Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury made quite an impact with their 2007 debut, the glorious tropical rainstorm of blood and violence known as Inside (L'Interieur). The agonisingly tense home violation horror - rather like its angry antagonist, played by Beatrice Dalle - surreptitiously seeps into your skin during the early phases of the running time, before unleashing its terrifying payload upon your consciousness. With this in mind, we consider the directorial duo's difficult second film, the highly anticipated Livid, with somewhat raised expectations.
At the point at which Inside was released, French horror was confidently marking out a trail for others to follow, with Martyrs and Frontiers released in close chronological proximity to that film, and Switchblade Romance having been released a few years earlier. The tide has slowed a little since those times, but such was the energy and power of Inside that it feels hard to believe that Livid wouldn't present an extremely exciting prospect of similar quality.
Rather than emulate the uncomfortably real horror of Inside, Bustillo and Maury have opted to craft a picture which is, at times, an almost graceful supernatural gothic story. Proceedings open in a fashion which represents the best of modern French horror, painting characters of moody complexion and cutting dialogue, navigating their way through the muted beauty of the French landscape and dealing with those around them with cynicism. The opening credits unfold in a gently captured montage of beautiful yet unsettling images against the aural backdrop of delicate and moving strings, before the story focuses on the life of Lucie, a young lady who quietly begins work as a trainee mobile carer. The French directors demonstrate the talent they have here for crafting intelligent horror by depicting scenes that are credible, and enjoy suitable depth. The moment where Lucie kindly helps the old patient in his home with his injection is touching, and makes us believe in the character we are seeing. Where some horror seeks to horrify us only through the direct medium of horror, Bustillo and Maury understand that real fear comes from believing in the characters before us, lending the appropriate level of credence for us to believe in their impending horrific plight.
As the story moves to an enormous gothic house where an old dance teacher lies in a long term coma, the stage is set for a truly terrifying period of tension and shocks. Initially, these shocks are suitably effective, with the dark, dusty house proving eerie and claustrophobic. We're treated to a number of jumps, and some genuinely unnerving surprises. Yet as the film moves towards the hour mark, we find ourselves slightly disengaged from the full horror of what's before us. The film effectively portrays a classic children's fairytale; we've got a surreal setting within lavish countryside, the transgression of fundamental morals by central characters, and the proposition of revenge unleashed upon the transgressors to help move the story to a suitable conclusion. Yet there are a few elements which deprive the film of its full impact. Lucie is played brilliantly by Chloé Coulloud, who proves a very capable lead and presents a character that we do actually care for, but her boyfriend (Félix Moati) and brother (Jérémy Kapone) show characters who are morally shallow and fairly unlikeable. Another issue is the nature of the reveals; the tension is as tight as an industrial spring when we can't see the threats clearly, yet their identity is revealed at a fairly early stage, and we lose much of our fear of what is lurking in the darkness.
Perhaps the factor most responsible for the premature reduction of tension and fear is the absurdity of some sequences. The reveals - which I won't spoil - are generally (as gothic reveals go) quite graceful creatures, yet some of the methods used here include full on punches of the like you might see in an action flick, and this approach just feels completely incongruous with the atmosphere which has previously been so carefully constructed.
Bustillo and Maury have still done an excellent job in crafting an elaborate, gore-soaked, gothic fairytale, benefiting from highly competent technical filmmaking which makes Livid superior to a large proportion of its rivals. Additionally, the crew also manage to sneak Béatrice Dalle (who has been involved in this film at a higher level) into proceedings, which is a warmly welcomed achievement. Yet with a story that ends up feeling rather fanciful, a proliferation of unnecessary CGI towards the close, and the sketching of characters who we don't always take to, Livid represents a film that will bring much enjoyment, but won't quite reach the heights of its powerful predecessor.
Studiocanal release Livid on region B Blu-ray at the native aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image resolution is presented in 1080p, and the codec used here is MPEG-4 AVD; the final output is a really, really splendid transfer. The opening scene on the beach shows much depth and detail, picking out many elements of the beached objects despite the relative darkness. The colours in the film are generally quite muted, and there are a lot of darker scenes in the old house, but the detail and accuracy is excellent throughout, especially during the busier scenes, such as the one in the basement of the old house later in the film. I can't find anything to fault with the visual side of this transfer other than perhaps a slightly raised level of grain during the darker scenes, but overall this presentation does the film proud.
Subtitles are in English, and prove clear, well placed, and without grammatical errors.
When I reviewed the Momentum DVD of Inside some time ago, there was some consternation from viewers that the soundtrack was released in Dolby Digital 2.0 only. I'm happy to report that no such decisions have tarnished the Studiocanal release of Livid, with the soundtrack presented in French DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1) and sounding absolutely great. The orchestral soundtrack is rich and well defined, with the range of sounds demonstrating substantial depth. Most impressive of all is the complexity of the sound presentation; listen carefully and you'll hear a multitude of sounds through all speakers, which lends a pretty unsettling aural atmosphere to compliment the gruesome visuals.
Aside from the obligatory Trailer, there's only one extra to speak of, which is a 17 minute Behind the Scenes piece. The segment is not narrated, but rather a collection of scenes depicting scenes being shot. The film set seems a particularly tense place to be, and one has to feel for the young ballerina Roxanne Fillol Gonzalez, who stands immobile for long periods of time whilst the film crew debate how a scene will play out, before bending and flexing expertly on queue when she is asked.
Bustillo and Maury's Livid is a solid effort, proving intellectually and technically superior to many of its horror rivals. However, some of the silly action scenes and lukewarm characterisations let the side down a little, and the gruesome gothic fairytale lacks the punch of the duo's previous film. Still, it's position above many of its rivals and the fact that Studiocanal have done such an excellent job of the transfer means that there's still plenty to recommend with this release, and we also look forward to seeing what the talented directors will do next.