For my horror film class I had a lot of room to write a term paper. The general guideline was that it had to be about a horror film (duh) and it had to argue something in particular. My teacher was opposed, more or less, to “torture porn” or excessive gore in horror films. As such, I sought out to prove the merits of excessive violence utilized in the French horror film Inside (2007). I only had a physical copy of the paper and I sought to digitize it. In doing so, I thought I might as well share it here for any film buffs/fans interested. I also am going to digitize another film paper I did analyzing John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Note: I utilized an asterisks (*) with a number by it to indicate where I had a footnote. Those will be collected at the bottom.
Among academics, the horror genre is much maligned. The genre is often castigated as unworthy of academic observation and intellectual discourse. Even more, within the horror genre itself, films that push the boundaries of violence are further dismissed as torture pron. Utilizing violence in a visual medium like filmmaking often produces unforgettable moments that also serve as a commentary on politics, society, and the culture. Certainly, not all horror films that use violence do so with the intention of complimenting and enhancing the story of a film. However, the particular film this paper will study does indeed do just that. Inside (À l’intérieur), directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, is a 2007 French film. Through my examination of this film, I hope to demonstrate that these French filmmakers — pushing the boundaries of sensibility concerning violence — do so not in a torture porn manner, but in such a way as to have a narrative and thematic function that has academic merit. Therefore, in order to flesh this thought out, it will be useful to examine this film in full for its narrative and stylistic functions and how they work together to produce something thematically profound beyond the violence.
The film Inside fits into what James Quandt of Artforum coined “New French Extremity” (“New French Extremism”) and the subset of that heading referred to as the “New wave of French horror.” Speaking of the directors pushing this transgressive filmmaking, Quandt said, ” A cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” Interestingly enough, Quandt himself does not like these films. In his view, these films substitute shock for ideas and aggressive activism for grandiose passivism. Yet, Quandt confuses the barbarism of violence in these films for the absence of humanity. It isn’t just breaking barriers for the sake of showing these grotesque images on film and shocking viewers that come across it. There is artistic, if not philosophical thought behind these films. Contrary to what Quandt believes, the very inhumane violence used in these films is attempting to say something about our humanity in a raw, naked and unrelenting manner.
Ideas are important, but they are not tangible and if improperly portrayed in film, ideas become a pulpit for the director’s preaching. Ideas must be applied to real human events so that they can become tangible and accessible. As Bruno Dumont, a director associated with this disparate (in many ways) movement, when asked in an interview with Cinema Scope magazine why he makes such provocative films, said, “Because people are way too set in their ways, they are asleep. They have to be woken up. You can never definitely say you are human, you have to regularly be confronted by something, to remind you that you still have a lot to do as a human being, and you have to be awakened.” There is definitely something to the notion that film is supposed to move you and in the case of these films, it moves you to shock, horror, and repulsion and a plethora of other visceral reactions.
As mentioned, these films are transgressive. In other words, they are experimental. Therefore, they are bound to provoke split responses to their intellectual worthiness. Horror is about trying new things and that is why it is such a fascinating genre. American filmmakers of the 1970s pushed these same boundaries with films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Since then, American horror filmmaking has not pushed the boundaries nearly as much. The Saw franchise of the new millennium, while a tremendous financial success(*1), is not evidence of boundary pushing. Instead, it was an alternative to the tongue-and-cheek horror films that Scream spawned. While gruesome in their own right, the Saw franchise does not reach the level of gritty tension and unrelenting violence in the aforementioned horror films or in the new wave of French horror films. Frankly, the Saw films are tame by comparison.
Earlier I mentioned that the movement was disparate. That is because some would dispute that there really is a French horror movement. Pascal Laugier, the director of Martyrs, does not think there is a movement. He doesn’t think his homeland, France, is welcoming to horror. Even though these films would undoubtedly push the sensibility of American audiences, there has been a recent influx of gritty horror films and a willingness among American horror fans to engage them. The recent remakes of The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, as well as rumors of an American remake of Martyrs, attest to that notion. Pascal remarks, “My country produces almost 200 films a year and there are like 2 or 3 horror films. It’s not even an industry. French horror cinema is very low budget, it is kind prototype.” Even if it is taxing trying to make a genre film in France, there are definitely directors doing it along these extreme lines. That is the essence of the new movement — that it meets adversity, but continues pushing until eventually it becomes accepted.
