Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2007

Who are They?

French horror film 'Them' creates a disturbing, unnerving portrait of ambiguous fears from unspeakable sources

Ils (Them)
Dark Sky Films
Director: David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Screenplay: David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Starring: Olivia Bonamy, Michael Cohen, Adriana Mocca and Maria Roman
Rated R / 1 hour, 17 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

It really doesn't matter whether or not Them was actually based on a true story -- or how faithful it is to the supposed actual events. The Coen Brothers famously opened Fargo with a disclaimer, insisting that the film was based on a true story and that all the details had been kept intact.

Of course, not a shred of it was true. It was just Joel and Ethan having fun with us -- maybe asking us to consider it through the eyes of complete plausibility. Perhaps a comment on our obsession with "true-life" stories.

And so, regardless of the truthiness of Them's story, it remains an intriguing, oft-gripping account of a couple that get terrorized in their home by shadowy figures unknown. Taking stylistic cues from the likes of The Blair Witch Project by utilizing a minimalist, documentary style, directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud allow the fear and strangeness to creep up on us. We can easily get put on edge if we know there's a supernatural entity present, or if we know someone is out to get our protagonist, or if the enemy is something we can easily recognize as evil.

But Them never makes such distinctions easy for us to figure out. The events unfold exclusively from the point of view of the characters, whose only knowledge of the danger of their own surroundings comes from the noises they hear, the lights they see outside, the knocks on the door, the whispers in the woods . . .

The subjective POV of the camera is hugely important, framing its characters only in their immediate surroundings -- sometimes showing us what's just in front of them, or just behind them, but never cheating by intercutting them with anything too obviously threatening. In other words, we never meet the bad guys. And only in the final shot -- which, let me put it in big letters, is BRILLIANT and chilling in its sheer ambiguous casualness -- do we get a clue as to the context of the characters' danger. Up until that point, the situation has gone from eerie to terrifying to downright creepy. And then those final shots . . .

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Back to the characters. Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) is a teacher living in a large cottage in the French countryside with her boyfriend, Lucas (Michael Cohen). It's a perfectly ordinary day, and they have a mostly ordinary evening . . . but once night comes and it's time for bed, things start happening. At first they think it's nothing, of course.

But they're wrong. It's something. We know this because of the opening scene, during which we introduced to our always-elusive antagonists and another pair of victims.

Actually, the first scene, while well-directed, is the only one I have a major problem with. The way it plays out seems to go against what we eventually find out about whoever or whatever is stalking this happy couple in their cottage. So, in retrospect, the film seems to be cheating in the opening scene. And for what? Just for manipulative effect?

Regardless, Them picks up quite a bit of steam -- in rapidly escalating fashion -- once Clementine and Lucas become terrorized and have to ambiguously fight for survival from . . . well, they don't know what. We experience their fear as they experience it, which is to say they're in the dark for most of the time. When we first see our aggressors, it's even scarier. Or maybe scary isn't exactly the right word. Off-putting, to say the least.

There seems to be some meat missing from the film -- perhaps the budget was excessively low, I'm not sure. Still, during its brief running time, Them creates an alarming and increasingly scary atmosphere as it builds to its exceptionally disturbing conclusion.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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