Dirs. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
With Livid, the makers of Inside, one of the most intense and shocking of a recent slew of New Wave Gallic horror films, venture down a more fantastical, though no less traumatic route for their sophomore offering.
When Lucy (Chloé Coulloud) begins training as a care worker for the elderly, she visits the imposing and isolated home of an ancient, barely alive former ballet teacher called Madame Jessel. The young woman hears rumours of forbidden treasures hidden within the house, and when she tells her boyfriend and his brother, the three decide to break in, steal the treasure, and leave town to begin anew somewhere else. Needless to say when they enter Madame Jessel’s vast and eerie abode, things don’t go according to plan, and the three find themselves at the mercy of a powerful witch with vampiric tendencies…
Maury and Bustillo’s screenplay takes time to introduce and establish the three friends. They’re from a small fishing town where young people don’t have many prospects; Lucy’s boyfriend Will (Félix Moati) reluctantly works on the fishing boats, while his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) works in their mother’s tavern, The Slaughtered Lamb; the first of several interesting references to other horror titles. They are bored, restless and slightly rebellious. Lucy has a strained relationship with her father, and still grieves for her mother (the ever captivating Béatrice Dalle), who took her own life, while the boys try their mother’s patience in the absence of a father-figure. The family dynamics recall various fairytales in which parents are absent or uncaring, highlighting the sense of abandonment the three friends feel, as well as enriching the film’s strange fairytale aura.
Livid is one of the most striking looking horror titles of recent years. Its commanding imagery evokes a dark, fairytale-like atmosphere, particularly the beautiful old house in a state of decay in the middle of nowhere. The images of ballerinas, graceful and haunting, not only recall the witch-infested dance academy of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, but also speak of the fragility of the body. Later, when the characters are stalked through the house by mysterious figures unknown, several are pulled inside mirrors to glimpse grotesque wonderlands before being brutally slain. Another aspect of Livid’s unique look stems from its blending of the ancient with the modern – the old hag on her deathbed using an unusual breathing apparatus; the creepy, clockwork ballerinas on pedestals in darkened rooms. As soon as the characters enter the house its like they’ve stepped back in time. Indeed, even their journey to it in the middle of the night conveys a sense of entering an otherworldly place. The Gothic imagery, such as the large cross looming up from the mist-enshrouded crossroads, and the appearance of odd ghostly lights in the forest, and the conversation about how chasing will-o'-the-wisps awakens the grim reaper, harks back to old Gothic horror films, specifically Dracula.
Like Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, Livid offers a thoroughly unique interpretation of the figure of the vampire. Jessel is revealed to be a vampiric witch who feeds on the young who intrude upon her domain. She has minions collecting blood for her; indeed, the various posters of missing children seen around town hints at just how long this has been going on. Her ballerina daughter is also a creature of the night, though a strangely tragic one, who in life was unable to understand or quell her blood-thirst. In death she is immortalised in the form of a music-box ballerina, doomed to forever turn on her pedestal when wound-up. The image of Jessel lying comatose upon her bed is an unnerving one, and Maury and Bustillo dip into Freudian notions of the uncanny as they wring out every drop of tension from these moments. It seems that at any moment the old hag will open piercing eyes and set about shedding blood.
One of the most exciting moments comes when Livid references Dario Argento’s Suspiria, not only with the central presence of an ancient evil witch (who in life was a ballet teacher) preying upon the young who venture into her domain, but with a glimpse of a certificate indicating Madame Jessel attended the Tanzakademie in Freiburg – the dance school in which Suspiria was set. Livid can arguably be viewed as a spin-off of Argento’s Three Mothers films, enriching that series’ particular mythology. With its profane and dark occult practices, the staff at Tanzakademie could have revealed dark secrets and powers to many of its students, including Madame Jessel, who after graduating, continued to practice wicked and bloody principles. Maybe Jessel was even taught by Mater Suspiriorum herself. Jessel was a formidable ballet teacher in her younger days and her home, like the abodes of the Three Mothers, conceals macabre secrets.
The cheeky reference to Halloween III may initially appear as a mere tribute to a favourite film of the directors, but it’s actually quite a precise reference that enhances the themes of Livid. Halloween III may be the odd man out when it comes to that particular film series, with its plot involving a crazed toymaker who, using ancient druidic magic, attempts to restore the original sacrificial aspects of the season – long ago called Samhain – but with its creepy mysticism and central theme of the destruction of youth, it shares more in common with Livid than you’d initially think. An American Werewolf in London is also referenced, first through a glimpse of a pub sign, then with its ideas of straying from the path and into primal and chaotic places, and later through several characters’ painful transformations into bestial, primal things with a ravenous thirst for blood.
These references to other horror titles not only betray the directors’ love of the genre, and widen the self-contained mythology – particularly the references to Suspiria – but also help bolster the subtext. One of the most prominent themes of Livid is the corruption and destruction of youth, with the old feeding off the young, figuratively and indeed literally. This is aptly conveyed through Lucy’s profession as a care worker and the character of Mrs. Wilson (Catherine Jacob), who has spent much of her life in the charge of Madame Jessel and the other elderly patients she must sacrifice her time for. She has grown jaded and detached, bitter even. When Lucy sees her she catches a glimpse of what her own future in this tiring, thankless profession might bring.
Livid’s ambiguous ending, with its images of butterflies and ideas of rebirth and reincarnation, may be a little fanciful for some, but it wields power with its tragic reveal. Lucy’s uncanny understanding of Jessel’s daughter’s plight, mirroring her own in many ways, informs her bid to escape this world with its responsibilities and burdens. She witnesses untold beauty and wonder before death, and indeed, in death.
As a side note, should the oft-touted remake of Suspiria ever get off the ground, Maury et Bustillo should really be in the running to direct it. With its astonishingly beautiful imagery, plethora of unusual ideas and concepts, ferocious violence, dark fairytale atmosphere, and its knack for twisting and doing interesting and unexpected things with the vampire genre, Livid is a truly unique and fascinating horror film that, while sometimes feeling fragmented and never the sum of its many wonderful parts, is a truly unforgettable film.