Alysson Paradis and Béatrice Dalle star in Inside, a film about youth, violence, motherhood, tragedy, loneliness, depression, and yes, even love. Alysson Paradis plays Sarah, a young pregnant woman about to give birth to a boy. This after she survived a tragic car accident and her husband did not. Dalle plays La Femme (woman), a woman obsessed with getting the baby from Sarah at all costs, including literally cutting the baby out of the pregnant stomach. As the battle rages between these two determined woman on Christmas Eve of all days, other characters enter the fray. Sarah’s mother, Louise, and Sarah’s boss, Jean-Pierre, arrive and meet a most gruesome end by La Femme. Even three officers and a youth reveler arrive to also gruesome results. By the end of the film, La Femme is bruised, battered and burned, but manages to get the baby from Sarah. Sarah endured hours of a blood battle and after fighting to protect herself and her baby, eventually dies.
Both women unquestionably give performances that elevate this film and the characters therein. Actually, what it entails to play the characters is something overlooked in horror films. Critics will praise Daniel Day-Lewis as a method actor for submerging himself in the role of Christy Brown in My Left Foot or Robert De Niro as a method actor for becoming Ray LaMotta (to the extent of learning boxing) in Raging Bull, but will overlook what these two actresses had to go through. An almost hour-long special feature, The Making of Inside, details to the lengths those women went to for the sake of the film. For instance, Dalle, in order to achieve the makeup effect of charred skin, had to sit for four and a half hours as twelve makeup artists did her face. In another example, Paradis had to have her entire body covered in fake blood for hours at a time, which can be very uncomfortable. That is to say nothing of what it takes to immerse yourself within a character and then feel the tragedy that they go through. It can be strenuous and just as difficult as the lengths Day-Lewis or De Niro went through to perfect their roles. (*2)
Nevertheless, the film begins with a point-of-view shot of a baby inside the womb of a woman with a voiceover (of the woman) saying, “No one can take you away from me.” Then the camera cuts to the baby literally smacking against the wall of the womb and the screeching of tires. This dramatic opening, where the viewer is immediately introduced to the central figure of the story — the baby — and then has the baby hurt, sets the foundation for what is to come. Moreover, the red coloring of the womb establishes the tone of the mise-en-scène used throughout the film. Then you get the slow panning camera shot to the wreckage of an accident with the melodramatic, non-diegetic music in the background. As the beginning credits roll, it appears to be a baby in the womb with blood totally engulfing it. Such an image mirrors what is is about to occur visually.
After this incident, Sarah goes to the hospital to have the baby checked one last time before induced labor the next day. At one point, she sits down and a nurse comes over to tell her a story about her experience with childbirth. She says, “I was in labor for thirteen hours only for the baby to be born dead.” This interaction with the nurse is important for two reasons. Firstly, it foreshadows, in some respects, what could happen with Sarah’s baby at the hands of La Femme. Secondly, and more importantly, it introduces one of the themes of the film. There is a fear of not just childbirth itself and the pain of having a child, but the actual process of becoming a mother. Especially for Sarah the transformation to motherhood is replete with trepidation because she is a widow.
Moreover, this short scene works to demonstrate the personality of Sarah. She is four months removed from the car accident, but she is moody, depressed, and short-tempered. Emblematic of her irritable personality, Sarah calls the nurse a “twat” after her story with a frighteningly dead look in her eyes. Sarah’s catankerousness is further evident when leaving the hospital in the way she treats her mother, Louise. She’s standoffish and denies her mother’s request to come over. Sarah’s attitude and mood is born out of tragedy. That is, the films plays with the juxtaposition of life and death. In one instance, Sarah is latched on to the death of her husband and in another, she is about to give life to her son. Such a juxtaposition of feelings creates this void of emotionlessness in Sarah to where she doesn’t cry for her loss and isn’t happy at the prospect of birthing life. She treats the ultrasound mechanically and as need-to-do rather than as an exciting moment. The essence of this film then is the trauma of tragedy.
Sarah is a professional photographer and in a later scene in her dark room, the audience sees the room is filled with pictures of her dead husband. These pictures in gray and black. It’s in contrast to the film’s use of a red hue and a foggy look. This represents that the life Sarah once had with her husband is in the past and not tangible anymore. However, in a sad moment, Sarah imagines her husband there, behind her, and rubbing her pregnant belly. Almost as if to signify the necessity of a father figure, especially at such a crucial moment in the process — the birth itself. After this moment, to epitomize that loss, Sarah has a violent nightmare where she pukes up a white substance and then the baby crawls out of her mouth. Such symbolism should not go unnoticed. There is a sense that Sarah resents her baby. She resents her baby because the baby survived and her husband didn’t. She resents her baby for being born to her without her husband being there. She resents the baby because it is born of tragedy and she is not ready to handle the baby emotionally in any sense of the word. Understanding this early resentment is crucial to understanding the transformation Sarah undergoes as the film progresses.
