The Eyes Below

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Eyes Below
"The dreamlike narrative gives Bruchon free rein to experiment with the constituent parts of the room, not just moving his camera around but creating a corridor from sheets and entangling his actors within them."

In 2021, young French director Alexis Bruchon burst onto the scene with The Woman With Leopard Shoes, one of the most distinctive films of the year. Unashamedly arty, visually striking and thrilling to watch, it wasn’t a perfect film – few débuts are – but it made a big impression on those lucky enough to catch it. Now Bruchon is back to prove that he’s more than a one hit wonder, with another film set in a single room which exploits every opportunity for tension.

There’s a very simple terror underscoring this film, and it’s one which many viewers will be personally familiar with, if only from childhood. Eugene (Vinicius Coelho) is a lawyer whose emails suggest is on the verge of confirming major corporate wrongdoing. He plans to deliver a crucial letter the following morning, but it’s night-time now, and he needs to get some sleep. The curtains are closed. The door is locked. There’s a fire burning in the hearth, casting its warm light across the room. He lies down in bed and pulls up the covers; but then something else seems to move beneath them and we catch glimpses of a slippery black form. Lifting up the edge of his bedcover again, peering into the darkness beneath it, Eugene sees a pair of eyes looking back at him.

Is it a dream? Is he, half awake, facing a real assassin sent to kill him before he can deliver his evidence? Is he facing some kind of supernatural being dispatched by his enemies? All these possibilities are considered in a film which never wholly comes down on one side or another. What really matters is the sense of threat itself, its psychological effect on Eugene, and his struggle to survive. This is established by the opening shot, before any kind of danger becomes apparent, which focuses on the pattern on the bedcover. There are suggestions of a spiral, of a maze and – human brains being wired as they are to pick out possible threats – of eyes.

The limited location and limited colour palette – the film is shot predominantly in tones of dark, rusty orange, which give way only as we move towards morning – immediately create a sense of claustrophobia. Far from providing protection, Eugene’s bedroom becomes a prison, with the slats along the base of his bed at one point framed like the bars of a cage. The dreamlike narrative gives Bruchon free rein to experiment with the constituent parts of the room, not just moving his camera around but creating a corridor from sheets and entangling his actors within them. Works of art on the walls speak to the theme and draw us further into patterns of uncertain import, whilst Eugene’s book collection tells us a bit about his personality, and his reaching for certain occult volumes makes us wonder further about the nature of his adversary.

It is important, perhaps, to give us this additional reason to be fearful. Murder itself is so commonplace in cinema that it doesn’t do much to chill us anymore. It’s the unknowable aspects of the threat which really make it unnerving. Bruchon can also handle a fight scene, however, and sharp editing makes for some nerve-racking scenes as Eugene strives to fight off someone obviously stronger than him, reaching for anything he might use as a weapon.

It doesn’t always work. In places the tension is depleted by uncertainty about what is and isn’t real, even though in other places that same quality adds to the sense of drama. At 77 minutes the film is a little too long and there are places where paring it down would have enhanced the impact of what remained. That said, it’s fantastically stylish and makes a little go a long way. Screening at Fantaspoa in Brazil, it really stands out. One longs to see what Bruchon can do given a proper budget.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2022
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Eugene's home is quiet and peaceful as he goes to sleep, but when he feels something travelling up his body, he realises that it's not going to stay that way.

Director: Alexis Bruchon

Writer: Alexis Bruchon

Starring: Vinicius Coelho

Year: 2022

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: France

Festivals:

Fantaspoa 2022

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