The Room

The Room (2019)

The Room first published by

Christian Volckman’s feature debut, the dystopian noir Renaissance (2006), was a bold experiment in animation, using what was then entirely new eye-tracking motion-capture techniques, and pushing monochrome to its absolute limits in a palette of stark blacks and whites with no room for greys in between. Almost a decade and a half later, his follow-up The Room, which he has co-written with Eric Forestier, Sabrina B. Karine, Gaia Guasti and Vincent Ravalec, is live-action, though still science fiction of a sort, with extra touches of gothic and the fairytale.

It begins with abandoned interiors – a dark old house with oddly flickering lights ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – but also somewhere in Upstate New York. The place has seen better days, but is full of potential – and freelance translator Kate DeWitt (Olga Kurylenko) and her husband Matt (Kevin Janssens), a European couple living in America and very much in love, have bought the place in the hope of turning it into their dream home. As they strip the two-storey building of its old furnishings and start to (re)make it their own, Matt discovers a big metal door hidden under layers of wallpaper, and behind it a dark room. Matt is somewhat alarmed to learn that the couple who previously owned the house were murdered by a stranger there decades ago, but this grisly discovery is offset by another which, at least at first, seems altogether more salutary: if you wish for something in the secret room, that thing becomes a reality.

So it is a little like the mythical and elusive Room from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), said to grant an entrant’s innermost desires – except that here those desires are, at least at first, more material than spiritual: drink, famous artworks (Matt is a painter), money, clothing, food, all eventually filling the big mansion and transforming it into a luxurious treasure trove. Yet in a literalisation of the idea that ‘you can’t take it with you’, these valuable items will turn out to be nothing but worthless dust once they have left the confines of the property. Kate and Matt may now be rich beyond – or perhaps only within – their wildest dreams, but their affluence begins and ends at home, as a kind of mutual fantasy of empty extravagance. 

All these material goods, however, are not enough to fill the biggest hole, and the greatest source of longing, in this couple’s lives: their failure to have a child. That is until one day in the room Kate dreams up the real live baby Shane (played variously, for reasons that will become clear, by Heather Bailly-Gade, Isaac Kaminski, Livio Siscot, Joshua Wilson, Francis Chapman, Jean-Louis Sbille and Victor Meurice). What delights Kate fills Matt with disquiet – and in his worry Matt investigates the institutionalised killer of the house’s previous occupants, even as Kate lovingly embraces a child with some very unnatural properties. 

“I know your kind,” ‘John Doe’ (John Flanders) tells Matt in the asylum where he has been imprisoned for decades. “Creatures of need. You crave and you crave and you crave, and then – you die.” The clear message of The Room, familiar from countless folk tales (and horror films), is ‘be careful what you wish for’ – but it is also possible to see the DeWitts’ house as a microcosm of the closed systems and architectures of capitalism itself, endlessly feeding the insatiable needs of consumers with vain figments that cannot ever free anyone from the decay of death. 

Once they have entered this hall of mirrors, Kate and Matt find themselves unable to leave, tied down by their drives and desires and addictions, even as, paradoxically, the surfeit of stuff that they accumulate seems only to make them ever less happy and more trapped. Meanwhile confused, coddled, only half-loved and longing for impossible escape, Shane proves capable of dreaming much bigger than his parents ever could, and exposes the ability of this relatively small house to encompass whole worlds. Accordingly, any clear distinction between this film’s interior, allegorical spaces and the external realities beyond becomes difficult, if not impossible, to delineate – as we too become lost in the film’s wish-fulfilment scenarios, unsure how, or even whether, we want them to end.  

Despite its title, Volckman’s film is nothing like Tommy Wiseau’s tone-deaf turkey The Room (2003), although in its themes of entrapment and escape it perhaps does have something in common with Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015). Increasingly, however, its specificities give way to abstraction, and it becomes a sort of surreal parable of domestic/cosmic dysfunction, akin to Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) or Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium (2019). For here, as an artist and a translator are confronted with the limits to their powers of both reproduction and imagination, the next generation pursues its Oedipal destiny from within the confines of its inheritance. The universe in which all of this unfolds may be restricted, indeed literally housebound, but that house, and the mysterious room within, can accommodate and duplicate all manner of resonant archetypes. After all, to find broader meaning in this narrow story, you only have to wish it.

Summary: Christian Volckman’s housebound fable genre-fies the trap of capitalism and the Oedipal nature of family relations.

© Anton Bitel