It’s about time someone crafted an ode to Béatrice Dalle, the gorgeous French actress who J. Hoberman called “a scarifying Cro-Magnon beauty” in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. That film, an elliptical, strange take on gothic horror, saw in Dalle’s mouth–thick and wide like a smear–her smoky, recessed eyes, and high cheekbones a kind of primalism that so became Denis’ images of Parisian cannibal vampires. Watered down in meaning and quality, but no less visually striking, is the feature film debut of directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (who wrote the script), Inside, a film that makes the blood of Denis’ gory film seem tame in comparison.
A siege-style horror film, pregnant widow Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is stuck on Christmas eve in her house one day before she is due to give birth, when Dalle shows up in the shadows. Dalle’s silhouette cuts a sleek, almost androgynous figure, and she knows all about Sarah’s dead husband and her current pregnancy, and shows a remarkably violent desire to get that baby out of the young mother to be. The film is unbelievably gruesome and vicious, going a step (or two) too far and truly relishing in its violence for its own sake, not to mention indulging in some really hokey moments—shots of an upset CGI baby in Sarah’s tummy when she is getting thrown around—but nothing can extinguish Dalle.
The film knows so well how grounded and earthy Dalle’s presence is that indeed the film struggles to submerge her in the mise-en-scène. Laurent Barès’ photography turns the interior of the house into a dusky, foggy trap of shadows, so much so that the first reveal of Dalle inside the locked-up homestead—the film’s most ingenious and disturbing shot—has her body sort of melt into the décor of the house, and then into the gloom. Unfortunately imagined as floating like a wraith (among other horror clichés in the film), Dalle nevertheless has that very primal, earthy quality to her features, one at home in spaces, touching things, suggesting tactility and pleasure in textures, in being covered, layered, and obscured. Taken to an extreme, she seems very much at home in Inside’s grisly plot, where the house gets more and more covered in red insides spilled outward as the evening wears on. While Paradis turns into a female Mr. Lazarescu, clamming up and hunkering down as Sarah’s condition gets worse through the night, fulfilling the more predictable side of the film, Dalle seems to relish the bloodshed, taking smoking breaks between acts, picking creative weapons to inflict upon her attackers, and all around feeding on the casual frenzy of the body count.
Neither the story nor the characters are enough to do anything with but play with the camera, fog, and blood effects, but François Eudes’ sporadic attempt at an electronic expressionism in the score and Barès’ striking visuals gives Dalle just enough. This isn’t freedom that Maury and Bustillo honor the actress with, it is a tomb of gloom that recognizes something deep inside the expression of the actress. In a way, this is not an ode in the sense of devoting everything, every resource to honoring a presence, nor is it one that lets that presence burst forth in all its talent. It is a different kind of ode, refreshingly expressed in the horror genre—an ode that finds an actorly presence comfortable in the shadows, covered in blood; a presence that emerges from and is eventually received back into the murk of the night.
*** Inside is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comment Selects series.