FILM REVIEW: Into The Forest

Joshua Moulinie continues his Odyssey through MyFrenchFilmFestival and cuts to the chase in his latest review:

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The next stage of my MyFrenchFilmFestival journey brings me to Gilles Machard’s Into The Forest; a film so peculiar, so enigmatic, that it took me several days, post-viewing, before I felt comfortable writing a review. As a seasoned cinephile, I often find I can gauge a film relatively quickly. With Into The Forest, I found myself in a surreal position; I was unsure, entirely, as to whether what I had just seen was great, or a horrific misstep. After some deliberation, I think I have my answer – and the truth, as is often in life, sits somewhere in between. Describing the narrative of Into The Forest is somewhat asinine, as, for a long portion of the film’s running time, not an awful lot really happens. This is a textbook example of a slow-burning film that relies considerably more on atmosphere than it does storytelling.

Here it is in a nutshell. Young brothers, Tom and Benjamin, travel to Sweden to spend vacation with their estranged father, who they have barely seen since their parents divorced. He’s cold, isolated and ‘never sleeps’, instantly disturbing the two boys. Tom, the younger brother, suffers from premonitions, and has a feeling something bad is going to happen. Their strange father insists Tom and him are one and the same; both given the same ‘gift.’ The father then takes them into the forest in an attempt to push Tom to his fullest potential, and to engage with a mysterious figure who is haunting him. While this may sound on paper like a dense, riveting plot, it doesn’t quite come off as you’d expect. Clearly, Machard has gone for a very Lynchian dream-like atmosphere; heavy on industrial sounds, electrical humming and a windswept soundscape. Unfortunately for Machard, these comparisons are not favourable. While I highly admire the surrealistic story, ambiguous narrative, and what the director was attempting to convey here in terms of atmosphere; this is a prime example of when a director shoots for the art house scene, yet lacks the talent necessary to truly pull it off. It’s telling that Machard has been around for some time – he’s written over 22 films – yet has never quite branched out as a director. It shows here, and Into The Forest could be considered somewhat a microcosm of his career.

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 I say this because the script itself is pretty good. While it relies on a heavy-handed expositional dump in the first five minutes – which had me somewhat worried about how bad the screenplay was going to be – it goes the other way afterwards and then proceeds to feed you effectively zero information. This, it must be said, is extremely clever writing. Everything we need to know to follow the first half of the film is given to us immediately, so Machard can then thrust us into the narrative without having to stop and explain as he goes along. The script continues to be pretty solid, certainly stronger than most Hollywood scripts I’ve seen this year. The dialogue is often realistic, yet simultaneously philosophical. Character motivations are hinted at but never directly stated, and the film plays out like an enigmatic nightmare. One particularly clever method is having characters theorise over what could be playing out, and then pulls the rug out after. I can’t give a particular example without spoiling things; but, in terms of setup, picture one of the children telling their brother a potentially game-changing piece of information, that, within the context of the film, could very reasonably explain the madness around them, only to turn around and declare it a joke after. Despite the addition of the ‘it was a joke’ ,the idea, the plausibility of the idea, remains inside the mind of the viewer, a small seed left to blossom as it will. I adore this ambiguity, and I am a huge fan of the ending, even if, as of writing, I don’t entirely understand what I saw. It left me to think, to ponder, and, if the film was a better one, I’d want to watch it again and again until I unpack the answers.

The lack of action itself also serves to intrigue the audience, and Machard, at the very least, understands the central concepts of a mystery story in the same way Lynch and Hitchcock before him did. Effectively, the entire driving point of the film, the sole reason you continue to watch, is because they never solve the mystery in any clear-cut manner. For the duration of the running time, you sit back, puzzled, asking yourself ‘What exactly is happening here? What this does mean?’ It’s clear that Machard is definitely a strong writer of cinema; unfortunately, he falls somewhat short as a director of cinema. The first thing about this film’s composition that really stood out for me, that really annoyed me, was the editing. It is, unfortunately, pretty poor; the kind of editing one would expect from either a student film, or a real bottom-of-the barrel work, akin to the likes of Birdemic. If you are aiming for the ‘so bad it’s good’ crowd, terrible editing is part and parcel. Now, when you’re trying to deliver an atmospheric tour-de-force – as Machard clearly was – sloppy editing will absolutely murder your movie. Cuts are either too quick, or at a strange time. Shots will be sustained for lengthy periods of time, building tension pretty well, and then, just as Machard delivers the pay-off to the scene, the camera cuts away. We get all the build, but no time to absorb the outcome. It’s bizarre, inconsistent editing that really does the film a disservice, and cripples it from the out, meaning that it never has a chance of elevating itself to great heights. Long story short, if you can’t get your editing correct, you’ve failed from the beginning.

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The visual storytelling is also incredibly boring, which is a damn shame. They had this beautiful Swedish forest to work with, and yet what they deliver is dull, depressing and visually uninteresting. The sound-mixing is also ambitious while simultaneously uninspiring. It’s nice to see a director actually pay attention to the sound-mixing, and to create an intriguing soundscape of continuous ethereal noise; yet, unfortunately, he doesn’t quite crack it. It does feel – and I do hate to say this – like a poor-man’s Lynch. Once again – and this is becoming quite the theme of this review – I admire the vision and dedication, but am left flat and disappointed by the outcome. The actors, for their part, all put in stellar performances. Elkaïm, in particular, is genuinely disconcerting and somewhat terrifying as the father. Vague, rough, coarse and seemingly devoid of any emotion; Elkaim plays the part well, without ever pushing the performance to cartoonish levels. It’s a cold, detached, anti-theatrical performance. The child actors, also, are very strong, considering the historic track record of kids in film. While it’s far too early to make any guess at where their future careers end up, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Into The Forest is a very, very frustrating movie; yet not for the reasons Machard intended. The first half drags somewhat, and falls firmly into the ‘this is very OK’ camp of filmmaking. Never terrible – save for the poor editing – yet never jumping out as fantastic. The second half is considerably stronger and more intriguing, yet still let down by the technical issues that hampered the first half. Clearly, Machard is a very talented screen-writer with a vision and ambition that deserves applause; he fully intended to make a dreamlike, surrealist art-piece that gave zero fucks about audience reception. For that, I tilt my hat. Sadly, sometimes in life, your ambition can outweigh your talent, and, despite loving something and having genuine passion for it, you may simply not be very good. And here we find a perfect example in Into The Forest; a film full of artistic ambition with a director not good enough to pull it off; where the writing far outweighs the directing, and, ergo, it must be considered somewhat of a failure.

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Review by Joshua Moulinie 

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