Les Gouffres (2013)
Directed by Antoine Barraud
Spiritual destinations like the ones found in Sedona, Arizona (to name an American counterpart to the wondrous sinkholes discovered in Antoine Barraud’s Les Gouffres) are said to be a collection of swirling energy vortexes that can and have had a profound affect on weary travelers seeking solace. Scientists travel to these places as well to seek answers, and that is precisely what prompts Mathieu Amalric’s (Quantum Of Solace, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) character Georges in Les Gouffres to risk life and limb to investigate a series of vast, mysterious sinkholes that have just been discovered on the other side of the world.
With this initial setup, the expectation is to follow Georges and his team as they spelunk lower and lower into the depths of the unknown until the unknown comes up to finally introduce itself in whatever form it chooses to take. Instead, the story revolves around Georges’ wife, France (played exquisitely by Nathalie Boutefeu), a seasoned opera singer who agrees to accompany her husband on the expedition while she develops a new take on the classic opera Turandot. The expedition is too dangerous (probably even for the professionals) so she remains at a nearby cabin with an old caretaker and a psychic hippie turned housemaid who has packed up and moved from America just to be closer to the energy emitted by the vortexes.
As time passes and France grows more worried, earthquake tremors linked to the sinkholes become more and more frequent and violent. Her fear eventually overtakes her and she journeys down into the vortex in hopes of finding out what has happened to her husband. Instead, in an unsettling and confusing sequence of close-ups, she discovers a group of nearly naked men driven mad by the forces inside the cavern. They guide her down to a lake at the bottom that her husband is said to have crossed; she must decide if she will cross as well. What she eventually discovers is beyond comprehension, making it all the more frightening when she sees that the man she thought she knew isn’t the man he was before he went down into that cave.
Nathalie Boutefeu won Best Actress at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, and her performance, along with the overall theme of Les Gouffres, is the reason it doesn’t feel like a letdown when Georges’ initial descent is not depicted in the film. France is in her own vortex as well that’s centered around her husband as she spins out of control from the fear of losing him. Her fear replaces the love she has for him, until it becomes too much to bear and she must embark down into the unknown to find him.
For how short of a running time Les Gouffres has, it’s surprising just how much of a psychological impact it makes; yet, it also makes the unexplained conclusion all the more puzzling. Antoine Barraud doesn’t seem to feel the need to justify or flesh out just what exactly happened inside the sinkhole. Is it magical? Since it somehow has only recently been discovered (although its sheer size is enormous), was it unearthed from another plane or dimension?
Again, Boutefeu’s acting chops and her dedication to her character’s growing anxiety turn the desire for a scientific explanation into a metaphor about loss, fear, and co-dependence. Towards the beginning of the film, just before Georges leaves for his adventure, he asks France to gaze into his eyes so he will never forget the face of his lover. In the end, it is France who ends up forgetting his face altogether.
3 1/2 out of 5