Sombre (1998) - Writer/Director Philippe Grandrieux bring this quiet emotionally disturbing piece of transgressive cinema. The story of Jean (Marc Barbe) a puppeteer and compulsive serial killer, okay the puppeteer job really plays a small part in the story but is also very interesting. Early in the film before we know anything about Jean we see children in an audience, the faces tense with the nervous interest in what is happening in the show they are watching. They fidget and react to the puppet show we never see totally controlled by the master Jean behind the scenes. It is Jean, the man who needs to be in control who creates that reaction and we see later it is not the only control he is compelled to hold.
Jean is a serial killer, a man with a particular routine, compulsion that he can not control but controls him. The transference of that control onto the prostitutes his picks up and kills is a rigid ritual they and he must follow. Stand, small the midriff and crotch, sit and lay back, spread the legs, he command of the prostitute. The engulfing embrace from behind, the smelling of her hair, her struggles as she is strangled to death. His need to walk away from the body fulfilled and shamed. The Director establishes this three times so we are in tune with the killers need, each time he drives to a remote place to dump the body. Each time he finds a new victim. He seems to be following a bike tour in his driving and we see the people lining the roadways of France. Jean can prey more easily in this way, lots of people on holiday, easy to not be remembered in a crowd.
His third kill has a stunning reveal shot, beautifully framed and executed. We see Jean pick a women up at his hotel. She drives with him most of the day and we know her fate having seen his actions twice to this point. Jean is seen from behind, shimmering water frames his head the camera pulls back and you see at his feet the poor third victim. So well executed that you stick with this rather slow and deliberately scatter film making style. On his way from that experience Jean comes across Claire her car broken on the side of the road. He offers to help and give her a ride which she reluctantly accepts.
The film shifts here and more must happen off screen than we are allowed to see. Claire (Elina Lowensohn) and her sister Christine (Geraldine Voillat) are on holiday following the same bike tour? They seem to now be traveling with Jean although it seems a quick and risky thing to the viewer. There seems to be a connection between Jean and Claire. We learn she is a virgin and the more amorous Christine may be the one at risk with this guy. Late one night Claire unable to sleep notices Jean coming out of the club across the street from the hotel with a couple strippers. She watches from the shadows as his ritual plays out. Then she doesn't say anything? No police?
It plays out like this a scattered artistically interesting film that plods a bit. When the girls realize how crazy this guy is it is too late to flee. He has Christine tied in the hotel room and forces Claire to come out with him. His desire is for her and she for him but she also knows poor Christine will not stand a chance when they get back. So she parties hard and attracts a couple of bisexual men to try to get help, by getting them to take her and Jean back to their place for sex. It is a strange way to go about getting help but I suppose that since this is a world without cops it is a solution. The drunken party that happens as she leads the men on gets out of control and Jean is punched out by one of the men. This gives Claire the opportunity to get the car keys, get back to her sister and escape. Then at the train she puts her sister on it and goes back to find Jean? WTF?
Again with Jean she is offering him a chance at something more than what he has. An intimacy and acceptance he has never known. Her virgin body is his and he does not have to stay on the destructive path his is on. As he makes love to her he begins his ritual, but stops himself and forces her away with a women in a car he flags down. He can not be with her and he knows it she must be sent away before he kills her. It is an act of love that Claire can not comprehend but again she can live.
The woman tells her a story of love missed in her youth and the regret she carried in her life because of it. This make Claire go back to Jean one last time with forcing his final decision to either accept this new form of love or stick to his compulsion.
Like I said earlier this is a tough film to watch in it is a jagged style of filming, with limited dialog. It does have though a serious and formidable emotion heart that beats a steady rhythm throughout. I can recommend it but know you are getting into an artsy slower film that is not for strict pulse racing horror fans.
Rating (5.2) 5.0 and up are recommended