Ils: A Real French Nightmare?

Tonight I finally sat down to watch Ils (Them to us Statesiders).  I’ve wanted to see it forever, had almost ponied up the cash for it at Best Buy about a year ago but didn’t, and finally lucked out when it showed up on On Demand this month.  Yay, I get to see it for free!

And you know, I liked it.  The opening sequence is taut and although the rest of the film never again rises to that level, it has some pretty good moments.  The protagonists aren’t particularly well developed, but that’s not always a flaw in a horror movie (the less we know about them, the easier it is for them to be us), although I do wish they had been smarter at times (stop leaving your weapons behind!).  The third act is well orchestrated and the big reveal is shudder-inducing.  So yeah, not bad.  I liked it better than Frontiere(s) and Malefique and maybe better than Haute Tension (although not if you don’t count the last 20 minutes of Tension).

Something that caught my attention in the very first moments of Ils was its location: Although a French production and featuring French protagonists, the action takes place in Romania.  That played in my mind for the entirety of its 76-minute run time.  There didn’t seem to be any real reason for the choice; Haute Tension and Frontiere(s) reveal that France is overrun with spooky rural places of its own to make horror movies.  If it was a budgetary thing, there was nothing geographically noteworthy that would keep the Romanian countryside from doubling for French countryside, and the supporting cast could have passed for French, with as little dialogue as there is.  Finally I got my answer, or so I thought, as the pre-credits scrawl indicated Ils to be based upon a true story.

Of course, I immediately got online to suss out the details.  I didn’t find much – some references to an Austrian couple murdered while at their home in the Czech Republic, with no actual supporting documentation – but I did find something almost more interesting…and telling (spoiler alert): This Review from the online journal Lingua Romana .

If you don’t click through, I will summarize: Lingua Romana suggests that Ils is rife with racism and xenophobia, giving voice to the common fear among the French that as the European Union grows, their cultural identity will be eroded and, eventually, extinguished.  As point of reference, Ils was released in 2006 and Romania was officially welcomed into the European Union in 2006.

So suddenly what I thought was a fairly generic home invasion film is saddled with all sorts of really specific political and cultural subtext.  And none of it too flattering for the film or the filmmakers.  Yeesh, and here I thought the vilification of Eastern Europe was all on Eli Roth and his American cohorts.

You know what the Lingua Romana article called to mind more than anything else, though?  Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

It’s no secret H.P. Lovecraft was a racist.  Abominable backwoods families, loathsome monster-worshipping half-breeds, gorilla-like foreigners…his prose is rife with it.  He even incorporated the nastiest of racial epithets into the name of one of his cats.  (We won’t even get started on the role of xenophobia in his works)  And this has always been a source of tension for me.  Like most card-carrying liberals, racism appalls me and I do my best to eliminate my footprint from our culture of it, yet I adore much of Lovecraft’s writing (umm, hey, the title of this blog?).  Trust me, I’ve tried to do the mental gymnastics to make it work; “Oh, that’s just how it was back then,” I’ve said.  But that just feels like what it is…rationalization.  That the social climate of the time created a less consequential environment for people like Lovecraft to express themselves doesn’t make it right and, more importantly, it doesn’t excuse me for excusing him so blithely just because I happen to really, really like the tentacled monstrosities he conjured up from the eldritch dark.

So is Ils really casting aspersion (consciously or unconsciously) at the people of Romania and blaming them, and their neighbors, for the death of French culture?  Beats me, but they did choose Romania as home to their story for a reason and as we all know, the best horror films – the really scary ones – are scary because they tap into something real…first for the filmmaker, and then for the audience.  And by all accounts, Ils scared the hell out of a bunch of people in France.

(It also occurs to me that perhaps it’s the French who are being beleaguered here.   They are no strangers to international disparaging, and the American stereotype of the French being tourist-hating snobs is pretty similar to the Romanian-hating elitists as put forth by Lingua Romana.  I’m willing to give LR the benefit of the doubt in regards to fairness as they purport to be a journal of “French, Italian, and Romanian culture”, and their treatment of French film elsewhere is extremely generous.  Furthermore, the authors aren’t Romanian or French, but rather Professors of French and Italian studies at Brigham Young University.   But still, something to think about.)

I don’t really know what to make of all this.  On one hand, had it not been for this film and my subsequent research, I wouldn’t have even known there was an issue.  Without all the baggage, it was an enjoyable, if somewhat innocuous, ride.  With it, I again find myself wondering about one of my favorite topics to discuss: My social responsibility as a consumer.  Can I celebrate a portion of a piece of art, even if the other part is something I detest?


16 Responses to “Ils: A Real French Nightmare?”

  1. I just recently watched a Spanish horror movie, El rey de la montana (King of the Hill), that reminded me of Ils, but it might have been a bit sharper. It lacked the sense of isolation of Ils, but it might have been a bit more horrifying since the setting was in broad daylight in the spanish countryside.

    • I’ve heard of it, and I want to see it. Just as long as the protagonists aren’t from Andorra and the film isn’t about how Spain is ruthlessly squeezing the life out of the itty-bitty tourist country.

      Looking at its Wikpedia entry, I see that Andorra isn’t yet a member of the EU. Also, they have the second highest life expectancy in the world…82 years. For some reason, I kind of want to visit now.

  2. The Académie française (Wikipedia article) is a good example of the French fear of assimilation and loss of their language and culture.

