SombreA product of the “New French Extremity” by director Philippe Grandrieux, who provides a highly artful and immersive account of a serial killer loose on the back roads of France.

SOMBRE (from 1998, although the US DVD release says it’s from 2006) was the debut feature of Philippe Grandrieux, which followed several documentary shorts. Subsequent Grandrieux features include LA VIE NOUVELLE (2002), the stunning UN LAC (2008) and the eccentric documentaries IT MAY BE THAT BEAUTY HAS STRENGTHENED OUR RESOLVE (2011) and WHITE EPILEPSY (2012). Of those films SOMBRE is, inexplicably enough, the only one to have received any kind of commercial release in the US, via a Koch Lorber DVD.

A man named Jean, his mind tormented by memories and hallucinations, murders a young woman in a hotel room following a bout of kinky sex play. He drives the back roads of France during the Tour-de-France, and repeats the act with another, older woman, followed by another long drive, another pick-up and another killing.

Jean next meets the attractive brunette Claire, who’s stuck in a broken-down car during a rainstorm. It seems she’s destined to be his latest victim, until it turns out that she’s traveling with her slutty sister Christine. The three head off in Jean’s car, and that night stop off at a lakefront hotel. There Jean picks up a couple of prostitutes and, as is his wont, manhandles them viciously. Claire witnesses the assault but, rather inexplicably, does absolutely nothing about it.

In the lake that night Jean canoodles with Christine, who reveals that her sister is a virgin. This excites Jean, who heads back to the hotel, apparently to deflower (and kill?) Claire. He can’t go through with the act, however, and so once again hits the road. He wastes no time stopping off, picking up yet another prostitute and killing her.

The following morning Jean assaults Christine in the lake, but can’t bring himself to kill her. The understandably nonplussed Claire takes Christine away—but again, Claire consciously refrains from running away or fighting back against Jean.

This results in another assault on Christine, this time in their hotel room, and a drunken trip to an outdoor rave by Jean, who impulsively drags Claire along with him. She makes a halfhearted attempt at alerting a fellow raver, a man, to the danger she and her sister are in. The guy ends up accompanying Jean and Claire back to the hotel, where the three engage in a debauched three-way dance. In the middle of the bacchanal Claire escapes, commandeering Jean’s car to drop Christine off at a nearby train station. Claire then, motivated by pity, desire or both, heads back to the hotel to be with Jean.

Philippe Grandrieux may not be particularly well known (in the US at least), but his is among the most distinctive directorial sensibilities in modern cinema. That sensibility is represented here by blurry and sometimes indistinct scenes that often take place in near-pitch darkness, visualized through seemingly epileptic camerawork and a wildly discordant soundtrack. Rather than distancing or distracting us, as you might expect, Grandrieux’s oblique style actually has the effect of drawing the viewer into the action—not least because it presents a creditable depiction of the tormented psyche of its serial killer protagonist. There are also some impressive images on display, including shots of passing scenery seen from Jean’s car, which appear downright psychedelic.

The sense of total immersion is Grandrieux’s true gift as a filmmaker, although he wouldn’t entirely perfect that gift until his post-2000 features LA VIE NOUVELLE and UN LAC. SOMBRE lacks the sharpness and focus of those films, and at 111 minutes is vastly overlong.

Yet the film’s disturbing power is undeniable. It also has some inspired casting choices, most notably that of the American indie film darling Elina Löwensohn as Claire. Löwensohn, with her exotic, mysterious air, is put to excellent use in SOMBRE, in which she plays a character whose motives, thoughts and ultimate fate are all left deliberately mysterious.

Vital Statistics

Arte/Canal+/Diaphana Films

Director: Philippe Grandrieux
Producers: Catherine Jacques, Zelie Productions
Screenplay: Sophie Filliers. Philippe Grandrieux, Pierre Hodgson
Cinematography: Sabine Lancelin
Editing: Francoise Tourmen
Cast: Marc Barbe, Elina Löwensohn, Geraldine Voillat, Coralie, Maxime Mazzolini, Alexandra Noel, Annick Lemonnier, Sadija Sada Sarcevic, Lea Civello, Astrid Combes, Sylvie Granato