In horror film convention, a female stranger rings the doorbell, making an excuse about car trouble to get in, but Sarah denies entry. Ironically (given what will occur later and what is surely already on the mind of the stranger), the stranger says, “I don’t want to be alone with all this violence.” She says this because at the time, rioting is going on in the streets of suburban France. Three hundred communities have been affected, hundreds of cars have been burned, and all caused by a group of “bored youth,” as Sarah speculates early on in the film. This dichotomy between suburban street violence and suburban home violence is instrumental to understanding one of the thematic thrusts of the film and will be addressed later in this paper.
As this film will do on more than one occasion, it turns that horror convention on its head when the stranger says to Sarah, “Your husband’s not sleeping, Sarah. He’s dead.” Sarah obviously realizes that this is no stranger. She knows Sarah’s name and more importantly, she knows the tragedy in Sarah’s past. After the police come and apparently scare off the woman, Sarah goes to sleep. In perhaps the most unsettling scene thus far, the stranger returns (although it isn’t explained how she got into the house) and stands in Sarah’s room, hovering over her. The woman then rummages through the baby’s room, putting the baby’s clothes to her face, inhaling, and noticeably sobbing. Such an emotive reaction to the baby’s clothes is a signal to the audience that this woman is not merely the personification of evil. She is a real person with complex feelings and emotions. This is not a black and white characterization.
Of course, a distinction is made in the wardrobe. Sarah wears white while the stranger is dressed in all black. In fact, one could argue that the stranger comes across as a witch. such an interpretation of her wardrobe is not too farfetched if one considers the other known Halloween iconography used in the film. For instance, Sarah has a black cat. Superstitiously, a black cat is known for being the purveyor of bad luck. Sarah’s address is 666, which is thought to be the number of the Devil. Twice in the film, there is a shot of a full moon, known for perpetuating craziness among people. Later in the film, Sarah breaks a mirror, which means more bad luck. Inside is full of such imagery and perhaps is a tongue-in-cheek way of paying homage to such staples of horror convention.
While Sarah still sleeps, the woman dips large scissors in rubbing alcohol and then inserts the scissors into the belly button of Sarah in a grisly and disturbing scene. The fact that she dipped the scissors in alcohol further alludes to the complexities of this character. She is about to stab someone with scissors, but she took the time to ensure that they were sterile to protect the baby. Sarah fends her off and escapes to the bathroom. The mise-en-scène of the bathroom is a startling bright white, which is again, in contrast to the red hue of the rest of the house. One could interpret the red hue of the house as the house being the figurative womb for Sarah. She’s been sheltered from the world after the tragedy and is seemingly dependent upon the memories of her dead husband to feel something. Moreover, the red hue of the house with the foggy look creates a sense of claustrophobia for the viewer that heightens the tension and anxiety while watching. As for the white of the bathroom, as in most horror films, white and the bright lighting of it signifies goodness, a reprieve from madness, as it were.
Jean-Pierre arrives shortly after, as well as Sarah’s mother, Louise. Sarah ends up stabbing and killing her mother by accident, thinking it was La Femme. Symbolically, this suggests, once again, the pain of motherhood and the fear therein. In fact, this scene mirrors the earlier nightmare that Sarah had of her baby attacking her. There is a sense that once the baby “escapes” the womb, it cannot be controlled by the mother or society. The audience sees this in how the youth are represented as essentially anarchic arsonists acting with reckless abandon merely because they are bored. In addition, they are not simply and stereotypically the poor proletariat of France, but the product of suburban bourgeois families.
After the mother is killed, Jean-Pierre is killed too and in keeping with the bourgeois theme, he is stabbed in the genitals. As the bourgeois employer and a man at that, he represents the manifestation of the younger generation’s moral decay and desensitization to violence. Desensitization is the pathway to boredom because the person no longer cares. Such is clear when earlier in the film, Jean-Pierre yells at one of his employees to put as many big pictures of the riots on the front page of the newspaper as possible. The newspaper then becomes not a medium for objective and investigative journalism, but rather a vehicle for sensationalism of a very real and devastating event that has affected countless French people. As a man, Jean-Pierre is a somewhat sexual character. He actually makes a sexual move on La Femme, thinking it is Sarah’s mother. It’s not clear what his intentions are with Sarah though, but one could imagine that it isn’t work-related. As a man, he is taking advantage of her state after a tragedy for potentially his own sexual ends. Therefore, he meets the most horrific death a man can.
