After decades of nothing but the excellent 1960 art film Eyes Without a Face, the French cinema has been outdoing itself over the course of the past several years in producing some of the best, most extreme and disturbing horror films in existence. Beginning in 2003 with Alexandre Aja’s relentlessly brutal High Tension, the past decade has also produced, among others, the terrifying but strangely beautiful Inside and the unspeakably violent Martyrs, which is one of the most fiercely anti-religious films ever made. Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan (or Satan, if that wasn’t obvious enough) is a distinctly different breed of horror film from these previous three examples, dispensing for the most part with the graphic gore in favor of unsettling atmosphere and perverse, disturbing humor. It is scary in the way that late-period David Lynch films are scary, thrusting the viewer into a surreal nightmare world from which there can be no escape but outright madness.
Sheitan opens in the disorienting underworld of a Parisian nightclub on Christmas Eve, its cinematography mildly reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (by far the most disturbing non-horror film France has produced in the past decade), where Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) and his two friends, Thai (Nicolas Le Phat Tan) and Ladj (Ladj Ly), drink and attempt to pick up women. Bart has already had too much to drink, and he quickly becomes belligerent to the point where a bartender has to crack a bottle over his head and forcibly eject him. The three friends and two women, Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) and Eve (Roxane Mesquida), then decide to take the party back to Eve’s home in the country, where they meet her constantly grinning housekeeper, Joseph (Vincent Cassel), and the seductive Jeanne (Julie-Marie Parmentier), both of whom seem friendly but oddly frightening right from the start.
From there, things only get stranger and more frightening, as it becomes clear that Joseph’s jovial grin hides sinister plans for the four big city outsiders, especially Bart. The film opens with the modified quote, “Lord, do not forgive them, for they know what they do,” and there is a sense that Bart is being singled out by the demonic Joseph for his especially godless ways, whereas Thai, Ladj and Yasmine are all Muslims (though Thai is non-practicing). At any rate, he’s such a huge jerk that it’s rather difficult to feel sympathy for him, even as the film gets darker and more gruesome. As a narrative, it’s rather incoherent and disjointed, and it’s hard to tell where the film’s moral center truly lies, but as a visually stylish descent into a bizarre world of nightmarish imagery, Sheitan works marvelously well. There are images that will haunt you for days, and Cassel’s performance is a masterful essay in the fiendishly strange.
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