It’s not something of which I’m particularly proud, but I have to confess that horror movies, in general, don’t actually scare me. After having spent so many years programming and writing about hundreds of horror films (and, in the process, watching literally thousands more), I suppose I’ve become jaded, but I think my sensibility towards the genre began long before then. Part of the problem is that the threatening forces proffered by horror movies are not things that I really fear — I don’t believe in an afterlife, so tales of ghosts, hauntings, and possessions can certainly entertain me, but they don’t have any effect on me, and while serial killers are indeed real dangers out there in the world, one’s chances of having a fatal encounter with any of them is much less likely than the statistical probability of being killed in a car accident (which is perhaps one reason why the freeway pile-up opening of Final Destination 2 actually had more impact for me — no pun intended — than all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels combined, but that’s a topic for another day). Many of the most popular programming selections in Danger After Dark over the past eleven years have been horror movies that seemed to actually trigger fear in the film festival audiences, but when people have asked me if I was also scared by A Tale of Two Sisters, High Tension, Them, Ginger Snaps, Suicide Club, The Descent, even this year’s The Innkeepers…well, I enjoyed all of those films, but was I scared, as in did I leave the theater (or turn off the screener DVD) with a feeling of fright and dread that gripped me for the rest of the night? Well…no.
But there has been one film that really creeped me the hell out over the past decade, and — like many of the most effectively terrifying viewing experiences in recent years — it’s not a movie that would ever fit snugly into the confines of horror…or, indeed, any commercial film genre. Philippe Grandrieux’s 2002 film La Vie Nouvelle (A New Life) has been described as being influenced equally by horror cinema as much as experimental filmmaking (the same is also true of Grandrieux’s 1998 feature debut Sombre, which is a more straightforward study of a serial killer), and it’s perhaps the most genuinely unsettling and disturbing film I can recall in recent memory. When I think back about 1970s and 80s horror movies that really did scare me in childhood and adolescence, I recall two 1978 American films that were initially traumatic: Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But looking at them now, I realize that what scared me then isn’t what I recognized then, and it’s a theme that I still find terrifying now. It wasn’t the alien pod people and flesh-hungry zombies that scared me — it was the complete collapse of society that resulted. The loss of social order, the absence of control, and the erosion of the thin fabric that holds us together on a daily basis…this scares me, because it seems wholly plausible. La Vie Nouvelle is not a traditional horror film, but it touches that same nerve with me as an adult, and it compounds it by having the chaos of its setting effect the basic form of the film in truly innovative and brilliant ways. There are other favorite films of mine that have come close to achieving this: I think Lynch’s Lost Highway, Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Argento’s Inferno are all among the closest cinematic representations of dreams (or nightmares) that I have ever seen, but those films also adhere (to varying degrees) to genre-driven storytelling, a restriction that holds no interest for Grandrieux. Grandrieux began as a non-narrative film and video artist whose work (some of it documentary in nature) could be found in museums and galleries rather than theaters, and he also occasionally teaches film at a university level, but his feature work possesses none of the cerebral detachment that his academic background might suggest. His films are tactile, sensual, physical, scarring, hypnotic.
Set in a desolate, seemingly war-torn (but actually merely post-industrial and capitalism-pillaged) Eastern European urban wasteland that alternately resembles Sarajevo, the poorest cities in Russia, or North Philadelphia (though never named in the story, the film was actually shot in the Bulgarian city of Sofia), La Vie Nouvelle ostensibly follows a wandering American (Zach Knighton) who becomes dangerously obsessed with a beautiful prostitute (Anna Mouglalis) who is living under the sadistic control of her gangster pimp (Zsolt Nagy). If the story sounds inconsequential, it is — it essentially breaks down to that single-sentence summary, and Grandrieux has little interest in constructing tension through narrative. If the characters sound like one-dimensional neo-noir archetypes, they are — Grandrieux (in response to accusations of misogyny in his work — charges that, alas, do have some merit) has remarked that his characters really only exist as “figures” (in a landscape?). Grandrieux’s film is essentially a visceral experience. Social structure has already collapsed long before the story begins, and there is no suspense to be found in awaiting the breakdown of the characters’ environment — that ship has already sailed. The “figures” in La Vie Nouvelle have been reduced to desperate, animalistic drives, with their (frequently nude) bodies fleetingly colliding with each other as they drink, dope, dance, beat, kill, and fuck themselves into oblivion. The women are reduced to casually abused sexual commodities (one forced haircut with a hunting knife is as emotionally draining as the rape scene in Irreversible), the men are icy sado-masochists and thieves who are occasionally left out in the cold to be torn apart by a pack of wild dogs.
Grandrieux thrusts the viewer into this hell on earth by employing a barrage of disorienting techniques that vividly convey the feverish and unstable mental states of its subjects: “figures” recede in and out of direct focus so that our memory of them becomes blurred and indistinct, darkness overwhelms the image so that we can scarcely determine the details of what we’re viewing until they become all too horrifically real (the French DVD begins with detailed instructions on how the viewer should calibrate the visual and aural tone of their room), slow-motion frame rate becomes a panicky rapid-fire speed-fury, anonymous figures photographed in some unholy fusion of night-vision and solarized negative-image shriek into the darkness, an electronica thump continues to throb beneath the soundtrack. With such a wealth of stylistic tropes, Grandrieux could coast on fumes — no such luck: La Vie Nouvelle gets under your skin, and stays there. It’s among the purely menacing films one could ever hope to encounter, and if it’s not a “horror” film by the traditional definition of the genre, it certainly fulfills the queasy desires associated with the impulse.
The film does not have any sort of American distribution, and has never been made available in any viewing format in Philadelphia — I tried to program it for Danger After Dark years ago, but the international sales agency’s price was far beyond our budget (the film did ultimately screen on the east coast as part of the “Film Comment Selects” program at Lincoln Center last year). Good luck.