TIFF 2011: LIVID Review
After the runaway success of 2007's fiercely bloody Inside - arguably the high point of the recent wave of French horror films - the pressure has been on for directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo to deliver a follow up. And after being wooed by Hollywood - the duo was attached to a Hellraiser remake at one point - the pair opted to return home for their second effort, refusing the greater financial resources that Hollywood could offer to maintain greater creative control. The result is Livid.
Young Lucie is a nursing student in a tiny seaside town on the coast of France, a town full of fisherman and little else. A town plagued by - if the bus stop posters are to be believed - a rash of disappearing children. It's a dead-end sort of place, a fact underscored by the simple reality that Lucie's training is not in caring for the living but in caring for the dying. She has been matched with a more experienced nurse to give home care to a variety of broken down senior citizens.
And it is on her first day of rounds that Lucie meets Mrs Jessel, a frail old woman who was once a famed dance instructor but who has now slipped into a decades long coma. She lives out her days hooked up to a breathing apparatus and a fresh intravenous supply of blood, her last spoken wish having been to die at home. The problem being that she has failed to do so.
It is on that first visit that Lucie hears the rumor of a treasure hidden in the home, a rumor that she relays to her frustrated fisherman boyfriend William. Not being the sharpest stick in the woods - he was once arrested for stealing a television from a police officer's home - William immediately suggests breaking in and finding it. Why Lucie and William's brother agree to go along is less clear but they do and so that very night, with no idea of what they're actually looking for or where it might be, the trio creep in to Jessel's crumbling mansion.
They find no treasure but they do find Jessel's long dead daughter striking a dance pose amidst a room of taxidermied animals having a tea party. And they learn that Jessel herself is not quite as comatose as had been believed.
A radically different film than Inside, Livid plays as a sort of giallo influenced gothic fairytale. It's a movie of impulses and feelings more than logic, one that operates in a sort of dream state, and one packed to the gills with gorgeous visuals and interesting ideas. Unfortunately it also seems that once the energy had been spent creating and developing those ideas there wasn't quite enough left to properly construct characters or a story that would really drive them home. While the mythology of the world Maury and Bustillo have created is fascinating and unique the characters dropped into it are to shallow and - to put it bluntly - stupid to really care about. Lacking narrative drive the film simply drifts from set piece to set piece without ever quite building up the tension that each seems to deserve until it arrives at a disappointingly soft conclusion.
The visual aspect of Livid provides more than enough to demonstrate that Maury and Bustillo are still among the most inventive and talented directors in the international horror scene today. Their world is rich with detail, at its best points feeling like a childhood dream right on the cusp of turning from fantasy to nightmare. But on the whole Livid is badly flawed, the overall experience suffering from not enough attention to character and narrative. It's as though the film lives in something of a mid-state itself, caught in a nether region between being a pure experimental arthouse piece and a more conventional horror story. Maury and Bustillo could easily make a film that pushes in either of those directions and make it very well and either of those options would ultimately have been more satisfying than getting stuck in this middle ground, a territory that flirts with both impulses but satisfies neither.