Deep in the Woods opens with a flurry of coarse, increasingly brutal activity, seemingly as caught up in its own tumbling progression as it expects its audience to be. Here a mean narrative threads its way through sexual violence and bare fresh, souring its lovers-on-the-run tangent with the body-horror sadism of the New French Extremity. It’s a bold start, one that flings its blunt psychological ideas to the ground and makes a show of rubbing them in the dirt. But this frenzied pitch is impossible for Benoit Jacquot’s film to sustain. Faced with a terminus of both shock and action, it winds down toward a non-climax that, although natural to the story established so far, feels like an admission of its inability to guide its craziness to a satisfying conclusion.
This closing return to the confines of civilization (and in turn to the boundaries of traditional narrative) may be a calculated move by Jacquot, who throws his hand in with his despicably antisocial hero from the beginning. Timothée (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a street urchin with a thin beard and saucer eyes, who begins his pursuit of the ethereal Joséphine (Islid Le Besco) by playing on her physician father’s weakness for charity. Once given access to their house, posing as a deaf mute, he unveils some strange powers, moving objects with his mind and claiming to be the son of God. Set in a rustic pre-industrialized France, these claims have a scary believability. Among these powers is the ability to control people like marionettes, causing them to crawl along the floor or seize up fits of agony.
Timothée asserts his control by attacking and raping Joséphine, who then follows him as he sets off. Jacquot leaves it ambiguous whether this is a perverse choice or if she’s a slave to his dark magic. Throughout this section, Timothée remains a quietly terrifying character, a scraggly, filthy-dirty monster who seems to delight in inflicting pain. He works best as a pure embodiment of something: wildness, evil, the beastliness of the Id, the body itself. The way he makes people twist and move against their will suggests the power of forces that make us do things our minds reject. But the director lacks the fortitude or interest to keep him confined in this dark place. This is unfortunate, because Deep in the Woods works best when it’s clambering over the pitch-black recesses of the soul, evoking an eerie pastoral horror, drawing campfire flames and moonlit forests into hellish symbols.
As the film rushes toward the peak of its fevered first half, Timothée is wrenched down and humanized. He develops a wound that tests his powers and begins to fall for Joséphine. Part of this seems like Jacquot attempting to fine-tune his psychological subtext, but casting a dialectic where a human character is twisted and tempted by an immovable force, only to have that force surrender to human impulses, seems dishonest. Transitioning Timothée from a black symbol to a remotely sympathetic person forces us to call into question all the nasty business of the film’s early action, especially that awful rape scene.
Worst of all, the transition from a nightmare wilderness back to the staid wooden houses of a 19th-century village makes the film’s ending seem muted. A cross-examination and courtroom scene, which function as knowingly pathetic attempts to explain what we’ve witnessed, are not inexplicable, but are dreary and jarring, a practical conclusion to a film which begs for a much bigger ending.
Deep in the Woods will play on March 5 and 7 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.