Beyond the Walls (2016)

The subtly animated layerings of wallpaper that appear in the opening credits sequence of Beyond the Walls (Au delà des murs) serve as an apt visual key to what will follow. For Hervé Hadmar’s three-part television series will take place almost entirely within a haunted house whose layered histories have a tendency to show through in the present – and it will also be, like that other great genre film to feature wallpaper in its opening credits, a tale of two sisters. In case the reference to Kim Jee-woon’s 2003 horror masterwork is not enough of a hint, Rorschach-like patterns prominently visible in the wallpaper are the clincher: the intra- and extra-mural explorations in Beyond the Walls are to be of a psychological as much as an architectural nature.

Lisa (Veerle Baetens) works as a speech therapist with young children all day, but fails to talk through problems of her own. Haunted by lakeside dreams and guilt that she carries from her past, she evades any social contact with colleagues or intimacy with strangers, fabricating a husband as the perfect excuse for her life of self-imposed exile. Yet after her eye is drawn one evening to the strange, dilapidated house across the street from her unfurnished apartment, Lisa learns the following day not only that the body of its last occupant and owner, André Bainville, has just been discovered there, but also that he has expressly bequeathed the property to her in his will, even though he had in fact died some 30 years earlier, and she has never met or even heard of him before.

Mystified, Lisa moves in – but after she knocks a hole in one of the walls to investigate the strange sounds coming from the other side, she finds herself caught in an infinite-seeming labyrinth of windowless rooms, halls and corridors. There she meets Julien Fouquier (François Deblock), who claims not only to have been trapped in there for several years, but also to have entered the house in 1916. Together this star-cross’d pair tries to find a way out, while evading the menacing figures (known as ‘the Others’) who have “accepted the house.” Yet if she really wants to leave this place of darkness, Lisa must first resolve her feelings about a death in the family, and the phantom men that she always seems to be inventing to hold her back.

The three episodes of Beyond the Walls, each with their own very distinctive character, map out a mental landscape where rot, decay and shadow have long since set in, and even a soothing sunlit idyll is a mere illusion. Many ghost stories traffic in guilt, but Hadmar’s immaculately designed series builds a maze from it. It disorients with its irrational spaces, teases with its impossible romance (across time and space), unnerves with its uncanny symmetries and echoes – and if the ending at first disappoints with its banality, you might just find it catching up with you days later, and leaving you lost, like Lisa, in the inescapable contortions of your mind. For, as with any good mystery, Beyond the Walls raises more questions than it answers, and will leave viewers still wandering its hallways long after they have left the theatre.

There is one other thing promised in this show’s opening credits: the presence of veteran actress Geraldine Chaplin. Her entrance, though some time in coming, is well worth the wait, giving the sense of creeping dread and foreboding that plagues Lisa a solid, human form – and a distorting mirror.  

© Anton Bitel