Livid (Livide) (2011)

The blood of the ballerinas.
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Livid (Livide) - The blood of the ballerinas.

At the time of watching Livide, I had reached the point of extreme fatigue with French horror cinema. Beautifully made and well funded they may be, but films such as In Their Sleep and Inside just don't rest that well with me – too slick, too manipulative. In the case of Inside – made by the same directors who went on to make Livide – I found the premise of the ninety-minute assault on a pregnant woman rather too much like cynical button-pressing, taking the ultimate sympathetic figure (everyone likes babies, innit) and then trying to elicit a response from its audience by putting her through hell. Me, I got a bit bored. I also thought Beatrice Dalle's character could have saved herself a lot of graft by just waiting for a week or so and then simply taking the baby, rather than going through all that malarkey with the scissors.

However, pleasingly, Livide is an entirely different animal – first, foremost and thankfully, it's a horror film rather than an ordeal film, taking familiar horror elements (sometimes very self-referentially) but crafting them into something altogether original.

Lucie is a young trainee nurse, enlisted to care for the elderly and infirm and placed under the tutelage of a cynical older woman, Mrs Wilson. One of their clients, Deborah Jessel, has been in a coma for decades, but her dying wish is to die at home – at her sprawling country estate, where, so the rumour goes, she has a fortune hidden away. Mrs Wilson jokingly says that she's been looking for it for years. Well, Lucie happens to mention this to her hard-up boyfriend and his brother that evening. Before long, they've formulated a plan to go back to the house by night, to look for themselves. It soon becomes apparent that the labyrinthine house and its dead-alive inmate have many secrets which they don't wish to give up easily, and the presence of outsiders starts a chain of events which changes the course of Lucie's life forever.

If I'm speaking in platitudes, it's only because to say too much about the plot would spoil the impact of a film which paces itself brilliantly, establishing believable protagonists with whom you can engage, and then – slowly at first, but then escalating – weaves something akin to a fever-dream around them which soon comes to focus on Lucie, played with charm by Chloé Coulloud. We know enough of her back story early on to understand that she's just as isolated as many of the disorientated elderly clients she must visit. But she's a flawed character too; for all her kindnesses to the people she cares for, she is easily-led, and makes the decision to be in the house when she's not supposed to be there. Sometimes our protagonists are stupid, sometimes they're mean, but at all times you get a sense of real people. It's what allows the distinctly surreal elements in the film to work. Without real characters, the surrealism would have nothing to anchor it to a centre. It would simply be a disjointed sequence of pretty pictures.

But make no mistake, this is an aesthetically-striking film. Directors Bustillo and Maury have evidently painstakingly selected their locations, and this is an example of when the almost obligatory French blue filter actually lends something to the atmosphere, washing out the colours and making the house look even more unreal. We have the horror staple of the creepy old house here, but with unique touches – rather like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, it figures almost as a character in its own right. Each room has its own palate and its own vibe; the décor shows a careful eye for detail and the taxidermy on display throughout the house is later echoed in the plot – it's the appearance of life, but it's not-quite-life; it's distorted, made ghastly. Over-layered by the alarming, sometimes overpowering soundtrack, the house is a deeply unsettling place.

It's not easy to create a nightmare on screen, but the way in which the plot unfolds – interlinking dreams and flashbacks with whatever version of reality we are seeing – does just that, and well. The film is often circular and non-logical, but it never felt to me that this was because the filmmakers did not have the answers. Full exposition is something we don't get in Livide, but not in such a way that the audience needs to feel cheated. And of course, when you have Beatrice Dalle on screen, any film is improved exponentially. Although her dual role here is brief, her presence definitely counts, and as always, she is mesmerising.

A disconcerting, supernatural-laden horror which rations the gore (though definitely without omitting it) and layers on the atmosphere, Livide is a compelling and sometimes challenging nightmare of identity and isolation, edging into dark fairy story at times and then veering back towards bloody horror in others. Stylistically, it doesn't make for easy comparisons, but anyone willing to partake in a beautiful and brutal piece of original film, then Livide is definitely recommended. But beware: this is a film that won't tie everything up neatly in time for the end credits, nor does it trouble itself with the confines of a linear narrative. Like all dreams, it contains fragments of waking life, but Livide refuses to conform to any neat, straightforward structure.
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