[a.k.a. House of Voices]
Review by-Kit Gavin Directed by Pascal Laugier Cast:- Virginie Ledoyen, Lou Doillon, Catriona MacColl and Virginie Darmon Source: TF1 Vidéo DVD [France] (PAL Region 2 / 2005)
It’s the 1950’s, and an attractive young woman Anna [Ledoyen], makes her way to a remote boarding school and orphanage in the French Alps, where she has been employed to look after and clean it upbefore it is taken over by it’s new owners. The school’s name is Saint Ange, and it’s reason for closing is the mysterious death of a child there. Upon her arrival in the woods outside the grounds of Saint Ange, she is met by the stern and austere directress, Madame Frachard [MacColl], dressed from head to foot in black, who leads her towards the building. Anna herself is hiding a secret in that she is unmarried, and in mid-pregnancy, which she conceals by wrapping her stomach in bandages, beneath her clothes. Soon after Anna’s arrival, the children leave, leaving Anna behind to clean up the rambling house, with only the cook [Dorika Lazar] and a slightly disturbed young woman, Judith [Doillon], who has been staying the place ever since she was a child. However whilst she cleans the place, Anna senses something is wrong, presences she cannot explain, and starts to investigate the school and it’s grounds in the hope of uncovering the dark past behind the place. Anna learns that children have disappeared over time in the confines of the building’s walls. Then further strange things then begin to happen.
Performances are uniformly fine and accomplished throughout the film. Leading the predominantly female cast, is Virginie Ledoyen who plays the pregnant Anna, who was one of the celebrity faces of L’Oreal cosmetics and starred opposite Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, in 2000. Ledoyen performs well and seems perfectly suited and cast in her role as Anna, the young unmarried mother. Her expressions convey the sense of unease that is found in the house. Doillon, the daughter of chanteuse Jane Birkin and film director Jacques Doillon, is equally well cast as the unhinged Judith. Dressed all in white, with a childish angst about her, her mood and performance seem suited to the ambience of the film perfectly. Horror fans will enjoy to see Catriona MacColl here, after a lengthy absence from horror fans’ screens for nearly 20 years, other than in a small, almost cameo role in Mark Peploe’s AFRAID OF THE DARK. Here, MacColl is barely recognisable, looking severe and stern throughout, a far cry from the still lovely smile and sparkle she still possesses off-screen. All the actors dub their own voices in the French release of the film (as indeed do they dub their own voices in the English dubbed release).
The film is essentially a ghost story, very subtle and with a tacit air of suspense about it, almost so much as to be oblique. Fans of the horror genre will no doubt detect some of the influences from other films – most notably THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS (being the most accessible to a mainstream viewer, but there are others too). Indeed, even the finale of the film might be said to be borrowed, owing to the heritage of one of the performers on screen here. There is an ambience of the Overlook Hotel (from THE SHINING) with the long corridors that Anna wonders down. Bits, pieces, here, there everywhere from well known horror films and cult movies surface here and there yet somehow hold together in the (perhaps slightly overlong) narrative. Indeed that is where the film has one of it’s failings, it is perhaps that little bit overlong in the time it takes to tell it’s tale or to orchestrate a shock.
Direction is elegant. stylish and intelligent, with full usage being made of the house and the surrounding Rumanian countryside being used to best effect, which doubles up convincingly for the Alps. The director, Pascal Lugier had previously been responsible for the documentary that went with the DVD of THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, and with this impressive background he has created a stylish accomplished if at times fine quality film. Indeed, Christophe Gans who directed BROTHERHOOD, was one of the producers of SAINT ANGE. There is evidence of real talent, waiting to be given the right material to be found in the director, and sadly SAINT ANGE isn’t quite that. The narrative becomes lightly lopsided and confused, and at times there is no narrative, other than to follow Anna as she wonders down hallways, trying to discover the secrets that lie with the walls of Saint Ange. The house in which the film was shot and the sets seem to be the perfect location for an all-out haunted house epic, and the vast open spaces, such as the corridors and the hallways that Anna finds herself in when she decides to explore, although grand in size, seem forboding and claustrophobic. Again, a possible influence seems to be the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING, or even the houses in the original THE HAUNTING or in THE CHANGELING. Pacing in the film, does and will at times does seem more than a bit slow paced, with the viewer perhaps waiting, hoping for something to happen, and that, well, doesn’t happen. At one point, Ledoyen, actually pregnant when the film was made appears in a full frontal nude scene, which is not in the least bit presented as exploitative (though maybe the producers felt the need to see some flesh might liven the film up a bit), and serves to add to the unusual air of the film. Direction is at times quite offbeat and off the wall, such as split scenes of Doillon, with one side showing a close up in profile, the other side as full length shot, presumably to reflect the girl’s detachment from herself. And although the movie has a few un-nerving moments in it, it is admittedly neither especially frightening nor scary, however it is moody, gothic and atmospheric.
