Review: ‘Livid’ is a beautiful nightmare from the French directors of ‘Inside’

I rarely remember my dreams.

When I was in Toronto this year for the festival, I was staying at a hotel that was ridiculously close to the venues where they were showing the movies, so I went home in the middle of a few of the days and got a nap or two.  Since I rarely nap, and since most of the time I have terrible insomnia at home and don’t sleep until I’m exhausted, at which point I pass out more than anything, I’m not used to the kind of shallow sleep I was getting in Toronto at all.

As a result, I started having crazy vivid dreams, and while I was having them, I was absolutely cognizant that they were dreams, but even so, I felt trapped in them, and they were absolutely nightmares.  Things were embarrassing, disturbing, hard to explain, working against logic, the laws of physics suddenly up for grabs.  I was upset but couldn’t explain why in the dream, and even when I managed to wake up from the dreams, there was a mood they cast over me that was hard to shake. It was one of the strangest few days of consciousness I’ve ever had, and I think I’m glad I don’t have more recall of what happens when I dream.  I think it would be upsetting based on the work-out I got in those few short days.

I love the horror genre because of how limber the definition of horror is.  I think you can make a wide array of films and call all of them horror films, and you can legitimately make the case for how movies that have nothing in common in tone or style or subject matter can all be considered part of the same genre.  All that ultimately matters is whether or not you are disturbed.  Horror films, at their most fundamental, look to push you out of your comfort zone, if only for a moment, and with the safety net of the movie screen to keep it exciting.  There are any number of tactics a filmmaker can use to do that to you, and with their first film, “Inside,” Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury pushed the boundaries of taste, creating a fiendishly simple scenario and using it to full-frontal assault their audience.

Now, with their new film “Livid,” Bustillo and Maury are trying something different, and I think they’ve made a lovely, creepy, atmospheric nightmare movie, something akin to the Argento film “Suspiria” or Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” more dark fairy tale than conventional horror film, a movie that plays out as a dream, with logic and narrative structure less important than a general feeling of unease and a sadness that lingers at the edge of everything.  “Livid” starts in the real world, but quickly takes a detour into a dark interior landscape that is often disturbing but rarely overtly threatening.  Even the nature of the monsters that lurk at the heart of the metaphorical maze is kept shrouded in mystery by the filmmakers.  They reach for an emotional punch in the film’s conclusion over a visceral punch or a narrative twist, and I find it very intriguing that I’m not sure what emotional place I’m supposed to reach in those final moments.  I’m not sure who I’m rooting for or against, and I’m not entire sure where each character’s been left by these haunting images that have just played out.  I like the feeling the film left me with, and I think this one will stick to me in a way that “Inside” didn’t.  I liked that film very much, but I think it’s a sharp punch to the ribs.  This is a film that reaches for something more subtle, something that adds imagery to that nightmare vocabulary we’re all working with already.  You know when you see something in a film that you’ll see again later in your worst dreams.  You know when something’s really scared you or pushed some button or just plain struck you as wrong.  Those moments freak me out, but that’s the exact thrill I keep coming back and looking for from these movies.

Chloe Coulloud and her young co-stars are very good in the film, and it helps that Coulloud is cast as the daughter of Beatrice Dalle, who we see in flashback.  The likeness is striking, and she’s got one of those great movie faces, lush and wide and round, with memorable eyes.  It helps pay off some of the film’s more subtle beats that we spend so much time so close to Coulloud’s face.  When changes come, they’re hard to miss.  I find myself excited by this because it means I don’t know what to expect from Bustillo and Maury from film to film.  They’re not just one trick and nothing else.  They obviously have a very pure voice that they can adjust to different types of horror, and I think both of their films so far are rich, rewarding examples of dark imagination set free.

The Weinstein Company has the US rights to “Livid.”