During the struggle between Sarah and La Femme, as La Femme tries to get into the bathroom, there is a crosscut to the struggle the baby is having in the womb. This editing technique creates a sense of growing purpose within Sarah to protect the baby, whereas before it was merely a matter of protecting herself. She has to remember that there is a grown baby boy inside of her. After getting frustrated, La Femme verbalizes her motive to Sarah by saying, “You don’t want that child. I can take good care of him.” The viewer knows for sure now that La Femme’s motive is to get the baby out of Sarah, but what’s startling is the lack of malice in her voice. She speaks in a monotonous tone that suggests the inevitability of her mission. In other words, she will get the baby regardless of the costs.
Finally, the police, checking in with Sarah, return to the house. This time they have a youth reveler involved in the riots in the backseat. Normally, horror films’ portrayal of cops is that they are bumbling fools. This is not the case here. Initially, when the police knock on the door La Femme answers and pretends to be Sarah. As the cops turn to leave, they realize Sarah was pregnant and this person wasn’t. Their attention to detail is what gives La Femme away. She just literally had a trick up her sleeve in the form of a sewing needle and got the best of the one cop, then the other by knocking his head off with a gun. The film is driving home the certainty of her completing the mission.
Booming gunshots bring the third officer in, but he can’t leave behind the youth reveler. Therefore, he chains the youth to his body and goes into the house. La Femme turns off the lights and effectively darkens the once bright safe haven of the bathroom. In an ironic twist, the youth reveler pukes at the sight of the bloody and gory house. Not mere hours before, he was setting fire to cars and generally causing violent mayhem in the suburban streets, but now that he is confronted with real horror in a suburban home, he’s frightened and scared tremendously. Such a moment is revealing in the aforementioned dichotomy of suburban street violence and suburban house violence. the streets are seen as a public domain where denizens can air out grievances with various institution and the society at large. Often it is done in a violent manner through riots and protests. However, the suburban home is supposed to be the bastion of family unity, growth and love. As such, to see it turn into a bloodbath of unrelenting violence and the walls that once divided the outside world from the inside, bloody, is disturbing indeed. With the lights out, La Femme is able to get the upper hand on the cop and the youth and kills both. Before killing the youth, she says, “Shhh,” and gently pats him on the head. This occurs later too, but it again shows the complexity of La Femme as a somewhat reluctant and almost remorseful character.
In a desperate moment, Sarah holds a sewing needle to her stomach, as if she is going to kill the baby herself. In other words, kill the baby and save it from whatever fate may await him if La Femme gets ahold of him. Fortunately, La Femme stops that before it can happen. Then in one of the moments of the film that is quite ridiculous, the supposedly dead police officer is still alive, but apparently brain dead. In his delirium, he attacks Sarah tihnking it is La Femme. Obviously, someone that is brain dead would be unable to do that even remotely. Despite that momentary lapse in logic, the end of the film is downright beautiful in its dichotomous nature — equal parts beautiful and ugly, tender and tragic.
The moment comes when La Femme finally exposes the revelation that shocks the viewer. She too was pregnant at one time, but lost her baby in a freak accident. The very same accident that Sarah was in. After this revelation, the evolution of the La Femme and Sarah characters comes full circle and is not so black and white. Sarah started out as a depressed and empty woman despite carrying a child. As the film moves along, Sarah gains something she did not have with a love for her baby. This love is born out of the necessity for survival for the baby and her. She is willing to go to any extreme, just as La Femme is, to stay alive. In contrast, La Femme at the beginning is portrayed as merely a psychopath inexplicably driven to take this woman’s baby by any means necessary. Yet, the viewer learns there is a tragic motivation behind this seeming chaos. She lost her unborn cild. Unable to cope with such a loss, she allows the scope of the loss to engulf her fully to where she descends into madness. However, it is not a remorseless madness. As mentioned before, she showed tenderness before killing the youth. Then in the final climatic action of the film, she performs an impromptu C-section on Sarah and takes the baby. Sarah then dies. Before doing the C-section, she again says, “Shhh.” She too was born out of tragedy and subsequently lost her mind because of it.
