“I want one.” —Beatrice Dalle, Inside
How much is too much? That’s a question that’s gone through my mind both times I’ve seen Inside (A L’Intérieur), an exercise in French extreme cinema that I find enormously skillful and repulsive in roughly equal measure. As a rule, I’m reluctant to draw any hard lines on what horrors are beyond representation, because I recognize how subjective that can be. For example, I find the trailer for 2012 far sicker in its bloodless apocalypse fetishization than anything I’ve ever seen in “torture porn” genre, but clearly that opinion isn’t shared by the legions who gave a pass to the former while routinely turning up their noses at the latter. Yet the moral and visceral triggers that send viewers diving under their chairs—or huffing out of the theater altogether—are often unique to them, and to condemn one film for crossing the line while shrugging off the offenses of another is to call attention to your own hypocrisy. Put another way, how can I defend Martyrs, the ne plus ultra of cinematic brutality and torture, while throwing the red flag on Inside, an intense and gory, but far less shocking twist on the slasher genre?
It’s this simple: I have an issue with children in peril. Or rather, I have an issue with using the specific threat of injury or death to a child as a way of goosing up a thriller. Let me explain.
Inside tells the heartwarming Yuletide tale of a single mother near the end of a pregnancy who spends her Christmas Eve fleeing a deranged woman who wants to cut the baby out of her stomach and claim it as her own. So far, so good. Not to all tastes, granted, but a perfectly hooky premise for the new breed of French horror movies, which thrive on intensity and provocation. While having an involuntary C-section performed with a blood-spattered pair of scissors creates a degree of risk for the baby, it’s important to keep in mind that both women are interested in a healthy delivery. Their dispute is over who should be the baby’s mother. And settling such disputes with sharp implements is what slasher movies are all about.
Where Inside crosses the line is a visual device that periodically checks the baby’s status as it sloshes around the uterus, like a CGI ultrasound. Sometimes it’s as peaceful-looking as the star baby in 2001; at other times, after a scuffle or a blow, it’s tossed about so violently that its survival is in question. While I recognize that no digital fetuses were harmed during the making of Inside, there’s something unseemly and grossly manipulative about treating the baby like some helpless variation on the “Final Girl” in a Halloween knockoff. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury delight in drawing connections between the violence between adversaries and the essential violence of childbirth, but the cutaways to the pinballing baby are, to my mind, beyond the pale. Can we please get back to adults jamming each other in the gullet with knitting needles?
With that caveat out of the way, it should be said upfront that Inside is a superb piece of horror craftsmanship—stylish, intense, nerve-jangling, and done with an efficiency that brings it in well under 90 minutes. It opens with the wreckage of a head-on collision that leaves an unlikely survivor in Sarah (Alysson Paradis) and an unlikelier survivor in the unborn child pressed to the steering wheel. Her husband dead, Sarah resolves to spend the night before a scheduled Christmas Day induction at home, rebuffing her mother’s offer to stay at her place instead. Still near-catatonic with grief four months after the accident, Sarah arranges to have her boss, a photo editor, drive her to the hospital early in the morning. In the meantime, a stranger needs assistance. A stranger who knows her name:
The unnamed intruder, credited as “La femme,” is played by Béatrice Dalle, a former model whose dark, deeply peculiar look owes much to curls of her lips and the prominent gap in her front teeth. As an actress, she caught attention for her breakthrough role in the 1986 hit Betty Blue, and later bolstered her fame and infamy with appearances in Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth and Abel Ferrara’s The Blackout, as well as her tabloid-ready flirtations with drugs and the criminal element. But Dalle’s scarily feral turn as “La femme” seems a carryover from her performance in Claire Denis’ 2001 film Trouble Every Day, which cast her as a woman whose “sickness” manifests itself as a cannibalistic form of vampirism. Her character in Inside targets Sarah for a reason—a twist that isn’t terribly well-disguised, if it’s meant to be disguised at all—but Dalle plays her as half-human/half-animal, a praying mantis that’s patient in the hunt and vicious in the strike.
Having “La femme” stalk and terrorize Sarah before going in for the kill doesn’t make much sense beyond elongating the running time, but Maury and Bustillo understand the asset they have in Dalle, whose presence is worth establishing before she takes action. The directors spend the early going keeping Dalle in the shadows, first as a blur in photographs Sarah takes in the park (shades of Blowup there), and later in silhouette as she creeps outside the window and in the dark corners of the house. One could argue that Dalle represents some terrible manifestation of Sarah’s guilt over the accident—I wouldn’t argue it, but one could—but there’s something spectral and creepily unreal about her that the film gets across. When she hovers in the shadows, as she does in this eerie scene, Inside radiates the chill of a ghost story rather than a slasher film. Dalle looks more like the Angel Of Death than a flesh-and-blood killer.
It should be said upfront that Inside is a crude instrument, which serves it fine in the slice-and-dice department, but not so much in the areas of plot or theme. The TV footage running in the clip above evokes the unrest in the Paris suburbs—a favorite topic among French genre filmmakers, who naturally stand to be the most plugged into (and likely to exploit) youth rebellion. But Maury and Bustillo don’t firmly connect the riots to Sarah’s domestic distress, other than to explain the cleared-out neighborhood and overtaxed police department. It’s harder still to explain the never-ending procession of meat sacks that keep showing up at Sarah’s house for the privilege of getting stabbed or shot, but such are the conventions of the genre. If the police offered the proper protection for a pregnant woman terrorized by a not-yet-apprehended intruder, it would make for one short and confounding movie.
When the bloodletting in Inside finally starts, there’s no putting a tourniquet on it. It just keeps coming, in rivulets and streams and vast geysers shooting from people’s necks. (If it were summertime, children would frolic under them. That’s how much blood there is in this movie.) Regardless of their C-section premise, Maury and Bustillo seem to understand that they’re essentially working over well-trod horror territory, so they try to make a difference in the execution—more blood, more intensity, and more atmosphere than the average gore exercise. In that, they come strong on every front, from giving the scissors that serve as Dalle’s shimmering death implement the attention of Freddy’s razor gloves to an unconventional electronica score by François-Eudes Chanfrault that thumps and pulses like a nightclub (or perhaps a baby’s heartbeat).
And all the while, the baby sloshes around in amniotic fluid, withstanding frantic dashes and body blows, and surviving through the most traumatic of labors. Inside plays shamelessly on primal fears—an expectant mother, say, would likely be more nauseated by it than little old me—and makes a sick joke of “baby fever.” (“I want one,” says Dalle, explaining her reasons.) Among the cadre of French extreme horror filmmakers, there seems to be an informal contest over who can push the boundaries of good taste further into the horizon. Martyrs has won that contest, now and perhaps forever, but Inside hits a nerve, too, by threatening mother and child at their most vulnerable state. It’s all too effective.
[ADDENDUM: Via my friend (and great critic) Michael Sicinski, I’ve learned that the producers added the fetus-cam shots to the film against the directors’ wishes and even against their knowledge. According to Christoph Huber, who emailed Michael about it, Bustillo and Maury were not aware of the alteration until discovering it in an early festival screening. Remove those shots and I have no issue with Inside at all.]