White Skin (Cannibal)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/27/05 12:51:59

"Aw, jeez. Don't tell me this. I like redheads, damn it."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: White Skin is the best kind of creepy movie. It's the kind where a sense of wrongness builds gradually enough that you don't feel the director trying to convince the audience, but quickly enough to leave you shocked. It doesn't rely on money shots, elaborate prosthetics, or set-pieces. It doesn't really want the audience to scream. Screaming, you see, is too easy a release.

Thierry's friend Henri (Frédéric Pierre) decides to treat his roommate, a sweet guy from rural Québec (they are both students in Montréal), to a hooker for his birthday. Thierry (Marc Paquet) is grateful but tells his girl that they don't have to actually do anything. She thinks it's because he'd rather be with Henri's paid companion, but that's not it at all. After all, Henri chose a redhead and Thierry finds them stomach-turning. It's not the hair, he says, so much as the pale skin; it's sickly-looking and you can see the veins if you get too close.

He may have a point; the girl with Henri has a tendency to stab one in the carotid artery. Thierry chases her off and gets Max to a doctor, and they tell Henri's family that skinheads did it to avoid Henri's girlfriend finding out about the hookers. But, irony of ironies, soon Thierry's eye falls upon Claire (Marianne Farley), a lovely red-haired (well, light brown to my eyes, but a reddish brown, and she's got the fair skin) music student, and he's instantly smitten. She's initially resistant, but not for too long, and soon Thierry can't tear himself away, even for such mundane things as classes. And then... Wait, did Henri really just see her licking that used condom?

Clearly, White Skin isn't afraid of sex; it explicitly references Cronenberg early on and understands that human lusts are powerful, primal forces that must be confronted rather than danced around. Sex is part of the movie's equation, but not in a simplistic "remain a virgin until marriage or die" manner.

More interesting, perhaps, if only because it seems like an unlikely angle for a "scary movie" from the U.S., is that the movie isn't afraid of race, either. That Henri's family is of Haitian descent is not just politically correct diversity, or even just a compositional contrast to the pale red-headed girls. It's something the audience is meant to think about from early on, when Henri's aunt Marie-Pierre (Joujou Turenne) mentions that science has shown humanity originated in Africa and argues that to be black is the species natural state. Claire's mother will make another observation that doesn't so much contradict Marie-Pierre's as re-interpret the meaning, and taken in combination they can cut both ways, if one is apt to make claims of superiority based upon skin color. It's a somewhat more intellectual underpinning to the film's mythology than one may expect from the genre.

It may be giving too much away to use terms like "mythology" and "genre". It suggests that White Skin is about something larger than a boy becoming obsessed with a girl, which is not necessarily obvious from the first act. After having said that much, it would probably be disingenuous for me to say that, hey, I could be emulating the movie itself in throwing red herrings around. Or not. The movie is artfully ambiguous on just exactly what the deal is at times, but not in a coy or overly cute way. Part of what is scary about the situation Thierry and Henri find themselves in is that there just may not be answers available.

Although many Canadian films will star actors vaguely familiar to Americans from television and other productions filmed in Toronto or Vancouver, those are anglophone films and actors. White Skin comes from Québec, and winds up drawing from a different pool of talent. It's still a very good cast, especially Marianne Farley. Marc Paquet is that peculiarly French style of leading man who looks rather plain, but turns out to be a compelling protagonist, while Frédéric Pierre turns in a good supporting role. Also a ton of fun is Jessica Malka's thoroughly nasty Marquise.

Daniel Roby, wearing enough hats (writer, director, producer, and editor) in his feature debut to almost be Robert Rodriguez, but acquits himself well. Working from a novel by Joel Champetier, he doesn't overreach and try to put more on the screen than he can afford. He makes one scene in a pantry unsettling without showing anything graphic, for instance. He's ably assisted by the fact that Montréal is just a generally great-looking city, especially when allowed to be itself as opposed to doubling for Boston or New York.

White Skin does a great job of ignoring expectations, not tipping its hand to what kind of thriller it intends to be until it's already become that sort of movie. That's one of it's strengths; the audience can figure out what's going on along with the characters without lessening the shocks.

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