AKA: House of Voices
I love Martyrs. It’s such an intense, visceral just-believable-enough story (i am literally afraid of fanatics). It’s perfectly paced; well-acted; deeply disturbing; and utterly shocking even to this jaded old cynic. Not satisfied with director, Pascal Laugier’s, 99 minutes of genius (ok, maybe I’m delving into hyperbole here), I sought more from the man after first seeing it, but nothing was available at the time. I recently revisited Martyrs, and my quest to find more from Laugier. His feature debut, Saint Ange (AKA: House of Voices) was available with a “very long wait” from Netflix (yes, Netflix still does physical media). So, I very long waited until it finally arrived in the mail. It’s no Martyrs, but it’s pretty damn good. (hot tip!: if you put your “very long wait” dvds at the top of your queue, Netflix will send one to you as soon as it’s available… EVEN IF YOU ALREADY HAVE YOUR DVD LIMIT OUT!!! I know, I know. I should start a patreon for that tip alone, right?)
A bunch of old dudes (their roles are not really explained) drop off the new cleaning lady (in this case, “lady” means very young woman), Anna, at Saint Ange Orphanage in France. The orphanage is shutting down after years of service, possibly due to the fact that there are fewer orphans now that the war (WWII) has been over for 15 years. Since the place is closing down, only Helenka, the resident cook, and a Judith, an (possibly) intellectually disabled young woman (the last orphan), live there. And the hardass headmistress stops by once or twice to be hardass. Helenka, points out that Anna is too beautiful to be sent away to this remote site. Turns out, Anna is there to hide her pregnancy. The implication is that she was abused and raped in her previous position. The reality of 1950s France is that she, the victim, is the one who is ostracized and exiled. She becomes obsessed with the orphanage’s history and her suspicions of abuse and neglect. She irresponsibly recruits Judith to help her learn the secrets of the creepy old place. Even going so far as to convince her to secretly stop taking her medication. She also turns on old Helenka, thinking she is keeping secrets from her, despite Helenka’s obvious motherly affection for Anna. Anna’s obsession consumes her over the course of her pregnancy, threatening to plunge her into madness.
As I mentioned in the intro to this post, Saint Ange is no Martyrs. And that is totally fine. I sought more from Laugier hoping to find some more boundary-pushing violent drama that would leave me emotionally drained and melancholy, and I found a fairly straightforward (with a bit of a twist) ghost/haunting story that left me emotionally drained and melancholy. The film is deeply atmospheric as it unravels the dubious history of the institution. The halls of the nearly empty orphanage echo whispers as shadows obscure doorways and corners. The viewer can’t help but get onboard with Anna’s quest to uncover suspected negligence or worse. And the pieces seem to fall into place – a mysterious box of children’s personal files quickly hidden away by the headmistress; Helenka’s obvious trauma from some bit of the place’s history (“there were too many of them!”); Judith’s state and her inability to remember what happened to her when she was brought to Saint Ange; etc. But, is this confirmation bias or did something terrible happen there? This ambiguity is played perfectly well. We are kept guessing until the very end. And, just as in life, the answers Anna was seeking are complex. Laugier shows a daring in Saint Ange that would be capitalized upon to full effect in Martyrs. In the former, we see brief moments of shock and catch glimpses of man’s inhumanity. The latter, focuses on those themes. Laugier’s cynicism in these two films could easily have made them emotionally barren, but he anchors them so successfully in his characters that we are devastated by their fates. And that’s just a what a good tragedy should do to us.
THE FINAL CUT: Saint Ange is a fairly straightforward ghost story made great through the creativity of director, Pascal Laugier, and his spin on the subgenre. The isolation and atmosphere of the film keeps the viewer on edge throughout, and the ambiguity of the haunting keeps you guessing. Fans of Martyrs will catch glimpses of that film’s themes in this much more subdued haunter.