The impressive opening sequence of Hell (L’Enfer), an extreme close-up sequence in the style of nature documentaries that normally capture what our naked eyes cannot to, provides a synthesis of the film it ushers in: a baby bird falls off the nest just after hatching the egg. What should look like a picture of innocence and life itself is bolstered with connotations of cruelty.
Some film goers may run for the exit at the sound of yet another French film indulging in philosophical meanderings, but Hell, despite the occasional lapse into clichéd symbolisms, is saved by the fluid way the kaleidoscopic script strings together as well as the polished cinematography. This is also the kind of film that makes it seem like feminism never happened, considering how obsessive women are and how men humiliate them (including an older ugly men rejecting a very pretty young girl), but such impression is disproved by the fact that men are shown as weak and childish. Rather than misogynist, Hell is more of an illustration of the awfulness of human nature, although it is not exactly an exercise in misanthropy.
The film was based on a script written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz based on a collaboration with Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of a trilogy that included ‘Heaven’ and ‘Purgatory’. Kieslowski’s idea was not to direct any of his three screenplays, but to write them for young European directors. As Hell was set in Paris and was supposed to be shot in French, director Danis Tanovic jumped at the opportunity to use it for his second film (his debut was No Man’s Land, 2001) and as the first production for his newly created company A.S.A.P.
The story is hinged around the lives of three sisters living separately until one event brings them together at the end of the film. Emmanuelle Béart (who also appeared in Claude Chabrol’s eponymous 1994 film) plays Sophie, the oldest sister and the jealous wife of photographer Sébastien (Guillaume Canet) who she accurately suspects is having an extra-marital affair. Marie Gillain plays Anne, the youngest of the sisters who is driven into despair when the illicit affair she is having with one of her tutors (and whose family is close to her) is terminated by her lover.
The third sister is Céline, played by Karin Viard, a librarian type who takes the same train journey everyday to look after a woman in a wheelchair (Carole Bouquet). She becomes the main piece in the puzzle when she is befriended by a stranger called Frédéric (Jacques Perrin), whose revelations pertinent to the sisters’ family past will force them together for the final sequence and trigger a confrontation with their mother.
Hell is a somewhat paranoid, angst-ridden film that seduces with its intelligently engendered narrative. Using a staple motif as the motor of the drama – a family trauma – it constructs a fragmented collection of feelings and stories in an attempt to allude to the idea of tragedy, which as one of the characters says at some point, is impossible in the modern world because we have "lost faith in the gods". There is a textual reference to Medea to make sure the audience gets the idea, but despite the lack of subtlety, Hell forms a beautiful organic unity and provides stimulating, elegant entertainment.
Hell (L’Enfer) is released in the UK today (21/04/06).