Hélène Angel's FORBIDDEN HOUSE Has All But Vanished

Home invasion is where the heart is.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · July 28, 2023, 7:30 PM EDT
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Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!

Congratulations! You have won a major film prize at a famous, internationally renowned film festival. Surely now the world is your oyster! Or, perhaps not. It's a niche interest, perhaps, but I am constantly startled by how many people who win big fancy film festival awards sometimes seem to fade from the limelight. Take, for instance, French filmmaker Hélène Angel, who won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 1999 for her film Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (Peau d'homme, cœur de bête), which also saw actor Serge Riaboukine awarded a Bronze Leopard for his remarkable performance. Angel hasn't exactly disappeared - she released a film called Primaire in 2016, and since 2019 has worked primarily in television - but her 2011 film Forbidden House (Propriété interdite) seems for all intents and purposes to have vanished almost without a trace.

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Forbidden House is a curious beast, a thriller that employs elements of both the ghost story and home invasion film as either a concrete framework or a canny generic misdirection. The movie follows a bourgeois married couple, Claire (Valérie Bonneton) and Benoit (Charles Berling), who have traveled to Claire's enormous but ramshackle family home in the country in the hopes of restoring it to sell at a profit. Upon arriving, it is clear the task is an emotionally heavy one for Claire as, until recently, the home was occupied by her beloved brother Michel; his unexpected death finds her suddenly face to face with memories of their past as she makes her way through their childhood home.

Thrown into this is Benoit's desperation to sell and return to their lives in the city, Claire's already unstable psychological condition, which sees her perhaps too reliant on Ambien than is altogether healthy, and their frantic need to hire local workers to help them with their renovations, and the ingredients for a tense, fraught experience are all present. Claire jumps at shadows, unable to tell what is real and what isn't, and it's hard to know if Benoit's sense of urgency stems from a desperate concern for his wife's wellbeing or something more selfish in origin.

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Forbidden House is, in a way, a horror film that isn't really a horror film because all the fears and anxieties the old house seems to provoke in our protagonists seem simultaneously tethered to the gothic secrets of the building and its strange architecture itself, while at the same time suggested to have a much more earthly, banal origin. It makes for a really unusual viewing experience because every time we think we know which way it will turn, it reminds us just how disinterested it is in following the rules and regulations of genre filmmaking, focused instead on a broader portrait of a dysfunctional marriage going from bad to worse.

Woven into all this is a fascinating throughline about illegal immigration and an often uneasy relationship between the bourgeois French homeowners and the local Roma community who live in the nearby woods. This is not your usual haunted house movie despite having all the iconographic trappings suggesting such. Rather, the dark, the ugly, and the violent are located in places that see Forbidden House shift from typical horror or thriller fare and move somewhere else entirely. Generically slippery, deeply ambivalent, and perversely funny in its own way, Forbidden House is a strange, complex affair.