SOMBRE (1998) – The Dungeon Review!

I read some positive reviews of Sombre a few years back; an artful film that delves into the mind of a serial killer. The film received some positive response at various festivals. I’ll give it the artfulness but what about the delving? I didn’t feel like I learned shit about Jean, the films killer. Equally as frustrating is the introduction of beautiful virgin Claire who is compelled to save Jean from his demons. Again, a character I felt I learned nothing about. This film does have its moments, and starts out pretty strong but by the end it left me shaking my head.

The film begins with a theatre full of kids screaming, focused on the action before them. We soon learn that what is captivating and frightening the tykes is a puppet show put on by our serial Killer Jean. The film jumps right into Jean’s first kill, which is obscured by blurred and bumpy camera work. The first half hour of Sombre was actually intriguing. Shot without music and very little dialog added nicely to the sense of malice. The blurred and obscured kills are quite effective. Although the kills aren’t graphic the nudity is, and the camera lingers often on women’s vaginas. Jean often remains clothed in these scenes and his victims are mainly sex workers. He bumps his head up against a few crotches like he’s trying to get back into the womb. He does a lot of smelling of hair too. Mother issues? Who knows! Jean’s killing spree across France’s countryside takes place during the Tour De France. There are numerous shots of people gathered along roadsides awaiting the cyclists. Jean also uses the beautiful countryside as a dumping ground for his corpses. When the shaky camera actually settles you can capture the inner struggle of the character. Marc Barbé is actually quite good in the film and is brooding as hell. You can almost see his mood change and darkness take over. An interesting and complex character that you are left to come to your own conclusions about. Claire, an equally complex character is given the same treatment. Claire’s car breaks down and she accepts a ride from Jean who actually delivers her safely to her destination. She meets up with her sister in a department store and Jean follows her inside. The two girls attend a family gathering after which they meet up with Jean. Claire is quite brooding herself and although we don’t know why, it is clear that she is dissatisfied with her life. It is also divulged that she is a virgin. Elina Löwensohn delivers an intriguing performance and displays an impressive array of emotions. Her sister, played by Géraldine Voillat, is the polar opposite. A free spirit and open about her sexuality, she is somewhat of an accessory here.

The hand-held camera was interesting at times but didn’t really do the characters any favours. There was so much to see in their faces and their physicality was all you had to work with. The characters barely speak! Without giving away too much of the story, Claire makes some decisions about Jean that were perplexing to say the least. Think Stockholm syndrome…sort of. She doesn’t really spend that much time with Jean and considering they barely speak to one another it was difficult understanding her draw to Jean. Claire and Christine aren’t exactly trapped either. The two women have their own motel room separate from Jean. It isn’t until a swim in the lake that things get weird. Stockholm syndrome as a cause didn’t make much sense. Why is an attractive 30ish year old woman who doesn’t appear to be religious a virgin? Chances are there is a reason. Claire wants to save Jean and literally risks her own life to do so. So many questions marks!

The film does have a great gritty and sleazy look and feel about it, which is extra impressive against the backdrop of the amazing French landscape. It is interesting that Jean is a puppeteer that works with children. Although I can’t say for certain it is Peter and the Wolf that he is performing, he does have a wolf costume which at one point Claire dons during the film. The deafening silences and the road noise was a great touch and what music there was I really enjoyed. The hand held camera worked well at times but was equally irritating during other scenes. Sombre certainly does deliver on its title. The film is definitely a somber affair and is occasionally mesmerizing and powerful. I thought there was a little too much downtime and some scenes linger longer than necessary in its close to two-hour runtime. Certainly if you are looking for a straight-up horror flick this will likely disappoint in a big way. Although I often enjoy a film that makes me think, Philippe Grandrieux really pushes his luck with Sombre. When the credits rolled I felt pretty unsatisfied. I had a love/hate relationship with Sombre. Recommended with warning.

Dungeon Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Philippe Grandrieux

Starring: Marc Barbé, Elina Löwensohn, Géraldine Voillat

7 Responses to “SOMBRE (1998) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. I grant that this is an artful film, but I just found the entire thing tedious and rather on the boring side. I may have been me the night I watched it; from your review I think this one is worth seeing again.

    • goregirl Says:

      Scott, this is definitely a recommend with warning!! My husband loathed this film! It’s seediness appealed to me in a big way but it is style over substance not to mention its dull moments! I wavered between a 2.5 and a 3 but went with the latter. It tested my patience at times for sure, but I found it stayed with me and I was thinking about it the next day.

  2. From what I remember about this one I’m leaning towards your hubby’s side!! But I couldn’t even tell you the last time I saw this one so to be fair I really do need to watch this one again. I’ll let you know after u see it again.

  3. The Film Reel Says:

    I think I may steer clear of this one. I’ve got so many other films to check out that unless it gets a Goregirl stamp of strong approval I have to skip it.

    • goregirl Says:

      Hagi-Probably a good call…a 6/10 (3/5) ain’t exactly a raving review! There are a shitload of others I’d recommend before this one!

  4. My favorite horror film, if you want to call it that. Its substance is in its style, its style is brilliant, and its sensuous distancing from the visceral nature of the man’s acts onto the foreboding atmosphere of surviving his company in opposition to his obvious compulsion to kill, for me, is a complete success. Rather than scaring through brutal violence, this film builds its horror through the lack of violence, the nearly unbearable calm. That the film is able to transpose its dread onto scenes of abstracted intimacy between the two characters also somehow allows it to abstract that feeling even more to the point where a shot of a box, a shot of him in a lake is still equally dripping with dread. It manages to distill the dread completely from the violence of your typical horror film, and in that way it is amazing and, for me, obsoletes the rest. I’ve never been too fond of the standard methods of creating horror in films, and with this film I’m able to avoid them entirely with even better results. It’s a win/win, for me. I think if you focus on its strengths and ignore any impulses to find fault you will find it a much richer film, a film to feel.

  5. […] Sombre is definitely a somber affair. This slow-moving artful film has lovely looking and gritty visuals and at times is thoughtful and provocative. Marc Barbé and Elina Löwensohn both give great performances but I did long for more character introspection. On reading my May 2010 review I suspect I allowed myself to be affected by another’s influences. It seems like something I would normally be all over. Even what I can recall, it was still the strongest of the films I rated 3/5 from 1998. I need to revisit this one again soon. To read my 2010 review click here. […]

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