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Michelle Thomas

Published April 21st, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

Hell (L’Enfer) Review

Classification: 15 Director: Danis Tanovic Rating: 2/5

Or, as it might have alternatively been titled, if it were a Checkov play, Three Miserable Sisters.

Paris, the present. Sophie (Beart, still unfeasibly good looking, b*&%c!) is married with two young children, but suspects her handsome, cool photographer husband (Gamblin) of having an affair – rather than confronting him, she humiliates herself by spying on him. Her younger sister, Celine (Viard), lives a repressed, lonely life, loyally taking the train every week to visit their mute, wheelchair-bound mother (an unrecognisable Bouquet), and read to her from books of seemingly random facts. Anne (Gillain), the baby of the family, is a Sorbonne student indulging in that most clichéd of student pastimes – allowing herself to be impregnated by her professor (Perrin), who also happens to be the father of her best friend. Ignorant of the identity of Anne’s lover, the girl and her mother urge Anne to fight for her love, though Frederic is desperate to end the affair.

The sisters have lost touch with each other and have clearly been traumatised by some event in their past; all three are emotionally damaged in some way. The key to the past is a young man named Sebastian (Canet), who encounters Celine in a café near her house and after am embarrassing misunderstanding explains to Celine the sequence of events that led to the break-up of their family, and may bring belated healing.

Hell opens with an amazing, nightmarish credit sequence that is beautiful and elaborate and entirely misleading – a cuckoo in the nest. This red herring may explain why the early part of the film, which is slow and disjointed, feels so unsatisfactory. It builds like an Agatha Christie film, piecing together a puzzle, but there isn’t really a mystery here, just a lot of overly portentous symbolism – bees drowning in drinks, Anne discussing the myth of Medea – and bizarrely melodramatic music. We don’t really know why we’re watching the film; we don’t know how the three stories inter-relate, and the whole thing feels bizarrely pointless and slow.

Ironically, as the film unravels towards a resolution, it improves (or just speeds up a bit – something finally happens). Sophie kicks her husband out, and regains some emotional equilibrium. She finally spends some time with her children, which is a huge relief to the viewer – Sophie’s earlier behaviour is selfish in the extreme, so it’s a pleasure to see her behaving normally at last. Celine finally relaxes enough to speak to the conductor on her train, and Anne deals with her professor.

Danis Tanovic based Hell on a script written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz in collaboration with the late, great, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Tanovic, whose previous film, No Man’s Land, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, seems a bit overwhelmed by treading in the master’s footsteps. The cinematography is excellent, all claustrophobic interiors echoing the protagonists’ trammelled lives, and there are some good things – a great, and great looking, cast; fine performances – but it all feels very self-important and hollow at the core, and its hard to care about any of the characters, unsympathetic as they are.

This may be because the film intercuts between them to such an extent, not spending enough time with any of the sisters to really let us understand their motivation. I did like Anne’s boots though.


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