Sombre (1998)

19 06 2008

Quite possibly the hyper, kinetic, and more violent cousin to Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round. Just like in that film, we have something of great emotional weight underneath all the surrealistic red herring. Grandrieux’s style is more, shall we say, accelerated. In fact many of the early sequences are stylized to a point beyond comprehension. In addition, much of the “drama” fells slightly forced into coming off as “bleak” or “odd” or whatever other adjectives that fits. Still, there is something much more personal buried beneath the film’s inaccessible and abstract presentation. Like all great films, Sombre accurately portrays the unsolvable mysteries of human interaction and does so in a way that captures all the nuance and textures of our existence.

In one of the most enigmatic opening sequences in recent history, Grandrieux seemingly introduces all his technical tools. The camera follows a car weaving through an empty mountainside accompanied by the ambiance of a unknown sound. Both of these physical elements will reappear in Sombre many times. The car is inhabited by the film’s protagonist, Jean and the sound is revealed to be that of wind hitting a face hanging out of a moving vehicle. Both of these details seem irrelevant but if one is not at least mildly interested in their presence, they are a likely to be frustrated by the rest of the film. It is these sensory details that drive the film and leads us into its core, emotionally speaking.

Another point of clear frustration for viewers, but complete bliss for others is the way in which Grandrieux chooses to present his images. For the first twenty minutes, Jean is trapped inside of darkness, literally. The darkness for many of the earliest sequences come close to slipping into self-parody. It is difficult for us to see anything, let alone comprehend the purpose of whatever is going on. Body parts seem to quickly float, if only for a sequence. It is almost as though the characters are underwater, waving themselves around to avoid drowning. While these sequences are indeed captivating, they seem trivial, almost academic once Claire is introduced.

It is here that a conflict comes into play: Jean, the serial rapist, helps out the virgin, Claire and her sister. It is a setup that is completely fairytale. Claire is Jean’s way out of darkness. She is quite literally the light; she is introduced with a radiating glow in several sequences. Perhaps such simple-minded characterization could write off the film’s much more perceptive touches, but the fairytale setup does not end at its simple description nor does it provide a open-and-shut case of happiness. It does the exact opposite, actually as Jean rejects his “savior” (in a sense) and returns to his old ways. Yet, he is not a villain nor is he a “friendly rapist/murder.” It is perhaps impossible to create a character, who does what Jean does, and still make this person sympathetic. We do not sympathize with him, or even suppose to “like” him but he is still a human being with an infinite amount of complexities that makes him intriguing. The same goes for Claire thus explaining the film’s greatness. It fleshes its characters out in the most abstract and unconventional of ways, and goes deeper than any straight-forward “character study.”

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4 responses

19 06 2008
kiddo

Beautiful review, Jake! I’ll be checking this one out. The only thing I miss in this review is a “Herzog-comparison”… I think you should mention Herzog in all of your reviews. It’s just too awesome every time – and often seemingly appropriate (When is talking about Herzog NOT appropriate?).

19 06 2008
Jake Savage

I do mention Herzog all the time! He and Korine seem to be name dropped in about 90% of my reviews. Perhaps I need to take Armond White’s course on namedropping to learn some new people that fit the Herzog / Korine aesthetic.

19 06 2008
Eli

Indeed, only a skilled name dropper could link together the likes of Godard’s Histoires du Cinema and Spielberg’s Hookor the newest Indiana Jones.

19 06 2008
kiddo

No, stick to Herzog (and Korine, if you must (eh, haven’t seen Gummo or Mister Lonely yet – will do))! Keep up the good work you’ve started, my dear friend.

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