The Eyes Below had its world première at FrightFest 2022
Alexis Bruchon is a jack of all trades, not just writing and directing The Eyes Below, but personally providing the cinematography, editing, sound design and orchestral score, art direction and production design (the last shared with Pauline Morel, who was also responsible for the costumes and textiles, as well as playing the film’s deuteragonist). Working with a small budget and such a tiny, close crew allows Bruchon to be a true auteur, using a carefully constructed and controlled set to realise his own hermetic vision like a dream.
The Eyes Below is like a dream in more ways than one. It opens with a pattern of mesmerising vortices that will resolve into the fabric of a pillowslip. As the words of the title appear on screen one by one, they are intercut with impressionistic images of someone stripping and remaking a bed as he readies himself for a good night’s sleep. This is Eugène Darancourt (Vinicius Coelho), a journalist for La Ligne who normally writes features on dark romanticism and the symbologies of the occult, but who is currently, somewhat improbably working on a big corruption exposé that could influence the outcome of an important court case. He also, judging by the type of prescription pill he regularly takes, has cancer. All these elements will come into play once Eugène has settled into his bed, surrounded by his recharging phone, his books on mythology and semiotics, a bottle of water, a bedside cabinet full of miscellaneous items, a loud-ticking clock and a blazing fireplace (which is often the only source of light in the room). Here, beneath the sheets, the many, conflicting preoccupations of Eugène’s waking hours will be reconstituted into a prolonged nightmare as he sleeps.
Bruchon is also an artist of self-imposed obstructions. In his feature debut The Woman With Leopard Shoes (2020), he restricted himself to a noirish monochrome, (mostly) to a locked room, to a total lack of spoken dialogue, and to a cast of characters whose faces are never seen. The Eyes Below forms the middle part of a very loose trilogy with The Woman With Leopard Shoes, and even if it is shot in often giallo-esque colours (while maximising the creepily negative spaces of nocturnal darkness), it again features no spoken lines, takes place mostly in a single locked room, and confines its protagonist almost entirely to his own bed. All these restrictions create an almost suffocating sense of claustrophobia, with Eugène’s long, dark night of the soul unfolding as an ever-tightening, smothering form of sleep paralysis.
As Eugène comes under repeated attack from a shadowy feminine figure (Morel) who drips icky black ooze from her fingers and mouth and keeps straddling the bed-bound Eugène in a terrifying chokehold, our hero must become a dream detective, working out the meaning of these oneiric assaults from within his own night terrors, and accumulating a surreal set of associative clues while investigating every nook and cranny of his increasingly irrational bedding. No matter whether Eugène is being stifled by the rising, cancerous bile of his own illness, or is falling prey to an intrusive Kurobōzu, or is existing like Persephone and her pomegranate in a space between life and death, or is just rearranging and mentally refiling the flotsam and jetsam, the post-it notes and data storage, of his waking hours, or is sleepily processing something that is really happening – or about to happen – it becomes clear that Eugène is hovering somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, out of synch with himself, and eventually quite literally divided by a split screen into two selves. As both these Eugènes have parallel experiences in their different states, the nocturnal interloper that one of them keeps trying to evade also seems to be trying to warn him of something very real and far more dangerous.
Part mystery thriller, part surrealist fantasy, part bedridden mythopoeia, The Eyes Below draws on the semiology of Umberto Eco, the surreal montages of Jan Svankmajer, the masked villainesses of Louis Feuillade and Georges Franju, and the DIY constriction of Weston Terray’s Precarious (2020). All its arbitrary-seeming details come together beautifully in the end, while still retaining something of their dream logic. Cannot wait for the third in Bruchon’s series of one-room features, Pointe de fuite.
strap: In Alexis Bruchon’s dreamy thriller, a journalist confined to bed must find his way out of a surreal predicament
© Anton Bitel