By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Sombre,” Koch Lorber, 2007]
No one should want to see even one more serial killer thriller by this late date it’d be like reaching for the JB after a three-week bender during which you barfed up your stomach lining and lost control of your bowels (or something). Lament though I may, they keep coming, and in the never-ending cataract of bloody nonsense something interesting occasionally happens like Philippe Grandrieux’s debut film “Sombre” (1998), a dark, introverted French film that trails after a tortured sex murderer (Marc Barbé) as he stumbles through the countryside (and trails happenstantially after the Tour de France) killing women. Grandrieux isn’t interested in psychological explanations, nor is he sucker-punching us with gore, suspense or those ridiculous, elaborate clue-laden schemes that only serial killers in movies seem to concoct. In reality, as in “Sombre,” the selection of victim is usually a matter of bad luck. But Grandrieux’s approach is better than simply realist it’s terrifyingly intimate (the camera stays so close during the murders that it’s as if you’re caught in a headlock) and subjective, the film itself often launching off into an abstracted storm of confused imagery, not unlike Lodge Kerrigan’s much-lauded “Clean, Shaven.”
It’s a stormy, moody, portentous experience, full of evocations of a tormented consciousness (and observations of a social landscape largely oblivious). Eventually, it’s clear that “Sombre” isn’t a thriller at all the glowering, inarticulate anti-hero eventually meets up with a shy and aging virgin (Elina Löwensohn), is mistaken by her and her saucy nudist sister (Géraldine Voillat) for a reasonable romantic acquaintance, and is welcomed into their family’s sphere. With almost imperceptible grace and logic, Grandrieux shifts the focus onto Löwensohn’s catastrophically lonely spinster (a memorably brave performance), who despite several near-brushes with the maniac’s homicidal impulses tries to accept him as her companion and her burden. The upshot is unpredictably moving and has little to do with corpses, bloodthirstiness or crime solving.
Richard Eyre’s celebrated Oscar-nominee “Notes on a Scandal” is a study in narrative evolution of the opposite kind Judi Dench’s hilariously acidic school-prof narrator comes off as the plummy, amused voice of cynical sanity for most of the story, until it dawns on us and everyone else that she’s a dangerous fruitcake. The narrative movement belongs to Cate Blanchett’s grown-up hippie-chick, married with children but still vulnerable, in her new job as a high school art teacher, to sexual self-indulgence and the attentions of a ballsy and talented rogue of a student. As the kid and the leggy teach secretly rut like weasels, Dench’s old-guard busybody plays psychological ping-pong with Blanchett’s scatterbrained diva, keeping her own agenda carefully under wraps. That is, until her seams begin to fray as well you know going in, and you’re not wrong, that “Notes” works best as a stage for two brilliant and epically talented actresses to engage in a very Brit but fascinatingly nasty pas de deux. (Bill Nighy, as Blanchett’s aging husband, brings up the rear, but he’s really no competition.) It’s an old-fashioned movie in this sense laudable for the classic opportunity to watch the performers, as amply armed as they are with intelligence, insight, bravura, energy and wit, simply perform within an inch of their lives.
“Sombre” (Koch Lorber) is currently available on DVD; “Notes on a Scandal” (20th Century Fox) will be available on April 17th.