Sitges 2011: THE DIVIDE Review

[With Xavier Gens' The Divide now screening in Sitges we revisit our earlier review.]

The apocalypse has never looked and sounded so beautiful. As Eva (Carmen German) looks out on the annihilation of New York, the films makes music with the bombs, and spends as much on time on this hideously remarkable view as it does on Eva's reaction. In the next instant, she is being dragged down the stairs by her husband. She, he, and a few others manage to get inside the basement before the door slams shut on the world. A group of strangers now must learn to to survive not only their new surroundings, but each other. They have no idea what is happening outside. They do not know when, if ever, they will be able to leave. 

Xavier Gens, as he has shown in his previous films Frontier(s) and Hitman, is not afraid to shy away from the darkest corners of the human psyche. And this is indeed a dark, terrifying space. The nine survivors range from the single mother to the quiet artist to the racist sueprintendant, in whose care the tenants find themselves. He, Mickey (Michael Biehn) has apparently prepared for this event, stocking up on food and water, but with no past intention of sharing. This people are not family, or even friends. Personalities will inevitably clash, and lives will definitely be in danger not only from possible radiation poisoning, but from frayed minds.

The story begins very strong, with Laurent Barès'amazing cinematography showing us a basement that is metaphorically black and white; there is no comfort of color or anything that will give a semblance of hope.  Up until this point, the film has been riveting. As supplies ran low and nerves are fraying, the darkness creeps in visually and metaphorically. Some of the men were obviously assholes in their pre-apocalypse lives, and their current situation only enhances this. In fact, rather than changing, the survivors become in many ways more of what they are, whether it be bad, or good, or quiet, or reasonable.

Early in the film, there is a moment of hope when the door is breached and men in survival suits appear. But they kidnap the young girl, and a brief investigation reveals that those on the outside are involved in something nefarious, leading the survivors to attempt to fight back. Unfortunately, this line of the story is never followed; rather, it is a means to an end to have the door to the survivor's lair welded shut, in order to literally seal their fate. At this point, the narrative drifts. If there was a narrative need to keep the survivors in the basement, it could have been better served by not giving the audience such a fascinating twist that will never be further explored. I kept wanting to learn more about what was happening on the outside, and became frustrated with the continued mental collapse of the survivors.

Because unfortunately, the middle act of the film falls into cliche. Breakdown of the group's early, relatively peaceful if difficult co-existence, happens rapidly. One of the survivors is murdered by another; the two assholes, Bobby and Josh, take over control of the food and take one of the women as their sex slave, and the few good people are left to go mad and die. But are they good? Or are they just as willing to kill to survive just a little longer? Luckily, the film picks up again towards the end, as the final confrontation becomes a battle of wills. Knowing that escape is likely impossible, the only stakes are surviving as long as possible. But is it even worth it? The food and water might be plentiful, but it will run out eventually, and they will all likely die of radiation poisoning or murder long before. No one can be trusted.

Gens and screenwriters Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean are presenting an incredibly cynical and yet highly likely scenario. While most apocalypse film will present most people as good, ready to help each other, this comes perhaps because of some sense of hope. In The Divide, there is no hope, and so these humans are reduced to their worst and in most cases most horrifying characteristics. The end comes with both a bang and a whimper.

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