Alice Winocour’s previous feature was Augustine, an intimate true story of a French neurologist’s relationship with a teenage kitchen-maid patient. Winocour’s latest film is set in contemporary France, but the theme of upstairs-downstairs relationships remains.
Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a shell-shocked Afghanistan vet, desperate to return to duty, but unfit for service due to partial deafness, cardiac trouble and panic attacks. Although he’s off the tranquilisers, he seems to be on a few other prescription drugs that he picks up at the rehabilitation centre from fellow combatants.
From here on in, we are uncertain just how much of what Vincent sees and perceives is real and how much is a figment of his disturbed and frazzled imagination. Sounds are more piercing, from the jangling of women’s jewellery as they sway to the party music, to birdsong at dawn. Vincent can ignore most noise, but the discordant sounds of everyday life pierce his hearing and bring him out in a cold sweat.
Even when we realise that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t following is all too true, we still can’t trust Vincent’s version of the truth. He’s like a faithful hound caring for this beautiful damsel in distress in her scary castle and it’s no coincidence that he bears a strong resemblance to, and a deep affinity with, the family’s Alsatian.
Very quickly there is an intimacy between Vincent and Jessie as their plight brings them inevitably closer. We recently saw Schoenaerts in Far From the Madding Crowd and the similarities between his role of Gabriel Oak and Vincent are many: they are both in love with their beautiful and seemingly unattainable employer, they are outsiders and their aim is to protect and serve their woman. Schoenaerts is great at conveying these emotions with a glance and when his underlying post-traumatic stress disorder is unleashed, he is a terrifying presence.
There are plenty of plot flaws to pick at here, but however unbelievable the storyline is, it could equally be countered that what we are seeing is not reality, but a reality that is all of Vincent’s making. Winocour has again created an intimate view of an impossible relationship and it is an interesting take on the kind of Hollywood thriller we have seen on an endless loop.
Unsure whether the intruders are real, or if the protector is unhinged, we enjoy the thrill of never truly knowing.