Stars: Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen
Sanda's mother has picked her up and she's obviously in trouble. They argue until she spins off the road, thinking that she saw someone on the road. Then while trying to work out how to get the car started, she disappears and Sanda's torment at the hand of unseen aggressors begins. This is hardly a scene we haven't seen before, though perhaps not in Snagov, Romania, but it's handled superbly. In what is perhaps the definition of tension, writer/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud constantly set us up to expect things yet still surprise us when they do while never disappointing us when they don't. What's impressive is that they're reasonably new to film, this being Palud's first film with a credit this important and Moreau having made one prior film called Back to Saint-Tropez. They went on to helm the American remake of The Eye.
We fast forward a day and meet the main characters in our story. Olivia Bonamy is Clémentine, a French teacher working at the French Junior High School of Bucharest. Michael Cohen is her boyriend Lucas, a writer who we find back at home in their large country house playing pinball on his laptop in the greenhouse instead of writing. Both are well cast, Bonamy being somehow both feminine and masculine, a beautiful victim but with believable strength waiting for its moment, and Cohen reminding a little of a young Liam Neeson. The tension drains out of the film as they spend a quiet evening relaxing, which is a welcome relief. Then in the middle of the night, the real story begins, as Clémentine and Lucas become terrorised by person or persons unknown who remain consistently and conspicuously out of sight.
It isn't much of a story, more of an exercise in cinematic tension. There is no plot, merely stages to the terror as they realise the car has moved, only for it to face them down when they investigate and drive off; as the lights go out after they hang up on the police and so on. There's no characterisation, Clémentine and Lucas being who we're introduced to them as and little more. We're given precisely nothing in the way of character motivation for the villains of the piece, who remain on the periphery of the film like the most palpable MacGuffin ever. Only towards the end of the film do we get any insight and until then we aren't really interested. What's left is the skill with which this shocker is put together, and on that front it's masterclass stuff as each component part of the whole is spot on.
The location is great, rural Romania not being a frequent setting for horror movies outside Dracula and its kin, but this is a modern Romania, nothing gothic about it at all. The house is wonderful: large, spacious and cosy yet still in need of serious work. I know I could do plenty with it, that's for sure. We get far more than just a house here too, finding our way into the forest and even some underground tunnels. The camerawork is innovative and modern, with some great framing shots and some joyous views from above. The lighting is precisely what it needs to be, an especially important element here as almost the entire film takes place at night; we can see clearly everything the filmmakers want us to see clearly without it ever being overtly done.
Best of all is the sound, and I'm saying that after watching Them on TV, recorded off the Sundance Channel without any fancy modern surround sound system to do it justice. There is a score, though not much of one, most of the 'music' being the ambient sound of the house, forest, road and so on, or the noises of the attackers, not least a football rattle. Because of the difference in volume between the obvious latter and the less obvious former, we start becoming a little hypersensitive to pick it all up, making the shocks even more shocking when they come. I've read that the sound design is cleverly done, meaning that this would even better still in a well equipped cinema. I hope I get the chance to experience it that way. It would be a treat.
The story, what story there is, is based on true events, though the characters here are fictional. I'm still trying to track down the real source here, if indeed there is one. IMDb suggests that the real story had an Austrian couple terrorised in Romania. Variety suggests that it was Austrians in the Czech Republic. Perhaps it was neither and both sites picked up on similarities to an Austrian film called Funny Games, recently remade in the States. I saw similarities to The Strangers, though this is superior, or looking further back to films like Straw Dogs.
It certainly isn't a new story, though the ending here adds a twisted new angle, and it plays to one of the most common of fears, that we aren't even safe in our own homes. This version has far more depth than that, depending on how much subtext you believe is deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. The online magazine Lingua Romana makes a decent case as to French fears of the expansion of the European Union. It's an interesting take, though one that may be deeper than the film it reviews.