LIFF '09: SODIUM BABIES review
(Screened as part of the 23rd Leeds International Film Festival running from 4th-22nd November 2009.)
What makes the Decaillon Brothers' vampire thriller Sodium Babies so special? It's an obvious calling card, yes, messy, gaudy and hyper-kinetic, throwing every low-budget editing and post-production trick in the book at the screen. Here's the genre flavour of the week; here's paying homage to every Hollywood blockbuster they ever saw; here's comic books, computer games, music videos and all the rest of it.
But it's fun. There's a vitality, an energy to it all, a warmth and sense of humour conspicuously absent from both high-profile calling cards and a lot of French genre cinema for some time. The film relies a little too heavily on its convoluted mythos, it's uneven, questionably paced and for all the brothers' skill the low budget is still obvious. But it's a tremendously entertaining watch, hugely inventive, fantastically memorable in places and suggests Benoit and Julien Decaillon could well go on to much better things.
Though it's about vampires, Sodium Babies is much closer to the neon-tinted grime of White Wolf's Vampire: the Masquerade mythos than anything recently put to film. No sparkling pretty-boys here; the story follows Dead Dog (Benoit Decaillon), a lowly ghoul, a nobody pressed into service as a footsoldier for one of the head vampires in an unnamed city.
It starts with the final confrontation about to begin, then flashes back to show Dead Dog recruited into the ranks more than three decades before. Plucked from incarceration in an asylum after shooting his girlfriend in the grip of a nightmarish vision, he quickly finds a new life as an enforcer for the bloodsucking elite.
The Decaillons then attempt a montage spanning the thirty years since, leaping forward through the ages in a flurry of different colour palettes, costume changes, split-screen and lighting effects like some shoestring DV crime epic, before setting up the power-play from a rival vampire who convinces Dead Dog to try and topple his masters as revenge for a life wasted on pettiness and filth.
The montage bears noting because it encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the film all at once. The brothers conceived the backstory to Sodium Babies as part of a series of short films they shot with friends in their home town of Poitiers - these are recurring characters played by the same actors time and again.
There is a definite sense that the Decaillons, their cast and crew are in on the joke to the exclusion of the audience, at least to some degree. The montage doesn't actually convey that much concrete information and when events are set in motion that inspire Dead Dog's change of heart, meaning he's open to the idea of backing a coup, while the sequence of events is easy enough to follow the viewer never entirely stops wondering 'who', 'what', 'how' or 'why'. With the story never entirely grounded the pacing feels awkward and disjointed, betraying the brothers' inexperience somewhat, and the plotting occasionally comes across as less than coherent.
Still, though Sodium Babies certainly has its faults, as a low-budget debut it's hugely impressive. Any half-attentive viewer can see the joins - again, many of the effects rely on creative framing, lighting and colour tinting, and the intermittent switching between live-action footage and comic book panels is far from seamless.
But it has a genuinely impressive magpie artistry to it and a self-effacing humour that means even the weakest parts have some kind of impact. 'Maybe my problem was I couldn't dance,' Dead Dog muses as the montage races through the seventies, and it raises a wry smile. Visions in a puddle of bloody vomit; people drowning in bathtubs; a lonely forest in total silence, snowfall heading upwards - much of it's been done before, but it's still done with enough of an eye for eerie, haunting beauty and a self-awareness that excuses any missteps in the process. At its best, the film buys much more than twenty-five-thousand Euros would suggest; Dead Dog's acceptance of the rival vampire's blood and their conversation inside the depths of his psyche are witty, haunting, compelling, and fantastically eye-catching.
And for all the plot arguably trips itself up the ending is both neatly resolved and surprisingly bleak. The acting varies wildly, but each of the principals have their moments and Benoit Decaillon shows quite some talent in front of the camera as well as behind it. Dead Dog isn't the most original character ever written, but he's an effectively sympathetic everyman, enough that his ultimate fate is a lot more affecting than audiences might expect.
Sodium Babies is an obvious calling card, but as well as technical proficiency it demonstrates the Decaillon brothers' aptitude for something a little more lasting or profound. It's an obvious homage to a string of readily identifiable genre influences, but it mashes them together to make something far more distinctive and individual than that. Vibrant and spirited, messily artistic, it makes for great entertainment as well as a dizzying ride, and for all its flaws comes highly recommended.