piece of cinematic storytelling. When Bustillo and Maury want to explain something, they do so visually, and with perfect economy… for instance, we learn everything we need to know about Lucie’s family with barely a word being spoken. When Bustillo and Maury want to leave something unexplained, the strength of their images is enough to make an impression in the viewer’s imagination… the images will stick there, resonating quietly and making their own self-sufficient meanings.

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7 Responses to Livide (2011)

  1. Doug Hudson says:

    Amazing film! The craftsmanship is breathtaking. I just finished watching it and I already want to watch it again, to fully appreciate the nuances.

    Thanks for mentioning this film! I probably never would have heard of it, otherwise, and I’d be poorer for that.

    • Will Laughlin says:

      Doug, that was exactly my response to it the first time I saw it. I’m extremely happy to hear you had a chance to see it.

      Did you happen to catch the John Carpenter riff? Of all the movies of his to reference explicitly, the one they chose was the one I least expected…

  2. Doug Hudson says:

    Well, there was a certain sequence that brought to mind a scene from Halloween (boy is it tough to talk about this movie without spoilers), but I’m not sure that’s what you’re referring to. I’ll have to keep an eye out on the re-watch.

    Was it my imagination or were there a couple of scenes that had almost Bava-esque lighting? Not as extreme, of course, but there was one scene with an odd reddish glow, and the scenes in the, ahem, “lower bedroom” were all an odd color, almost sepia.

    And here’s a puzzler: given the, ahem, location of the house in a certain scene at the end, where did the ending actually take place?

    • Will Laughlin says:

      a scene from Halloween

      The one I was thinking of was a quote from Halloween III. And I think you’re right: there’s tons of Bava influence everywhere you look.

      As for your other question, umm, I think the house looks a little different in daylight than it does during the dark of night (if you get my drift). But as I recall the actual final scene took place on the cliffs just overlooking the beach we saw earlier in the movie.

  3. Doug Hudson says:

    Oh yeah, now I remember! When a certain phrase was uttered I wondered whether it was a deliberate Halloween 3 reference.

    Re: the ending, I guess I’m just suspicious about whether they were actually where they appeared to be. But then, I’m suspicious about damn near everything that happens in the movie, heh.

    One of the best testaments to the craftsmanship of the movie is that very little actual spooky stuff happens in the first third of the movie, yet the tension keeps ratcheting up anyway–I was engrossed from the beginning. But then, I could rave for hours about this movie…

    Also, I want that house! But only if I am the “owner”, so to speak.

  4. Doug Hudson says:

    Have you seen the other movie these guys (Bustillo and Maury) did, À l’intérieur (aka Inside)? Just finished watching it, and I was like, eh. Well crafted, but what was the point? It seemed like a simple gorefest, without any of the subtleties of Livide, but maybe I missed something.

    They have another one that is supposed to start filming next year, as well.

  5. Mark says:

    Inside is disappointing, but apparently it was never meant to be more than an extreme gorefest and only made to get them noticed.

    They’ve recently made another film though, “Among the living”, which is well worth checking out. Not quite as good as Livide but another fairly unique take on the horror genre.

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