La vie nouvelle - dir. Philippe Grandrieux
Like another notorious French film from 2002, Gaspar Noé's Irrèversible, Philippe Grandrieux's La vie nouvelle, with its schizophrenic camera and piercing audio frequency, provokes a dangerous sensation. Like his previous Sombre, La vie nouvelle pulsates like a tremor, as if we're entering a universe after some unnamed, unmentioned nuclear disaster. While it's easy to make visual association to familiar images of horror like Night of the Living Dead when the film opens on a dark pasture with zombie-like peasants, Salò; or The 120 Days of Sodom while a group of Russian criminals strip a group of beautiful youths naked or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as characters malevolently scream into the air, Grandrieux's vision is wholly unique. (I tried not to make the Lynch comparison, as that seems to be everyone's ignorant go-to when comparing the dark and experimental, but it's hard not to recall Killer Bob heckling to the sky as he kills Laura Palmer.)
Melania (Anna Mouglalis, an actress I'd shrugged off as bland until I saw this) is one of those Salò youths, stripped first of her clothes and then of her hair before entering some sort of sex trade. Seymour (Zachary Knighton) is the Yankee teenager, somehow wrapped up in this seedy world, who wants to save her, even if he can't get an erection while they're fucking and even if he isn't sure why he wants to help her. Other than these details, not much else is revealed.
While someone like Gaspar Noé's motives are blindingly clear, Grandrieux's are not. Though I risk delegating the film into easy descriptive sectors as a result of my inability to fully grasp it, La vie nouvelle could certainly fall into the broad spectrum of a mood piece, but more than that, it's an experience. Reading about Lars Von Trier's Antichrist was sort of the push I needed to write about this film, as it's comparably divisive... though with much less fanfare. Some have called the film hollow, a statement I typically find to be prematurely dismissive. I won't totally reject the idea that Grandrieux may have nothing concrete to say, but saying nothing in such an arresting way isn't without some merit.
That is why I return to the idea of La vie nouvelle as an experience, unfortunately one that very few people outside of France have had. Watching the film is an absolutely unnerving undertaking, nearly impossible to endure without a lump in one's throat. It's a frightening vision of a slightly recognizable hell, where tainted innocence attempts to latch onto its infected cognate in hopes to reclaim what they know cannot be salvaged in themselves. La vie nouvelle is nearly designed to elicit (and aggravate) a response from the viewer, and while those responses aren't the most pleasing, it certainly does its job.
With: Zachary Knighton, Anna Mouglalis, Marc Barbé, Zsolt Nagy, Raoul Dantec, Vladimir Zintov
Screenplay: Philippe Grandrieux, Eric Vuillard
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Music: Étant Donnés, Josh Pearson
Country of Origin: France
US Distributor: N/A
Premiere: 8 September 2002 (Toronto International Film Festival)