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Director: Romain Basset
Cast: Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head
Length: 92 min
Label: Artsploitation Films
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
- Four Short Films
- Behind the Scenes Featurette
There was a time in the history of cinema where audiences were willing to invest time into a somewhat incoherent but visually enthralling story. Where films that, rather than lay bare all of intentions in explicit dialogue, allowed the imagery to do the talking for them. Directors engaged their audience from a level of disconnect, the viewer forced to either piece together the puzzle or not. While this still exists to some extent — especially in avant-garde circles and microcinemas — the extent of which it was dominant in genre cinema has faded. The slasher craze of the 80s gave way to the meta-infused 90s and finally saw the natural progression to found footage in the aughts, all of which favored concise, cookie cutter narratives rather than experiments in form. Every once in awhile, however, a genre film comes around that harkens back to more innovative days, one that attempts to push the boundaries. These attempts are not always effective and even the most aggressive among them — The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, to name one — are often received with polarized responses. These are the films that Artsploitation Films seem most interested in championing and their recent Blu-Ray release of the French director Romain Basset’s debut film, Horsehead, serves as the perfect case study.
Battling a life-long bout with lucid nightmares, Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) is naturally drawn to the psychophysiological (as the name would suggest, the physiological aspects of psychological processes) study of dreams at University. When her grandmother dies, however, Jessica is reluctantly obliged to return to her family’s secluded British home for the funeral and bereavement process. Shortly after arriving, it becomes clear that Jessica doesn’t have the utmost respect for her mother. From the moment of her arrival, the coldness between them becomes palpable. With her days in a state of varying recourse with her mother, Jessica spends her nights exploring her dreams. As her stay lengthens, Jessica’s dreams are invaded by dark visions; visions of her grandmother and a mysterious horseheaded figure; visions of death. The dreams seem to be speaking to Jessica, but she is unable to remain unconscious long enough to get to the bottom of their message. Soon, Jessica turns to her studies in order to help her unlock the mystery. She drugs herself as a way to remain unconscious but her experiments grown more and more dangerous as Jessica has to face her family’s sordid past in order to survive.
Horsehead does have some of the pitfalls of a debut film. It is understandably uneven but there is, nonetheless, something enchanting about it. Romain Basset shows an immense amount of promise as a blossoming genre cinema director. Visually speaking, the film is a marvel. It’s a very surreal film, mixing of beautiful sets, vibrant colors, and expressionistic camerawork/imagery to create the sensation of a dreamscape. In this regard, the film is a raving success. Relying on dream logic — which itself is disjointed and metonymical rather than coherent and explicit —, Basset is granted the freedom to really experiment with cinematic language. This is also gives the film at least the pretense of plausibility, as nearly everything fantastic happens within the scope of dreams.Where Basset errors, however, is in not putting complete faith in the power of his imagery. While much of the narrative of the film can be understood through symbolism alone, Basset still takes the narrative the extra step by over-explaining (almost) every facet explicitly through dialogue. It cheapens the film, giving it a more didactic feel than one that begs for interpretation. In doing so, Basset relies on a lot of clichés of the genre — especially the inclusion of rather unnecessary lesbianism.
Beyond Basset’s slight lack of confidence, the film is otherwise very strong. The lead performance by Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux is moving. Predominantly working in France, Horsehead appears to be one her first English speaking role but you wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise. Another delight that the film offers, is the casting of Catriona MacColl — who readers will recognize as the three-time Fulci collaborator, appearing in The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, and House by the Cemetery — in one of her few horror films since working with Fulci. Despite her insistence that she would have never appeared in Fulci’s film had she had to be involved in the gory aspects, without getting to explicit it can be said that Basset does get her involved in some gruesome actions. There is the awkward casting of Gala Besson and Fu’ad Aït Aattou as Jessica’s younger Grandparents, but it doesn’t take away from the film too much.
Ultimately, the heart and sole of Horsehead lies in the beautiful cinematography. Under the direction of Basset, Vincent Vieillard-Baron captures some very powerful imagery with his lens. As only his second feature, Viellard-Baron is easily able to imbue the film with the visual appeal of something somewhere between Fulci’s ethereal and Argento’s lavish worlds. It never quite nails this completely but it damn near comes close.
Shot digitally, Horsehead fairs particularly well on Blu-Ray. To be honest, in the past I have never cared too much for films shot using any of the RED cameras — always preferring the look of the ARRI digital cameras, which I have always felt had a more natural, filmic feel in comparison to the colder more digital look of RED — but Horsehead looks rather stunning, so its hard to fault their use. It should be noted that Artsploitation Films have used a BD-R for this disc but there are no signs that this affects the quality at all.
The audio of the fidelity for this disc is quite outstanding. The mix is well balanced, giving Benjamin Sheilden’s score plenty of headroom while not overshadowing either the dialogue or sound effects. A special notice must be paid to sound department, who really weave together an impressive overall sound design. Much of the resonance of the film is delivered through the power of the aural elements, which are all nicely highlighted through the disc’s 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.
Arstploitation Films are really experimenting with each release and it is nice to see the company growing in such a short span. With this release, they made the choice to switch the bulkier clear Blu-Ray cases — similar to the style that Criterion or Arrow use — which does give the package an overall nicer appearance. As far as other extras are concerned, the disc features four short films by the filmmaking team. A few of which act more as demo reel style features than narrative shorts, but the inclusion of Basset’s Rémy — a bittersweet short about the connection between a grandfather and his grandson — is very much welcomed. There is also a lengthy, fantastic behind-the-scenes featurette that really gives viewers a sense of being on the set and the budget constraints that the crew had to work with. Like the piece included on the Der Samurai disc, this BTS is a wonderful look behind the curtain of filmmaking — a world far too often left unexplored.
Horsehead may be a bit uneven but really serves as an excellent jumping off point for what could be a group of very talented new additions to the genre cinema world. In a country, lately, known for its extremist genre cinema, Horsehead comes as a nice change of pace, paying homage to filmmakers like Argento, Fulci, and even a little David Lynch, without feeling anything like nostalgic rip off. Kudos to Artsploitation for putting there trust, yet again, in cinema that pushes the boundaries — even if it is not always 100% successful.