Bradford 2012 Review: LIVID

Julian Maury and Alexandre Bustillo achieved worldwide recognition for the macabre Inside (2007), one of the films that sparked off a wave of ultraviolent horror from the continent, alongside outrageous talking points like Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension (2003) or Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008). Maury and Bustillo have talked about how they wanted their sophomore feature to move away from all that gritty savagery - how it didn't seem so much fun once everyone was doing it - and yet initially Livid feels like the same old cynical stalk and slash, just draped in decaying Gothic finery.

But stick with it, and despite the over-abundance of genre conventions (an old house, a hidden evil, stupid people meeting ghastly deaths and so on) you realise Livid is definitely something very different to most horror films of the past few years. Instead of yet another Hollywood remake (the two men were attached to a re-imagined Hellraiser at one point) we get a bleak, haunting little fairytale, a love letter to the seedy grandeur of classic Hammer Horror that's brutal and nasty, yes, but also deeply sad, with a gut-punch of an ending that says more with a few lines of dialogue than any number of people being skinned alive.

Lucie (Chloé Coulloud) is a young woman trying for a career as a nurse, just starting the first of ten days' probation with an older, more experienced caregiver, Mrs Wilson (Catherine Jacob). Her patients are lonely elderly people too frightened, too far gone to dementia or flat out catatonic to look after themselves - one of them, Madame Jessel, was a famous dancer in her day but now lies hooked up to an oxygen tank on the top floor of a crumbling old house on the edge of town, lost in dreamland twenty-four seven, supposedly with a fortune in valuables buried further down.

Lucie's boyfriend, William (Félix Moati) is fed up with being stuck in their dead-end seaside town, working on his dad's tiny fishing boat and seeing no prospects on the horizon. Lucie largely mentions the old lady's wealth in passing, but it doesn't take long before William's sweet-talked her and bullied his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) into mounting a midnight raid on the ancient mansion. But it doesn't take long before they realise there's a terrible presence hiding in the shadows, and that the Jessel family have a stranger and darker history than any of them realised.

If this sounds like a pretty typical case of something nasty in the woodshed, that's because it is, at least to a degree. The first act of Livid is beautifully shot, the town faded, fraying at the seams like the quiet English villages in those classic Hammer Horrors, and it's decently paced. The script is solid enough, and Colloud, Moati and Kapone all handle their opening dialogue with confidence - but despite the odd bit of shading they're clearly being set up as types, and with fairly mercenary motivations at that, for all Lucie's half-hearted protests.

Breaking into the house is tense up to a point, but you know the directors have something bad planned, and the trio are already testing your sympathy. Yet the film starts winning you over once you realise it's not about them so much as what happened in the house, and why it sits on the outskirts, rotting away. Maury and Bustillo arguably hold off too long before wheeling out the mythology - but once we start to piece together the sad little story behind the yellowing, tumbledown rooms frozen in amber, and the mannequin locked away upstairs, Livid becomes something deeply affecting as well as disturbing.

While not wanting to spoil the surprise too much, Livid is the story of a family tied to one place far more inextricably than Lucie or her friends are stuck with their lives in town. Multiple flashbacks show the Jessels as a deeply dangerous, twisted little clan, but also tragically human, victims of circumstance in a way that can't help but arouse a kind of cautious sympathy. It's here the film really comes to life, and the narrative progression makes it obvious that if anyone's going to get out of the house they'll have to understand what trapped the Jessels there.

And the way that works out is a sudden role-reversal that comes completely out of left field and yet feels wholly believable, a final payoff (complete with some ghoulishly excessive violence) that's both hauntingly bleak and totally euphoric. The only similar climactic moments that come to mind in any recent film would be the brilliant resolution to Xavier Gans' The Divide - it's not a happy ending, but it's far from hopeless and it feels completely right, after everything we've just gone through. It pushes Livid into outright fantasy at one point, but those genre conventions and the careful Colonial Gothic touches in the production design means the moment doesn't jar too much.

Livid is just shy of an outright classic - it's too short, for one thing, and that awkward narrative development is an itch at the back of your mind. Maury and Bustillo could definitely have got the foreshadowing started in earnest a bit earlier, and fleshed their cast out a little more, courting our sympathy a tad rather than threatening to throw them all into the meat grinder. But this is superb stuff, one of the best horror films in an age - terrifying, yet bittersweet and emotional, with a beating heart under all the splatter. If you want something that moves you as much as it makes you scream, consider Livid highly recommended.

(Livid was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)
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