Eye For Film >> Movies >> Isabelle (2018) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Which of these people would you least like to live next door to: a paralysed survivor of child abuse who gazes out of her window all day or a woman who becomes obsessed with the idea that said paralysed person is staring at her personally, and threatens her mother as a result? Your answer to that question is likely to have a significant influence on your feelings about this film.
One might feel a little more sympathy for the angry neighbour, Larissa (Amanda Crew), upon learning that she's just experienced pregnancy loss (something we witness in the opening scenes) and may well be in the grip of post-partum psychosis. Hallucinations are not uncommon in this situation, so it makes sense that she would hear her baby crying, and at first she seems able to maintain a rational perspective on this, though husband Matt (Adam Brody) still worries about leaving her alone whilst he goes to work. When she starts thinking that she's seeing the paralysed Isabelle (Zoë Belkin) inside her house, things take a more worrying turn. One of these women is a danger to the other - but which way round?
To add to the complexity of the situation, there's the fact that Larissa was clinically dead for one minute after suffering from eclampsia. Although surviving temporary death is more and more common in real life and not usually very exciting, in horror films it's frequently associated with spiritual danger. Larissa talks about dreams of something trying to pull her down into flames. Matt visits a local pastor who talks about possession and supplies dire warnings. At a more mundane level, one can easily imagine that Larissa is suffering from survivor's guilt and feeling that she should die because her child did. Meanwhile, it emerges that Isabelle was abused by her father in a process involving some kind of Satanic ritual. Could she be possessed by the spirit of something malevolent? Or are we just on old fashioned disabled villain territory again?
The film walks an uneasy line. Obnoxious as she is, it's difficult to like Larissa, yet we're obviously not seeing her at her best. Brody works hard to let us see her through Matt's eyes and understand how far things have gone wrong for her. Balancing this is Sheila McCarthy, who delivers an achingly brittle performance as Isabelle's mother, driven to desperation by long years of caring for her child and wanting to protect her from further suffering. The trauma she experiences in trying to help her living daughter provides some perspective on Larissa's trauma over her dead son.
The biggest problem with all this, aside from the slenderness of the plot, is that director Robert Heydon keeps trying to raise the tension with shots of Isabelle that rely on representing her damaged body as monstrous and on implying that she's to blame for a gaze she is physically unable to break. There's a notable absence of the kind of footage that might suggest she's an innocent person with something else looking out from within her. This unbalances the film and leaves it reliant on audience prejudice - Larissa may be losing it but at least she looks normal. It's lazy, exploitative filmmaking that undermines some of the director's genuinely skilful work in using timing and sound design to create a sense of developing threat. There's some good editing work by Diane Brunjes but the film lapses too easily into cliché, suggesting a lack of confidence in its central vision - before we even get to the glowing red eyes that are pure kitsch.
Pregnancy loss is obviously a highly emotive subject for some viewers so there's no denying that this film packs a punch - it just doesn't land it as well as it might. It's probable that you'll also get more out of it if you have strong religious beliefs affecting the way you feel about the occult and the experience of death. Ultimately, it carries the same message as many a North American horror film - if your neighbour is freaking you out, spare yourself some stress and just close the curtains.Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2019
If you like this, try:Still/Born