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Satan
cast: Vincent Cassel, Roxane Mesquida, and Olivier Bartélémy

director: Kim Chapiron

88 minutes (18) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Satan (aka: Sheitan) is the first full-length feature from the collective Kourtramje who, until now, have released shorts and music videos chiefly distributed on the net. It's a debut too for director Kim Chapiron, and was sponsored by its producer and star Vincent Cassel, one of the most interesting French stars of his generation. In fact, it's fair to say that Cassel's presence dominates the film as much as his input did behind the scenes, as his portrayal of manically grinning, demonically inspired farmer Joseph provide by far the most memorable moments in a film which veers, with varying degrees of success, between humour, social comment and horror.

It opens on a Christmas eve in the nightclub Styxx (no points for originality there) where, after a bottle bashing confrontation, three loutish lads, Bart (Olivier Bartélémy), Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan), Ladj (Ladj Ly) and their female friend Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) are suddenly invited by one Eve (Roxanne Mesquida) to stay at her family's farmhouse in the country. Once they arrive they are confronted by the aforementioned Joseph, handle bar moustached, by turns intimidating and insinuating, as well as an assortment of equally disturbing locals. Joseph takes a particular interest in the self-centred Bart, and we discover that the shepherd's unseen wife is heavily pregnant. Uneasily enjoying the hospitality, and contemplating some sexual encounters, the pals discover in addition that Eve's dead father used to own a doll shop and plenty of his stock is still littered around rooms upstairs. Meanwhile, it's a propitious time of year for their host and Joseph has his own plans, which go far beyond the imaginings of his argumentative guests...

Satan is essentially a rap or hip hop inspired telling of the over familiar Satan's spawn scenario, with borrowings or echoes from such films and movements as diverse as Rosemary's Baby, hillbilly horror The Hills Have Eyes, May, Calvaire, rural gothic, and so on. Some of it works (the disturbing Joseph, the underlying sexual unease, the claustrophobic settings) and some doesn't (Joseph's superman strength and unconvincing recuperative ability, the oddly developed dolls theme and, for some people, the film's ending) but in many ways it is still a striking work, and one far more successful in its own terms than the vastly disappointing Switchblade Romance (aka: Haute Tension, 2003).

Part of the film's difficulties stem from its maker's intention (as revealed in the accompanying documentary) to make something that "changes from funny... to sexy... to scary." A good deal of this plan's success depends on the principal characters being somewhat likeable, at least in the earlier scenes of the work. Unfortunately they are not, being by turn stoned, argumentative, self-centred and sexist, and we have sympathy with none of them - least of with the boorish Bart, the latent homosexual unease surrounding him - played upon so unerringly by Joseph - notwithstanding. This side, vehemently denied by the character, provides little sympathy, even while it does undoubtedly add a further unnerving strand to Joseph's menaces. Horror films are frequently stocked with unpleasant characters, but Satan is peopled entirely by those with whom the audience feels little attachment. Thus the tragedy, which inevitably overtakes them, is horrific but this lack of earlier identification means that, at the same time, it fails to be truly shocking.

Satan is more successful on a social level than the sociopathic. Some have commented on the way it effectively contrasts city and the country dwellers (a familiar dichotomy but one which, in its French perspective, has some impact) and point out the racial, sexual and religious epithets that pepper the film. The three pals, being respectively Moroccan, Vietnamese and French, are reasonable representatives of a modern, urban, multicultural society injected into an inbred and superstitious rural landscape. A couple of times the film stops to admit discussion - on one notable occasion the guests bicker about the value of religion for instance, whilst Joseph's own, casual racial insults are deliberately provocative. And if ultimately his master-plan has a touch of incoherence about it then perhaps the same can be said of the jumble of cultural and moral imperatives which accompany his group of victims, of whom (presumably) the film says at the start "don't forgive them Lord, for they know what they do."

The film apparently got the rare '16' rating at home, although it is not excessively full of sex and violence. Instead its disturbing qualities spring more from the casually controversial elements mentioned above, as well of course as the vaguely blasphemous presence of Joseph, preparing for an inauspicious and dread birth on Christmas eve. Ironically, perhaps the best scene is the extended one in which, after exhortation by Joseph, the newcomers grudgingly strip-off and jump in to a hot spring, joining some of the peculiar locals. It's almost a ritual experience, full of uncertainty, and one which aptly points up the dislocation of the relationships amidst which they now suddenly find themselves and that, in more than one way, they are out of their depth. But there is nothing that's overly original in Satan beyond this, although the performance of Cassel as the deranged shepherd, the obvious commitment of all concerned, as well as the sexual tension sustained throughout make it worth the price of admission.

The disc includes the usual 'making of' documentary, in which Cassel dominates as much as he does the main feature, as well as a trailer, and full version of the rap video that appears in the film.
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