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“Sombre,” “Notes on a Scandal”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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