Ah, ze French. They can ratchet up the tension from the get-go like nobody's business, and it is so elegant! "Ils" (2006) has one of the best opening sequences I've ever seen. A mom and daughter are driving at night and have car trouble: directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud take that simple premise and spin it into several minutes of increasingly exquisite agony. By the time the movie proper got under way, I was about to chew off my own arm. The main story, sadly, eventually loses the elegant simplicity manifested in the opener. But still it has some nice moments.
I knew almost nothing about "Ils" going in, only that it was supposed to be similar to the 2008 American movie "The Strangers" except a) without Liv Tyler, b) shorter and c) French. I haven't seen "The Strangers" due to my violent Liv Tyler allergy, but it sounded good. The premise of both involves a couple being terrorized at home by, well, strangers, for unknown reasons. (It's probably best to go into "Ils" not knowing more than that, so if you haven't seen it, beware spoilers ahead.)
Home-invasion stories are the scariest to me. You can haunt the school or the old department store or the mall all you want to, but come scratching around my bedroom window, where I'm most vulnerable, and brrr. The home-invasion premise also appeals to my sense of practicality: Do you know which windows of your house you can open? Where's your flashlight? What can you use as a weapon? Where are the entrances and exits?
Well, Clem and Lucas (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen), a French couple living in a lonely fixer-upper in Romania, do not pass this test at all. They know where their front door is, and that's about it. The movie's a beautiful exercise in sustained tension, but the imbecility of these two -- particularly Lucas -- had me pretty turned off by about midway through. Creepy people steal Clem's car in the middle of the night; then the power and phones go out; then someone waves a flashlight through the window. What do Clem and Lucas do? Race upstairs and barricade themselves in their room, then decide Lucas should go down and "check" to see if anyone's inside. This just violates all common sense to me. Don't they want to just try and find out who these people are? Maybe they just want to take the TV and jewelry and leave? What happened to Clem's cellphone anyway? And how come these people seem to know the house better than Clem and Lucas do? They switch the power off, they beat Clem to the attic... Maybe it's all supposed to be a metaphor for how Clem and Lucas feel as expatriates, but I was too exasperated with them to analyze.
(And why not go on the attack? Even if you don't have a gun, it's *your* house: you know where everything is. Grab a bottle of spray bathroom cleaner, jump out from behind a doorway and aim for the eyes! But no, these two decide to ditch the house -- and their poor dog, whose fate is unclear but probably unpleasant -- and run, Lucas' severe leg injury notwithstanding.)
Once the action moves outside, things devolve in terms of making sense. Everyone goes into the sewers for some reason, and there's a lot of mazelike running around.
Still, there are some spiffy effects along the way. Sound is used beautifully, with the attackers making a mysterious scrapey sound at the most unexpected moments. The house and sewers turn into a series of set pieces -- it reminds me a little of watching "Alien: Resurrection," which I remember as being just a bunch of baroque fight scenes in different cool settings -- but they're nice-looking set pieces. And I enjoyed some classic-film references: a massive old door bends under the pounding from an unseen force, a la "The Haunting"; a pursuit through the sewers ends at an unyielding grid, a la "The Third Man."
The final twist is fine, but not particularly shocking for the healthy misanthrope. People are pretty much the same at any age, if you ask me. Still, it's something an American-made movie would probably steer clear of. Viva la France!