It’s young Lucie’s first day as a trainee in-house caregiver. She visits Mrs Jessel, an old woman who lies in cerebral coma, by herself, in her large desolate house. Learning by accident that Mrs. Jessel, a former dance teacher of repute, supposedly possesses a treasure somewhere in the house, Lucie and friends William and Ben decide to search the house in the hope of finding it. At night, they get into the house, which reveals itself to be increasingly peculiar. Their hunt for Mrs. Jessel’s treasure leads them into a horrifying supernatural series of events that will change Lucy forever . . .
This was all I knew of Livide before seeing it on September 12. There was no trailer (except some “behind the scenes” YouTube clips which I avoided, fearing spoilers) and precious few stills available online.
My main reason for seeing Livide wasn’t necessarily the plot—though it did sound fascinating—but the reputation of filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. By far the most talented of the recent French wave of horror filmmakers, Maury and Bustillo bestowed the literally gut wrenching À l’intérieur upon us in 2007, a film which destroyed me when I saw it a couple of years ago, and which has become not only one of my favorite horror movies, but one of my favorite movies of all time. (I’ve seen it four times now and cried each one.)
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that, at least for horror fans, Livide has been one of the most hotly anticipated films to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Perhaps this is why information about the movie has been so scarce. Yet, contrary to my usual desire to avoid trailers and potential spoilers, I feel like my willful ignorance may have damaged my enjoyment of Livide.
Having high expectations often leads to disappointment. After À l’intérieur, I think most of us were expecting something similar to that film’s brutal, emotionally enthralling tone, but let me clarify something. Unlike some horror fans, I don’t seek out gore. If it exists to serve the story, I don’t object; but if it’s gratuitous, I don’t like it. Yet, as one of the Rue Morgue guys said to me at this year’s FanExpo, À l’intérieur would have been just as great without the gore (and believe me, there is plenty to go around). I agree that the strong acting and perfectly realized central narrative in the film go a long way towards elevating it above your standard gorehound’s wet dream.
In the beginning, Livide seeks to connect with its audience using similar anchors. The opening titles are set against evocative imagery and a haunting score, both of which are creepy and mysterious enough to attract our attention. The dialogue between Lucy and her supervisor Mrs. Wilson is similarly engaging and the “large desolate house” is exquisitely spooky. Mrs. Jessel is grotesque, but we pity her situation. Lucy, her fisherman boyfriend William, and his brother Ben face various forms of frustrating circumstances; it makes sense that they’d become thieves to escape their vaguely dead end lives, and they’re interesting enough that we want to see how things turn out for them, even though we know it won’t end well.
According to Maury and Bustillo, they wanted to pay homage to films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, something which I didn’t know before seeing Livide. I wasn’t reminded of Suspiria while watching the film, but in retrospect I can see the similarities: ballet dancers, a creepy old woman, and a central mystery, in this case Jessel’s elusive treasure. To me, Livide is far more Victorian in both its visual style as well as its many allusions.
There’s the spooky, Gothic house out on the moors (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights). Lucie and her friends encounter will-o’-the-wisps which, according to European and British folklore, are, variously, the Devil’s trickery, spirits of unbaptized children, the attempts by mischievous spirits to seduce lost souls, or the location of buried treasure. Jessel’s house is crammed with taxidermy animals and wind-up toys, both of which were exceedingly popular in Victorian times. The movie even takes place on Halloween.
Livide is definitely creepy; there are some truly unsettling moments. It is also quite gory, but not gratuitously so. And as sumptuous and effective as the visuals, sound design, and the special effects are (except for a couple of key scenes), Livide is not À l’intérieur.
Yes, the story is intriguing, but there is something missing. All the fantastical images in the world can’t provide real scares unless we have bought in to the central conceits of the movie. The architecture of Mrs. Jessel’s house of horrors, however, is poorly constructed. Some clues pay off: the flyers by the bus stop, Mrs. Wilson’s conversations with Lucie; the trio’s motivations; the pair of scissors; the story that the house is off limits to kids; the key around Mrs. Jessel’s neck.
Other things seem like clues, but lead nowhere, much like the empty cabinets in Mrs. Jessel’s house. Monstrous beings don’t have to adhere to some arbitrary horror canon, but they must adhere to the canon established in the movie itself. Livide falls short of establishing its own worldview and as a result, ideas that could have been prophetic and profound just come across like so much horror movie window dressing. In fact, the overwhelming number of red herrings actually prevents us from recognizing the clues that do lead to an understanding of the plot and a grasp of what the filmmakers seem to be trying to say.
Granted, after much discussion and debate with my filmgoing partner, I feel like I appreciate Livide more now than when the credits started rolling. My initial reaction was, “I don’t think I understand what just happened.” And believe me, I don’t mind being initially frustrated or confused by a work of art. I loathed Velvet Goldmine upon my first viewing; within 24 hours it had become my favorite movie (and it still is). I’ve even done background research to fully understand albums by artists who I’ve been following for more than 20 years.
Overall, Livide provides more questions than answers, however. Perhaps that was the intent of Maury and Bustillo. Perhaps my ambivalence about it is partially my own fault, for expecting something akin to the gritty realism of À l’intérieur. I respect that the filmmakers chose artistic integrity over Hollywood money. I respect that they chose to take a different creative path instead of making a rehash of À l’intérieur. And I still think just as highly of Maury and Bustillo as I did before; I still want to see what they come up with for their next movie.
I recommend that fans of À l’intérieur watch Livide and decide for themselves. In fact, I’d like to see the movie again, and try to catch things I may have missed the first time around. I would also recommend that fans of Gothic horror check out Livide, because for all its flaws, there is still much to enjoy. Unlike À l’intérieur, Livide will not scare you to the core, but it will make you think.