Atmosphere over story telling and character development is where this film really excels. There are moments of either plagarism or hommage, depending on the viewer of the film. There has been criticism over this, yet anyone who has enjoyed or watched Italian cinema from the 1980’s will see that stories and themes have been long borrowed in Continental cinema, albeit less and less today where originality of ideas, or else a flat-out remake, is the name of the game for film makers. Twenty years ago, film makers in Europe where pilfering ideas left, right and center from more successful films, yet inbuing them with their own individual flavor, and this perhaps is what the director is trying to achieve in the mood of the film, and perhaps, coincidentally through his casting of one of Lucio Fulci’s most popular "heroines", Catriona MacColl, in a small yet significant role in the film. On it’s own merits and without spotting all the little moments here and there from other films, and despite the odd foray by the director into clichéd terrain, the film is bleak, sombre, moody and atmospheric, and enjoyable for the ambience it creates and the sense of unease it generates in the viewer.
So far, there have been three DVDs released of the film, under review here. The releases are mostly identica in terms of extras, and the marked difference is in the language options available. The first one released [reviewed here] was the French DVD, released under the original title of Saint Ange. The film is presented in it’s original French language, without an English language option or subtitles, not surprising given that the film is intended for a French speaking market, however the fact that an English language version was prepared would have been a nice optional extra (hence the low score against the sound – despite the soundtrack being presented in stereo and being pretty clear throughout. None of the actors are dubbed [including MacColl], all speaking in the French language and with their own voices, which the film was originally shot in. The American release, banally re-titled HOUSE OF VOICES, for no apparent reason, was released in the early Fall by Rogue Pictures/Universal on DVD, and used the same featurette as an extra (with English subtitles) and also included deleted scenes again with English subtitles. However the Rogue Pictures release chose to release the film in an English dubbed version, without the option of the original French, which is something of a disappointment, as it would have been preferable to at least have the choice between English and French when viewing the film. Ultimately the film is more enjoyable and flows better in French as well. The French release also includes the original Theatrical trailer that is absent from the US release as it was never given a theatrical run outside of France, it seems. The film has also been released in Italy on DVD through Universal, with the option of an Italian or French track, and with Italian subtitles and with the same extras as the French release (and an Italian trailer too). Unfortunately however, the Italian release the picture quality is rather unstable.
The film has an obvious Gallic flavor and is benefited from being seen it’s original language. English subtitles would have been nice, but the film is easy to follow (or else buy the English dubbed version mentioned above) and the film doesn’t actually have a great deal of dialogue and is actually rather a quiet film barring natural sounds such as the thunder storms outside the house. The DVD is nicely presented and both picture quality and audio quality (given that film is only a year old – not unsurprising) are top notch without any damage, with flesh tones being natural, blacks being deep and the color scheme seems suited to the mood of the piece. The presentation on the DVD is nice as well, with some interesting well orchestrated animated menus. Extras consist of the aforementioned "Making Of" featurette running just shy of an hour, and is genuinely interesting covering all the aspects of the filming. A big thumbs up there. Also included are deleted scenes, which actually may have slowed up the face of the film even further, so it is understandable that they were removed. Also included is the theatrical trailer for the film, which mercifully isn’t riddled with spoilers and doesn’t give away too much of the plotline, yet is interesting enough to encourage the viewer to want to go and see the film.
All in all, a nice disc of a pretty good under rated little feature. Perhaps overlong and a bit trying on the hardened horror film fans patience at times, owing to the lack of genuine horror, and certainly violence nor gore, for the most part just broody atmosphere. Not by any stretch one of the best horror films ever made, though it has all the right ingredients from cast, director, mood, the viewer may leave feeling slightly short changed, especially one expecting a fully charged Euro-horror piece. Nonetheless, despite the slightly slack pacing and somewhat confused narrative at times, recommended for a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening when you are looking for something with atmosphere over suspense, shocks, or splattery thrills. Some will be disappointed, but if you have the patience, seek it out, at the very least, for curiosity’s sake.
STORY : 3/5 BITCH SLAPS PICTURE : 4.5/5 BITCH SLAPS AUDIO : 3.5/5 BITCH SLAPS EXTRAS: 3/5 BITCH SLAPS OVERALL: 3.5/5 BITCH SLAPS
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