Saturday 27 September 2008

Saint Ange (2004)

Saint Ange is an orphanage in the remote French alps and in 1958 it's closing. Its many students are leaving, as homes have presumably been found for them with families or somewhere else. Arriving as the children are leaving is Anna Jurin, who is to work as a cleaner in the newly deserted orphanage. Deserted is a good word to use as it's a huge place and there are very few people left: Anna shares the space with Helenka, the cook and fellow cleaner, and Judith, an adult orphan left behind because of her mental problems. Then there are the 'other' children, the 'scary children', the ones who aren't alive and aren't there but who Anna and Judith both see and hear anyway.

This is a surprising film to watch, for a lot of reasons. The most obvious strange quality comes from it being a French film shot in English. It's obviously French, set in a French orphange, made by a French writer/director and with an almost entirely French cast. Admittedly Dorina Lazar, who plays Helenka, is Romanian and Catriona MacColl, who plays the orphanage administrator, is English, but MacColl was used to starring in European horror films having made quite a few for Lucio Fulci back in the early eighties. Yet almost every word spoken is in English, removing much of the twisted Gallic charm of other continental horror films I've seen recently like Sheitan and Calvaire.

The other is that it looks really good but there's nothing to see. Technically this is an accomplished film, with a powerful sense of composition and lighting and movement. There are many stylish shots and it's certainly no hardship to watch something that look so great. Yet the film is empty of anything else. It seems to comment on something but I don't know what: maybe there's some sort of French national guilt trip over the treatment of orphans sent into the country at the end of the Second Wold War. If there is, I know nothing about it. If there isn't, I'm at a complete loss to work out what the point here is.

Perhaps this is really just a look at insanity. Judith obviously has mental issues, but maybe the point is that Anna does too. Maybe her wounds were self-inflicted, not caused by her sadistic previous employers, who maybe didn't get her pregnant. Maybe she finds empathy with Judith, holds back her pills to let her madness come to the fore and then rides that madness with her, turning it into something of her own that applies to her unwanted pregnancy. Call it codependent insanity or something.

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