Les Diables

A flawed but astounding work which pushes at the boundaries of what film can do.

By Ashish Ghadiali

The British film industry is not known for its capacity to nurture directorial originality, which is why London-based producer Bertrand Faivre's mission to give innovative directors the space they need is so vital. Faivre was the man behind Asif Kaupadia's debut, The Warrior, a breathtaking feat of lyricism and split-second perfect composition. Faivre's most recent feature, Les Diables, a collaboration with French director Christophe Ruggia, is a flawed but astounding work which again pushes at the boundaries of what film can do.

It's the story of a brother and sister who, having been abandoned at birth, run away from every home that they're sent to, convinced that they will find the home and the parents they've been separated from. Chloe (played by Adele Haenel) is autistic. She doesn't speak, and won't tolerate being touched. Joseph (played by Vincent Rottiers) is her only point of contact with the world. As Ruggia takes us into these lives, into the space that binds their dreams to a grim reality, he's unafraid to look rigorously at uncomfortable issues of sexuality and violence. But what's original here is that, confident in the genuine grittiness of his subject, Ruggia is happy to eschew self-consciously gritty devices like shaky camera work and "real life" awkward silences. He takes this disturbing material, and without diluting it, makes simply a beautiful, powerful film.

By way of criticism, there is a sense that the film is simply too long. As the film moves towards its end, there is a sense that the director is running out of ideas and as we run again over the themes of sexuality and violence without deepening any understanding of the characters' motivations, there is a feeling of gratuitousness that undermines the importance of the film's earlier exploratory strength. In the final scene, for example, Joseph wields a knife and the two lead characters kiss like Bonnie and Clyde, but these actions go nowhere. As a result the spectator is suddenly alienated, and left bemused by these moments' extraneousness.

Critics might also look at the implausibility of events, but this would be to miss what is one of the film's greater strengths. It is the implausibility of certain scenes throughout the film that reinforce its dream-like edge and make of it a journey through the mind as much as through the world. When Joseph is rescued by a horde of children who carry him in the air to the hospital, ransack the building and help him free chloe and escape with her, it's impossible to believe any of this, and yet, in spite of this, the scene doesn't fail to move.

Perhaps this is, above all, down to the achievement of the two lead actors Adele Haenel and Vincent Rottiers. It's their performances that make the film an absolute must see. Dawing on their own experiences (Rottiers was beaten as a child and Haenel is autistic in real life) they're able to make present and believable truths about childhood which tend to be forgotten and which in cinematic culture almost always seem to get lost in nostalgic idealism. Their performances show maturity and strength, and an openness in front of the camera that means ultimately that any feeling of implausibility is ultimately blown away by the integrity of what is actually going on.
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