The music is also a significant part of the film, especially the ending. For the most part, the music matches the mise-en-scène of the film with its moody, melancholy, and understated score. The only time the soundtrack changes substantially is when there is a killing. At that point, the music gets loud and turns into a screeching noise that vibrates within one’s head. In parallel, the screeching is reminiscent of the screeching tires at the beginning of the film that inevitably led to the car crash. Thus, whenever there is a death — similar to the deaths in the car crash there is a screeching noise. The film ends with violins playing a somber score while La Femme sits in a chair with a completely black background and low-key red lighting that perpetuates her scarred, but almost relieved-looking face. A startling beautiful scene lends some sympathy to La Femme, even after all she has done.
Now after examining the film and fleshing out the particular thematic and symbolic narrative and stylistic functions utilized, it is clear why the violence is so harsh and almost overbearing. It has to be. For instance, the name of the film, Inside, has a double meaning. The obvious one is that the baby is inside the womb and must be removed by La Femme. The more important meaning that perpetuates the core element of the story forward is that the film is literally taking the audience inside the psyche of these two female characters. The film, through violence, is attempting to dissect the motivations for the behavior of these two women as it relates to this yet unborn child. Moreover, the violence is necessary as vehicle to demonstrate what lengths La Femme is willing to go to get that baby and in turn, this makes us realize (after the revelation at the end of the film) just how heartbreaking her situation truly is. Furthermore, there is something else at play here and it harkens back to the juxtaposition of suburban street violence and suburban home violence.
There is a moment in the film when because the house is dark, Sarah tries to find La Femme by flashing her camera. As she does so, we get shots of the murdered victims and the bloody carnage around the house. This isn’t just a clever device by the filmmakers to gloss over the cool special effects of the film. There is something else at play here. The way in which we see this moment through the lens of that camera is a meditation on the way we see violence in real life on the television, in the newspaper and on the Internet. In fact, it is how we see the whole movie itself — through the lens of multiple cameras. Repeated images of violence broadcasted, printed, and digitized on a daily basis has desensitized many to where they are numb to the reports, just as the youth in the film have been desensitized.
This story of a woman attempting to cut open another woman to get her baby is not unusual. Such a thing happens and has happened in real life. A day before this writing, April 28, a news report came out of a Kentucky woman who killed a twenty-one year old expectant mother and cut the baby out of her stomach. The killer’s attorney, Jim Gibson, said, “The defense is concerned that there are significant mental health issues.”*3 Thus, [I]Inside[/I takes a very real and prevalent issue and examines it through violence, but in utilizing violence, it peels back the very gritty and naked humanness that motivates the violence. It is unsettling and meant to shock because it is true. There is a chasm between hearing and feeling, seeing and understanding violence in real life. That is, people hear stories of violence and see stories of violence, but it doesn’t resonate with them. It is not tangible. As such, a film like this, as Dumont said, must awaken us. More specifically, there is a rift between our subconscious awareness of violent events and our conscious empathetic reaction to them. Inside is about awakening and revitalizing that conscious empathetic reaction. This film undoubtedly does that through a Hitchcockian level of suspense, abject violence, and tender moments that legitimately pull at one’s heartstrings.
In summation, the violence in the film could be construed as torture porn, but this paper has suggested otherwise. The violence is a tool for the characterization and evolution of the two female characters, as well as a commentary on the prevalent political, social and cultural aspect of violence. In other words, the film has more substance to it than violence. It has great acting, plot elements that create suspense, a soundtrack that compliments the moody mise-en-scène, and outright horror that horror fans can enjoy. Therefore, it has elements that genre fans will appreciate and elements that those skeptical of the genre can appreciate. It’s a film about childbirth, motherhood, tragedy and ultimately life and death itself. This film does not aim to desensitize through violence, but rather to awaken. As Roman Polanski once said, “You have to show violence the way it is. If you don’t show it realistically, then that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people, then that’s obscenity.” It is part of a loosely identified new wave of French horror not simply because it is violent, but because it uses that violence as a way to achieve other narrative and stylistic ends that are indeed worthy of academic merit and consideration.
*1 – In fact, in unadjusted for inflation dollars, the Saw franchise is the most successful horror film franchise of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
*2 – That is not to say that Paradis and Dalle are as good as Day-Lewis or De Niro, but merely that the art and difficulty of craft is in some ways, equal.
*3 – Apparently, the woman, Kathy Mitchelle Coy, had a miscarriage and then actively searched out a pregnant woman.