    The foundation of the Académie française in 1634 by Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members (the “immortals”) chosen for life still exists today and contributes to the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions : software became logiciel, packet-boat became paquebot and riding-coat became redingote. The word ordinateur for computer was however not created by the Académie, but by a linguist appointed by IBM.

    It is true that by and large, the population of Paris saves up their collective vacation days and migrates en masse to the coast during the entire month of August specifically because that’s when the American tourists will arrive. There’s no love lost there, but I’m not going to pass judgement on whether that’s a reflection of the French or the Americans.

    I do recall during the early 80s, when I worked there, that the use of “le weekend” did create a collective shudder among the older generation. The popular music scene was dominated by American and British bands, and the native French singers in the charts often sang in English. I think the xenophobia is fueled by a real sense that the European melting pot won’t contain a very large French ingredient, when the stirring comes to an end.

    • Interesting stuff, Liz.

      The more I read and re-read the Lingua Romana article, the less convinced I am that Ils is conceived as an attack upon the Romanian people (and I’m not sure they think so either). More likely it’s an exploration of French fears, not unlike Gojira was for post-WWII Japan.

      Still, I look at the age-old trend in American film, where we tend to vilify whomever our enemies are at the moment, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, especially when it seems exploitative. And this seems a bit like that. At any rate, it’s interesting stuff to mull, and I’ve learned a lot in the last 24 hours about things I previously hadn’t a clue about.

  3. I recently watched a mini-biography on Lovecraft. As they said in the biography, Lovecraft was a very fearful man, fearful of other people, other races, outsiders. From his fears came his writings.

    That’s how you deal with loving the work of a racist.


  4. Ils is very scary movie, and I have done some research on it for a while but haven’t been able to figure out if it is based on a true story or not, I couldn’t help noticing the comment about “France is overrun with spooky rural places”, knowing that Haute tension as been filmed entirely in Romania (very obvious when you look at the setting of the house and the Corn field) and Frontieres a good part in Switzerland. The movie is much better than Haute tension (found it really lame). I am not sure I get the all concept of “Killling the culture” you are trying to develop here, especially knowing that a majority of Romanian speaks French. I think you are giving yourself a hard time:relax and enjoy the movie!

  5. What an excellent post! I just finished watching Ils (loved it), and I’m actually happy to find that there’s not much to back up the “true story” claim. This was a great read. And I think you’re right that if the movie does highlight some cultural xenophobia on part of the French, it’s more a reflection on it than an expression of it.

    Thanks for writing this!

  6. […] constructed film, but with little replay value. There are whispers and rumours of how true a true story created ‘Ils’, but it definitely adds a tinge of realism that, when blended in with the […]

  7. I think you and the mentioned review are unfair to the movie and to the French. The movie is not racist nor xenophobic and I am absolutely sure that it has nothing to do with political fears of French filmmakers, in fact I think the idea is quite absurd. And here is the obvious reason why it is situated in Romania, that was the natural surrounding for such storyline:

    • SerenityRiver Says:

      I agree Gabor. I read the article and it’s disgusting how children are treated worse than animals. I wish instead of just reporting the news, the news would offer us a way to help the causes of those laboring to help. I can’t adopt every child in need of a better life, but I can send resources/money to organizations that are trying to make this world a better place.

      As for the movie, it was very well done. I’m pretty sick of politics infesting every aspect of our lives lately. I’m glad I read this review after I watched the movie, luckily I was able to enjoy this movie without projecting any political bs onto it. As for HP Lovecraft, who gives a damn how the man felt or what he feared. It was his life to lead during a time we cannot possible imagine. We should stop throwing stones at others because we have the absolution of hindsight, as that is a gift to appreciate and not to be used to condemn those that didn’t have it. Instead, we should focus on the light a person brings into the world through the darkness they fight to carry it forth. In his case, it was brilliant gothic horror. Who is to say what we would have brought forth if faced with the same path.

  8. hmm…perhaps like many card carrying liberals, you look too hard to find hidden meanings in everything.

    Il’s is the 4th movie I have recently seen that was filmed in Romania – 2 of which Romania was never even mentioned. In one, the setting could have been any rural European village, and in the other, they tried to pass off a derelict Romanian seaside resort as some sad old beach town in the American south. Can’t remember the movie names, but the latter starred Dennis Hopper.

    Is it possible that it is just cheaper to film in Romania?

  9. […] Dreams in the Bitch House review: ‘The opening sequence is taut and although the rest of the film never again rises to that level, it has some pretty good moments.  The protagonists aren’t particularly well developed, but that’s not always a flaw in a horror movie (the less we know about them, the easier it is for them to be us), although I do wish they had been smarter at times (stop leaving your weapons behind!).  The third act is well orchestrated and the big reveal is shudder-inducing’. […]

  10. what an amazing article. Very interesting and intellectually written. I live near France, in Switzerland, and we have problems with the romanians… I can tell you…. some of them…. or at least all the ones that come here…. watch out…. they are dangerous. In a place where I should feel the most safe.. I am feeling scared and no one is doing anything about it. They are like mafias, even killing eachother if they dont provide money. They beg and steal and send there children out on the streets to beg.. Its horrible… so maybe I understand where he was going with this..

    • you all say pour romanians and i agree racism is wrong.. but when you see it first hand.. I think you will change your mind

  11. i found that comment very interesting to read and love subtitled films, can you recomend any more good ones?

  12. […] The fact: Them is reportedly based on the story of an Austrian couple murdered at their home in the Czech Republic. That said, the details on those alleged real events are hard to come by, so take this one with a grain of salt. (source) […]

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