‘Les gouffres’ Movie Review – is a dull affair despite the promise of ambition

imageLes gouffres (English title: The Sinkholes)
Written by Antoine Barraud
Directed by Antoine Barraud
France, 2012

*What follows is a review of one half of a review of Fantasia’ special screening of not one but two of up and coming French filmmaker’s Antoine Barraud short films, Monstre numéro deux (36 min) and Les gouffres (62 min). This article discusses Les gouffres.

New filmmakers can count their blessings when, for their first few projects, they succeed in attracting top notch talent to help add some gravitas and legitimacy to their endeavor. Relative newcomer Frenchman Antoine Barraud, one of few filmmakers of his native country with an affinity with genre fair, made a name for himself with two inparticular, both of which were shown in a single screening at this year’s Fantasia. For one of those two projects, Les gouffres, he managed to hire one of the greatest actors working today, Mathieu Amalric.

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Les gouffres depicts the strange tale of one woman’s (Nathalie Boutefeu) hypnotic, nightmarish experience in a remote part of an undisclosed Latin American country where her husband (Mathieu Amalric) ventures on a grand scientist exploration of previously unknown sinkholes none too far from the resort where she is staying. Shortly after his departure for the expidition, his wife experiences a surreal misadventure which takes her to presumably the same sinkholes where, as it turns out, a mysterious people dwell.

The main issue of contention with a movie like Les gouffres is that it tries to extract from a reasonably interesting premise more material to chew on than said premise has to offer. Extremely loose connections are made between certain characters and their locations, followed by an extrapolation of primitive, uncomfortable emotions people suffer for reasons that are hard to explain. To borrow an example from the film (or what one might assume is in the film, not much is very clear), feeling isolated is only a surface level thing. Isolation then manifests itself in a variety of ways in people. The reasons as to why one person experiences isolation in one manner whereas a second individual will show different symptoms is a complex matter.

In of itself the concept is interesting for sake of conversation or analysis. Applying that to cinema is a different ball game to say the least. A thought provoking idea alone does not a good movie make, a lesson which rapidly became apparent upon watching Les gouffres. Director Barraud’s try at translating the inexplicable to the silver screen proves ill fated. For one, there is very little for the viewer to hang onto. After Amalric departure for the expedition (and, just like for his wife in the movie, his presence is sorely missed) , his wife soon begins feeling out of place in a country she knows nothing of and where there is little to do. One night she stumbles American cleaning lady. This character has come to the region because she feels a deep connection to the sinkholes. What sort of connection? Why? For what reason does character even need to show up? The film leaves these questions unanswered. Must movies provide explicit explanations after presenting images and sounds that are the least bit abstract? Obviously not, although when the basis for said abstract elements is so loose, so inconsequential, it is hard to engage the film on its own terms.

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From a visual standpoint Les gouffres is equally challenging to engage with. The intensely blurry aesthetic utilized during the protagonist dreamlike escapade down the hole underneath her hotel room bed is unpleasant to the eye. Use sparingly and it would have been an effective, subtle tool for transporting the character and the audience down the figurative rabbit hole (in this case a sinkhole). Barraud returns to it again and again, thus leading to too much sensorial confusion than necessary in order to convey a message. Her experience in the sinkholes has ramifications on her relationship with her husband and her career as an actor, but the effects of both threads are cold and distant, as though Barraud is making as difficult as possible as feel anything.

As far as sophistication goes, no one would argue that Antoine Barraud is not trying to go for ambition with Les gouffres. In the end, the movie is more a collection of ideas surrounding a single theme than an interesting story or even art house project to develop it.

-Edgar Chaput
The Fantasia Film Festival celebrates 17 years and runs from July 18th to August 7th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official website for the Fantasia Film Festival.

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