If my fellow splatpackers learned only one thing from Alex Aja’s 2003 bloodbath HAUTE TENSION it’s that the idyllic French countryside is hardly as peaceful as it might seem on the surface. This time around a group of twenty-something Parisians are taking a side trip out of town after a night of gratuitous partying only to wind up at the dilapidated home of Eve (Roxane Mesquida), one of their fellow compatriots.
The gang—made up of a trio of unruly guys—have one thing on their mind, and they’ll put up with just about anything to get some of Eve and her friend Yasmine (Leïla Bekhti), including making nice with crazy family groundskeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel—IRREVERSIBLE). Having arrived just before the Christmas holiday, the group enjoys an odd day of skinny dipping and a night of feasting before relegating each other with an increasingly peculiar series of dinnertime debates, including a bizarre and shocking tale of Satanism and incest from the erratic Joseph.
As the night wears on, the friends will come to have their wildest dreams and greatest fears delivered in succession, until the tragic reality of their purpose is made horrifyingly clear.
The title SHEITAN is a variation of “Shaitan” the Islamic interpretation of Satan or The Devil. Two of the main characters in the film are Muslim and during the dinner sequence, Joseph’s tale involves Sheitan’s desire to have a man lay with his sister and conceive a bastard child. If only that were where the oddities began and ended.
First time feature filmmaker Kim Chapiron’s project is decidedly in the vein of fellow countryman Gaspar Noé’s (IRREVERSIBLE) sensibility—even going so far as to cast Cassel—whose kinetic presence is so far removed from any shape or form of reality that it’s hard to believe that the actor is even from the same planet as we are. Like the man has done in far less interesting films, Cassel once again steals the show here with an unsettling blend of perverse delight. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The rest of the cast (particularly the three male friends) are varying degrees of annoying—with the sole exception being Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL, SEX IS COMEDY). Mesquida, like her performances in the Catherine Breillat’s previous two films, is a study in the seductive nature of innocence. With her bright saucer-shaped eyes, it’s easy to see why—despite all the obvious warning signs—the men in this film never get the hell out of that freaky house.
If Chapiron is going for shock value, the filmmaker isn’t going to let the audience slide on by with a little incest story. Oh no, he’s added in hints of bestiality (Ok, more than just hints—but I’m trying to block one scene out of my mind) and innumerable other assorted nasties, for the audiences…pleasure? Surprisingly the film hardly overdoses on scandal and the pacing keeps the film—which could have been little more than a series of increasing off the wall vignettes—in check.
Building it’s suspense to the ultimate conclusion, SHEITAN is a house of cards—stacking itself higher and higher as the tension grows. The audience always sees the tragic conclusion coming but when it arrives, an apparent twist provides just enough disorientation for the final scene to come back around and kick you right in the gut.
With SHEITAN, French horror cinema takes yet another step in the right direction, focusing on character and plot development but still delivering a visceral monster of a motion picture. And as a companion piece to HAUTE TENSION and Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz film CALVARIE—SHEITAN may just set up Kim Chapiron as the next hot director from across the pond.