Since her childhood, Jessica has been haunted by recurrent nightmares whose meaning escapes her. This peculiarity has led her to study the psychophysiology of dreams and to follow a therapy with Sean, her mentor and boyfriend, to try and understand the origin of her nightmares. Following the death of her maternal grandmother she hardly knew, Jessica reluctantly returns to the family home. After a rough first night made restless by a strange nightmare in which she meets her dead grandmother, Jessica suddenly becomes ill. Stuck in bed with a high fever, the young woman decides to use her lethargic state to try out lucid dreaming. In order to do so, and on Sean’s advice, Jessica breathes a little bit of ether whenever she needs to sink deeper into the other world to try and take control of her nightmares. Jessica then begins to wander in a nightmarish world inhabited by twisted versions of her family members. She gradually improves her skills as a lucid dreamer and investigates to solve the mystery that gnaws her and haunts the family home…
Director: Romain Bassett. Writers: Romain Bassett, Karim Chériguène.
Cast: Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head.
French cinema is littered with classic horror films: Les Diaboliques, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Possession (1981), Haute Tension, Irreversible, to name some of the most well known. The works of Jean Rollin are love or loathe films, but they still have a cult following and, in recent years, French cinema has produced as many bad films as good. Horsehead is a French made film in the English language (which I admit to finding a little odd as I personally prefer films of a foreign country to be in their native language, but there is, I guess, a reason for this, one best asked of the filmmakers – it doesn’t seem dubbed, as books, drawings etc. are also in English. The assumption is that they wanted to reach a wider audience).
Horsehead (director Romain Basset’s fantasy horror debut feature) takes horse dream imagery (death and the mother) as its principal motif, beginning with The Nightmare (the classic 1781 painting by Henry Fuseli). This is the dream that Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux), a dream psychology student, first has and one of many grotesque visions that will drive her to try and understand the true meaning behind her nighttime images and the troubled history of her own family, including her difficult relation with her mother Catelyn (nicely played by former Lucio Fulci regular Catriona MacColl).
Vincent Viellard-Baron’s Cinematography is beautiful, often lush, and striking; shot and lit as though by a student of classical art, it has the feel of the late, great Sacha Vierny at times, adding to the sense of a dark world of the mind, a dream world, the world of Freud and Jung, the world of the lucid dream of which Jessica hopes to find the answers to her own problems. (Bruno Vitti’s excellent production design is also worth mentioning).
Horror as we have come to know it was a child of the age of psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams. If Jessica was experiencing the type of grotesque dreams she does in real life, she’d either be locked up, in permanent therapy and/or on serious medication, so the gothic horror images we see in the well edited music video style dream sequences often seem for a shock effect rather than a true comment or representation of lucid dreaming. Are these lucid dreams or out and out nightmares, more reminiscent of Clive Barker than Freud, Jung or Lacan? The dreams are beautifully realized on screen, but sometimes feel as though they’re a collection of images from a book on dream meanings. Freud would say that all dreams come from a perspective of our experiences or attitudes to sex and sexuality, the relation to the womb and other such theories (well, he would, wouldn’t he?) and many films of the same subject deal with the sexual awakening of a character or the effect of repressions in the past effecting the present (A Company of Wolves, the take on Little Red Riding Hood, a clear example – a motif noted here as we later see Jessica in a red hood and cape in a wolf and horse scene). In Horsehead, the dream motifs seem more of a puzzle, full of symbolism as opposed to tropes, which is a refreshing change on most modern horror films. But the dream symbolism is also too literal and easy, such as the recurring wolf (in dream symbolism, the wolf often means that you are being challenged to confront what you are afraid of, and to not lurk in the shadows of your own subconscious).
There is a nice fairytale feel at times to Horsehead, which works well. As Jessica’s dreams become more dominant, she finds herself increasingly lost in a dark fantasy world that is overtaking her sanity, revealing more and more the bizarre history of her own family, a sense of repression in them all and a mother scared that her daughter is losing her mind as her own mother did; whilst Catelyn’s partner Jim (a sensitive performance by Murray Head) suspects that there may be more truth to Jessica’s dreams than Catelyn is letting on, prompting him to investigate further as the relationship between mother and daughter becomes increasingly problematic as the secrets of the past are finally revealed.
A film that dealt with Freudian and psychoanalytical theory, symbolism and the world of dreams in a visually sublime and thought provoking manner was Jaromil Jires’ seminal 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; or Bernard Rose’s excellent Paperhouse. A Nightmare on Elm Street, the previously mentioned A Company of Wolves, Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth also dealt with the world of dreams and what happens if those dreams become your reality. Horsehead shares the sensibilities of the latter, both in terms of visual realisation and mood at times. It keeps you engaged as we come closer and closer to what is driving Jessica to lose herself in the world of lucid dreams.
Horsehead is heavy on symbolism, some of which works, but some of which seems style over substance (and, no, it’s not a case of being too stupid to get it as some have been suggesting when criticisms have been made of the film), but symbolism is a tricky one to get right. A room of metronomes looks and sounds nice, but nice looking is basically all it is, even if its dream meaning is the beating of hearts. Again, if you’re going to use dream imagery, look for alternatives with more abstract meaning.
Horsehead aims to be poetic and is visually striking (even if moments remind us a little too much of other films (Suspiria, Inferno, A Company of Wolves). Although its dream symbolism may be too literal, Horsehead has many of the arthouse sensibilities that shone through in recent, fascinating horror films such as Berberian Sound Studio and Amer. The score by Benjamin Shielden is also very effective. There’s a lot to like about the film and Romain Bassett is clearly a director to watch out for in the future. If you like films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Horsehead may well appeal to you. If not, you’ll find it pretentious and ultimately unrewarding.
David Paul Hellings