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At first glance, Deep in the Woods (Promenons-Nous dans les Bois) seems to be little more than a French riff on the American slasher sub-genre popularized by the likes of the Friday the 13th and Scream franchises, with a handful of hot teenagers being picked off one at a time by an unseen maniac. Look beneath the surface, however, and you will find that Deep in the Woods is substantially richer in subtext than the vast majority of its American counterparts. Taking its cues both from popular mythology and fairytales, the film undeniably has its fair share of problems, but is significantly more intelligent and original than most would think from a cursory glance.
A quintet of young actors arrive at a country manor to perform a stage-play of "Little Red Riding Hood" for Nicolas (Thibault Truffert), the autistic young grandson of Axel de Fersen (François Berléand), the house's wealthy, wheelchair-bound owner. While the police search for a maniacal rapist apparently on the loose somewhere in the woods surrounding the manor, the young thespians-in-training - Sophie (Clotilde Courau), Matthieu (Clément Sibony), Wilfried (Vincent Lecoeur), Jeanne (Alexia Stresi) and Mathilde (Maud Buquet) - find themselves trapped in a dangerous situation of their own... one that quickly threatens to spiral out of control.
If you want an example of how this film subverts the genre's clichés, look no further than its heroine (and the sole survivor). Sophie is not only a homosexual but a sexually active and decidedly feminine homosexual at that. In virtually any other slasher, she would be the prime candidate for the first character to die. Sophie, however, proves to be not only a survivor but an incredibly resourceful individual who is capable of beating the killer at his own game. (This is contrasted wonderfully by the completely inept attempts of the two males, Matthieu and Wilfried, to deal with the situation.) Clotilde Courau's performance in this role is impressive. She has an extremely expressive face and a wide-eyed innocence which makes her a charismatic and likeable lead, even if she doesn't emerge as the film's heroine until around the half-way mark. Her interplay with Alexia Stresi, who plays her girlfriend Jeanne, is also interesting, based as it is entirely around gestures and body language. It's also a refreshingly believable relationship, a far cry from the lesbian relationships that are usually depicted in horror films, which always seem to feature two decidedly heterosexual women looking extremely awkward. Of the group of delinquent actors, none of the men are remotely impressive either in terms of character or acting ability, although the more I think about it, the more I wonder if co-writer/director Lionel Delplanque was deliberately making a point about about their ineffectiveness. Special mention, however, must be given to François Berléand and young Thibault Truffert, who give their respective characters of Axel and Nicolas a wonderfully creepy air.
The fairytale that serves as the groundwork for the film is, of course, that of Little Red Riding Hood, and it is fascinating just how intricately Delplanque has worked this into the narrative. In her article at KinoEye, Colette Balmain charts the various different iterations of this fable, ranging from a feminist variant (Red Riding Hood outsmarts the wolf through her own cunning) to the decidedly more patriarchal version as told by the Brothers Grimm (the helpless girl is swallowed by the wolf and has to be cut out by the male hero). The latter is reiterated twice in the film, first in the play performed by the acting troupe and later when Axel, transformed into the wolf, recounts how he and Stéphane cut Nicolas' mother's belly open and forcibly removed him from her womb. In contrast, when Sophie finally vanquishes Axel, she has been transformed into the Red Riding Hood who outwitted the wolf herself, while the only other survivor, the decidedly masculine Matthieu, cowers in the corner. It is primarily in this respect that the film, despite its obvious similarities to US slashers, is significantly more European at its heart than American.
The film's greatest stength is its slick visuals. Although the most common reference point that people have pointed out is Wes Craven's Scream (and, by proxy, John Carpenter's Hallowen), there is also a clear Dario Argento influence, best represented by the fetishistic close-ups of gloved hands preparing tools of destruction (although this in fact turns out to be a clever midlead) and the constantly roving camera. Although Delplanque has only a fraction of the artistic skill of Argento, he does use these stylistic touches to good effect, even if the film never truly becomes frightening. Musically, the film is also on solid ground, with an effectively melancholy score by Jérôme Coullet. One of the main themes even recalls Carpenter's piano score for Halloween, albeit with an orchestral backing. I also appreciated the manner in which each character's death was carefully foreshadowed - some pretty obvious (for example, Axel warning Mathilde that "choking can be painful") and others less so.
For all its ambitions, however, a number of elements in the movie blatantly don't work. The actions of the teens are jawdroppingly stupid, even when taking into consideration the artistic license normally given to slashers. A perfect example of this is when a police officer shows up out of the blue, declaring that there is a rapist on the loose outside and warning them to stay put. Most of the troupe then rush gleefully out into the night, giggling at the possibility that the rapist might be about to pounce on them. The mechanics of this type of story require that Delplanque separate his characters as quickly as possible so that he can start killing them off one by one, but I find it hard to believe that this was the only way he could think of. Beyond their simple stupidity, the characters are hard to relate to in any way, since they are, for the most part, so stuck up and selfish that you end up actually wanting the killer to do away with them. I realize that this is often part of the fun in this type of film, but in general even the most jaded slasher movie has a hero or heroine for whom you can root. In the case of Deep in the Woods, Sophie arguably emerges as a likeable heroine, but it takes far too long for the film to settle on her, and she remains fairly amonymous for too long. This lack of a point of connection is the film's biggest flaw and one that, for all its other strengths, at times threatens to scupper it completely.
Deep in the Woods required repeat viewings, and some serious thinking, for me to realize its qualities. My initial impression was that it was a banal and completely generic slasher, but after I started thinking about what it all actually meant, I found myself enjoying it much more. If your first reactions were similar to mine, I urge you to give it a go. It's certainly a flawed piece of work, but there is some very clever stuff going on below the surface that makes it a much more potent piece of work than your average American Scream clone.