The Race Is Not to the Swift
Although left in the French, the title Sombre would translate as “dark,” “gloomy,” “dismal, “murky,” and suggests somber shadows. Director and co-writer Philippe Grandrieux’ weirdly edited and photographed study of aberrant psychology is among “uninhibited feel-bad” features in the Museum of Arts and Design/MAD’s retrospective of New French Extremity “sex, death, and the darker regions of human desires [and] taboo.”
One of the lesser known of the series’ ten in terms of maker and players, the 1998 serial-killer take is not so much exploitative explicit in visual sex and violence as it is an exercise in juggling the ways in which the camera- and audience-eye take in and arrange what they perceive. Inordinate minutes of the hundred twelve total catch the backs of heads, especially in cars and then out through dirty windshields, thus inviting the viewer to “see” what one or another character “sees,” a variant of subjective camera. Dialogue is minimal and largely inconsequential, scenes are often dark weakly side-lit or else glary lens flare reflected off water, and the moving camera seldom stops jumping, so the perceived over-the-shoulder “out there” needs to be processed mentally more than usual.
The film lacking exposition, backtracking or any backstory, no reasons are advanced for characters’ behavior. Indeed, only careful attention will catch their names and, in a few cases, occupations and relationships in the world outside that of the story.
Jean (Marc Barbé) picks up and kills women during, following or instead of the sexual act. Why he does this, why there is no general alarm sounded or police presence, and why woman are available and allow themselves to be enticed into his car by the ordinary looking but palpably odd fellow, are all left unanswered. Nor, aside from what must remain a gimmick, a hook and little more, does one learn why he drives along with the three weeks of the Tour de France, producing much blurred grainy footage of that race’s route and the foolish looking spectators who line it. This visual white noise is unessential static against curvy roads and landscapes made photographically unattractive.
The taciturn killer offers help and then a ride home to brunette Claire (Elina Löwensohn), who has driven her sister Christine’s (Géraldine Voillat) car off the road during a downpour. She and that dyed blonde sister soon leave with him to escape their concerned pushy mother’s (Sadija Sada Sarcevic) garden party.
The heavy-drinking undemonstrative man takes some half the film to turn nasty on the girls, though he does not kill them and even establishes a strange coupledom with virgin Claire. Though the three skinny-dip together, and though Claire sneaks into his room to put on his unexplained ape outfit and draws the two of them into a dangerous alcohol- and drug-fueled three-man foursome situation, he is relatively forbearing with them.
Can this be love? Claire listens to the neon kitchen story of a widowed mother who tells a tale of what love was like in her teen life long ago and what it was not with a late, unobjectionable but unloved husband.
Claire does offer herself to the killer Jean, but he goes off, presumably to follow the bicycle race and to kill again. There is no point to their actions, or to the whole film, where technique becomes annoying rather than extreme or unsettling.
(Released by Koch Lorber Films; not rated by MPAA.)