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Hell
cast: Emmanuelle Beart, Karin Viard, and Marie Gillain

director: Danis Tanovic

98 minutes (15) 2005 widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
When Krzystof Kieslowski, the writer and director of the famous Three Colours series, died in 1996 he left behind him a collection of treatments for a new series of three films based this time of Dante's Divine Comedy. In 2002 German director Tom Tykver brought Heaven to the big screen and now it has been followed by Hell (aka: L'Enfer), this time directed by critically acclaimed Bosnian director Danis Tanovic. Lauded by critics and filmgoers alike during its time on the 2005 festival circuit, Hell turns out to be more of a theoretical exercise than a proper drama. I have written before about what the French call 'Filmes D'apartement', a type of film typically focussing on the ennui and emotional dysfunction of middle class Parisians. Frequently slated among us Anglo-Saxons for being 'chick flicks', these films nonetheless constitute a genre of their own with their own rules and clich�s no more or less demanding than those which bind together the sci-fi, horror or fantasy genres. Kieslowski's Three Colours series is among the most notable examples of apartment films along with Sautet's Un Choeur en Hiver. Indeed, the promise of a Kieslowski story starring the likes of Beart, Viard and Gillain must have had a similar effect upon fans of the apartment film genre as a possible film about Dracula and Gandalf teaming up to fight ninjas might have on the geek community. By which I mean to say, this is something of a prestige production.

Sophie, Celine and Anne are three sisters who have become estranged from each other and each of them is trapped in a hell of their own. Sophie is married to a photographer with a wandering eye, Celine is shy and reclusive and has become her invalid mother's keeper and the youngest Anne finds herself in love with and pregnant by her much older university professor who refuses to leave his family. The infidelity of Sophie and Anne's men leads them to become full-blown stalkers as they try to find out why their men won't stay with them and meanwhile Celine is being stalked by a man who in fact turns out to have some important information about the sisters' past and why their mother is an invalid and why their father went to prison before killing himself.

Hell is beautifully shot and made with incredible care and planning that makes every scene look like it was filmed on a specially constructed set. Colour-schemes change to suit moods, university lecture theatres resemble heaven just as easily as hotels come to resemble hell and everything down to the smallest details add to the sense of what the director is trying to tell us. Meanwhile the plot is like a Swiss watch as things move, dislodging others, and carefully things click into place and unfold in order to maximise the effect of the final reveal. Similarly, the performances are exactly what you would expect from a film with this kind of prestige casting as Beart smoulders, Viard simpers and Gillain pouts as all three actresses look beautiful, no doubt doing no harm to their endorsement deals with big French fashion and perfume houses. However, for all this effort, and indeed, perhaps because of it, Hell is an anaemic and overly cerebral film with all the dramatic fire of a game of snakes and ladders.

The film boasts two separate themes. Firstly, there is the distinction between destiny and coincidence prompting us to wonder whether it was fate or simply coincidence that sentenced these three women to the emotional hells they inhabit. Secondly, there is the distinction between drama and tragedy and the question as to whether there can be such a tragedy without the existence of God. Clearly these are noble themes and are the type of thing that would keep film students more than happy. However, these themes do not emerge organically from the film. Indeed, there is nothing in the actions of any of characters that would prompt you to wonder about destiny, coincidence, tragedy or drama. Instead, the director forces these 'themes' down our throat by having the characters deliver academic speeches about them, and should we be too thick to figure out that this is what the film's about, there's a nice little scene when one of the characters compares her own life to what she has studied at university.

The bloodlessness and cynicism of this artificial subtext injection is but one symptom of the film's more general disease... namely that the director is only able to communicate with the audience through tricks and artifice rather than through the script and the performances of his actresses. Indeed, while all three actresses do quite well (Viard in particular) all three are operating well within their comfort zones and none of them gives any indication of being anything more than a bit depressed and unhappy. This creates a film that is all about human drama and emotion but which doesn't actually ever show any. For a genre in which the film's central emotional knot and the actor's performances are a matter of life and death, Hell's bloodless artifice proves to be fatal.

Beautifully made and beautifully shot, Hell should please the less demanding fans of French art-house cinema. However, for all the high-profile actresses and the impeccable creative pedigree, Hell is ultimately a cold, sterile and artificial film that will leave many unsatisfied. On the other hand, if you are not a fan of French bourgeois angst then run, don't walk!
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