This review of Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
Sombre is a film that is best described as “rattled.”
The film returns most often to two locations: the home where Jean (Marc Barbe) brings women to kill them and the car that he takes to either dump their bodies or watch the Tour de France.
In both locations the camera is often bouncing around on tight shots of the action. The camera is so tight and frantically moving, in fact, that it is often impossible to discern exactly what act is being carried out and to whom.
This process of understanding what is happening is not helped by scenes that appear to be shot with natural light at night (at the very least, there is the absence of a three-point lighting system), making these scenes hard to make out in the darkest of viewing environment.
Perhaps director Philippe Grandrieux is aware of this issue. In fact, for him it may not be an issue at all. The first half hour or so of this film is a visual confusion of violence. We know that the man we are following is hurting women—often they are prostitutes—one after another as if the act has become clinical to him.
We do not need to see the action clearly to understand this. The routine is established as a violent blur, but it is natural to the man. That is, until he meets Claire (Elina Lowensohn). He picks her up on the side of the road as he does with the prostitutes that he takes home, but he reacts differently to Claire.
From here, Sombre settles down its aesthetic. Somewhat. It is still darkly lit and at times frenetic. But there is more clarity to the narrative when Claire and her friend Christine (Geraldine Voillat) enter the picture.
This is also when the narrative of Sombre becomes, at last, engaging. The first images of the film, which depict a crowd of children deliriously laughing over some unseen film, draws the viewer in by the sheer incongruity of what is being witnessed. Then, the film shifts gears to its frantic flourish of violence, and the audience is left questioning whether the film will hold a true narrative arc at all.
The dysfunctional relationship between Jean and Claire is what makes the narrative worthwhile. It traverses a dangerous road, in which the audience is unsure whether Jean wants to harm Claire or protect her.
At a certain point in the film, the perspective shifts from Jean to Claire. This is the truly poignant portion of the film, as Claire’s perspective sheds a quiet, poetic light on the brutality of Jean and the fleeting nature of relationships in general.
When focused away from Claire, the film loses something. It becomes vacant and apathetic. With no backstory to explain the motives of Jean, we can only sympathize with the strange internal conflict of Claire.
Even this, I’m afraid, is not explored enough. Sombre is left exactly as its title describes itself: Dark. The film style is imperceptibly dark. The tone is clinically dark to little end. And the viewer is left in the dark about what is to be made from the unexpected relationship between the film’s major characters.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)