Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Saint Ange (2004) Review

Saint Ange (2004) Directed by Pascal Laugier

Saint Ange (regretfully retitled "House of Voices" for its U.S. release) is the first feature film by director Pascal Laugier, who went on to direct the highly controversial Martyrs.

In Saint Ange, we follow young Anna as she arrives at a recently abandoned orphanage to assist with its cleaning. The only resident that remains is Juliet, a mentally disturbed young woman who was brought to the orphanage years ago, and is now looked after like a daughter by Helenka, another housekeeper. As Anna works at the orphanage, she begins to believe that something sinister happened there in the past, and is confronted with a number of apparently supernatural occurrences.

On a purely technical level, Saint Ange is incredible. If there's ever a film worthy of being called "atmospheric," this is it. Each shot in this movie displays Laugier's craftmanship. The lush greenery of the French countryside is contrasted with the decay and rot of the orphanage, and as Anna descends deeper into the heart of the mysteries of the building (and into the heart of the building itself), the sense of claustrophobia, paranoia, and dread build ever higher. While the sound and score only add to the mood, this movie isn't afraid to let you sit in silence either. All of these things combine in a slow buildup to a conclusion reminicent of a nightmare.

If there's one place that Saint Ange suffers though, it's the plot. In most places, the film is carried by its visuals and mood, but occasionally these aren't enough to support it. The first half of the film drags at times, and at its worst resembles every other haunted house movie you've ever seen - we hear noises in dark hallways, see flickering lights, and so on. It's only when Anna becomes proactive and starts searching for the true history of the orphanage that things get truly disturbing.

It's also interesting to compare this film thematically to Laugier's follow-up Martyrs. Both feature pairs of female characters, one mentally disturbed or insane, the other acting as a caretaker and "investigator" into mysteries that others would prefer stay hidden. Both focus on literal and figurative descents into the secrets behind seemingly ordinary locations, and both involve quests for hidden knowledge that consume the protagonists in the end.

But where the themes and craftsmanship of Martyrs are almost entirely overwhelmed by its excessive brutality and gore, Saint Ange is remarkably restrained. This film has the same creeping dread that's present in Martyrs, but in a way it's almost more effective because we're forced to allow our imagination to scare us. However, this proves to be the downfall of Saint Ange; ultimately we're left with too many unresolved questions. The ending is ambiguous - while we definitely know that something sinister happened in this orphanage, it's hard to nail down exactly what. If Laugier can find a way in his next film to strike a balance between what to show us and what to leave to our imaginations, he could potentially produce a truly great film. His technical skills are clearly developed, and he's shown that he's willing to put enough thought into the themes and ideas behind his films to elevate them beyond mindless scare-fests.

7 / 10

Pros: Incredible artistry that effectively builds dread and concludes in a truly dreamlike ending.
Cons: The story isn't anything new, and leaves a little too much open to interpretation

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