Film Review: Sombre (1998)

SYNOPSIS:

Serial murderer Jean (Marc BarbĂ©) preys on prostitutes, prowling the backwoods of France for his helpless victims. He meets Claire (Elina Löwensohn) and her sister Christine (GĂ©raldine Voillat) when they hitch a ride after their car breaks down. It doesn’t take long for the women to realize that there’s a madman behind the wheel. Philippe Grandrieux directs this psychological thriller.

REVIEW:

The film Sombre starts with a room full of children just screaming and yelling. It so ear splitting it makes you question parenthood. They’re screaming at something going on off screen. There’s one shot of a child just yelling but sped up. As crazy as it sounds that shot creep me out in a major way and if you tell anybody I said that, I’ll kill you. Cut to a man undressing a woman in a dimly lit room. What starts out being a kinky sex scene turns into a very violent murder. You don’t clearly see what the man, Jean (Barbe), is doing which makes it more eerie, but the sound let’s you know it ain’t right.

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Once done he gets in his car and drives off into the distance. This sets off a chain of murders that Jean commits on various women. During which we find out that Jean some sort of part time puppeteer, I call that a tell tale sign but that’s just me. But things get interesting when Jean stops on a rainy road next to a car parked off to the side. He looks to see what’s wrong when a lovely lady, Claire (Lowensohn), rolls down the window. Her car has broken down on her way to visit her sister, Christine (Voillat). Jean eyeing his future prey offers to drive her there, which leads to the heart of the film.

Sombre is a film that appeals to all of our senses. The visual work is incredible, it uses a wide range of angles and shots. They go from beautiful and serene to dark and disturbing. Some scenes literally are so dark that they are hard to see. It benefits from the adage of it’s what you don’t see that scares you. Grandrieux takes the camera out of focus but then moves in to a uncomfortably close degree. Whether the story grabs you or not your eyes will always be entertained. It’s effectiveness reaches it peak during the death scenes. During which Grandrieux gets in so close you feel like your in the room while it happens. Which leads to another high point, the sound.

The sound is used to assist or fill in the gapes left by the blurry or dark visuals. Like when Jean kills a hooker in a hotel, Grandrieux lowers the lights and goes so close you may have a hard time making out what’s going on, so that’s where the sound comes in. The use or at times lack there of can be just as if not more unsettling than the visuals. The actors as well do a great job playing these complex characters. With not much dialogue, all the actors relay a sad and bleak emotional state laying underneath the surface. You can’t put any one character in a box as one thing or another. In it’s style and technique the movie is quite impressive.

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The negatives are coming form the perspective of a person raised on conventional storytelling. It’s a tough critique because everything I might view as a mistake I’m sure Grandrieux sees as a thought choice to tell a unpredictable and unorthodox story. I could’ve used more story, it gives you a set up at the start but then meanders the rest of the way. Your gonna be left with a lot of loose ends,so be prepared. The other issue, you have a cast of characters all emotional wounded. But you’re never supplied with any back story to what has created these people’s psychological state or got them to this very place in time. I’m not asking to have my hand held, but there’s a delicate balance between beating me over the head with info and keeping me in the dark, just wish it was more leveled. But, I’m certain that these were all part of the plan by Grandrieux. So, it’s like they say “One man’s trash, is another man’s treasure”, so to speak.

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I’m obligated to say this from the start, this is not a horror film. There are some films that ride the line between horror and drama, horror and suspense, etc. This isn’t one of them, it’s got a dark tone but I feel more needed to classify it horror. Quite frankly, I’m not gonna waste the time trying to label it in one specific genre because it would be futile. Sombre follows none of the rules laid out for storytelling. The moral and message is vague to nonexistent. It gives you the bare minimum to work with and from that point it’s up to you to fill in the blanks and trust me there are many.

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I don’t want it to come off like I’m bashing the film. There’s no doubt a great deal of artistry here. The few points Grandrieux decides to give us come across effectively, I would have just like a few more. It’s a love story that involves a serial killer, but the love story is the driving force. The moments of what can be passed as horror makes up a very small percentage of the film. I know I’ve said this before but this movie more than any other I’ve reviewed is a acquired taste. I see no real gray area here, you’ll either love it or hate it. Me, not my personal cup of tea, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who did like it. I think a cinephile will definitely get off on the technical and performance aspects of it. But if your looking for horror, which considering the site is horrornews, you’ll probably walk away from this unfilled.

Sombre (1998)

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