★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Alexis Bruchon
The Eyes Below is perhaps the closest thing to a real nightmare since David Lynch’s 1977 opus, Eraserhead. If you have ever had dreams of being smothered, suffocated, or strangled, this is your unrelenting torment. Be mindful though, it also includes the occasionally repetitive tedium of a dream you can’t get out of.
Vinicius Coelho is Eugene, a journalist about to break a politically explosive expose, and the key documentary evidence for the case is laced with sinister supernatural omens. Eugene heads upstairs to bed to settle in for the night, lighting a fire, and settling in for what will be a panic-inducing night of terrors.
Eugene is awoken by a presence in the room, shadowy at first and then made manifest, the figure crawling its way to the bed, under the sheets, and paralyzing him in place. The intruder assaults the hapless Eugene who writhes, but cannot extract himself from under his bedsheets.
There are moments when he seems to awaken from his predicament, but even though the intruder has vanished, he is still trapped. He cannot get out of bed. He cannot reach his phone, try as he might, it is just beyond his fingertips.
… and then things get really weird.
I will state again, that this feels like a REAL nightmare. And you know how when you are in a bad nightmare that nothing seems to work? The deja vu of getting looped back into the same trap over and over again? Well, those sensations play out in The Eyes Below. I made the foolish mistake of watching this movie IN BED on my laptop. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well.
The movie is one-half fear and one-half frustration in equal measure.
The young director, Bruchon, has delivered a visually arresting movie. The design of the bedroom and the bed are specifically crafted to play with the light, shadow, and changing dimensions of Eugene’s very bad night. And the bedsheets are a glorious design, with a hypnotic and beautiful pattern stitched into the silky comforter. Every small element has a place to be in the set as everything in the room will have a role to play in whether Eugene can break this horrible spell.
The movie is devoid of almost any exposition. There is zero dialogue in the movie. It’s a French film, but don’t worry if you don’t know French, because Eugene says NOTHING in the whole movie. The intruder (Pauline Morel) says nothing. That’s not to say that this is a silent movie. It has a pounding and jarring soundtrack, and there is a ton of foley work with ruffling sheets and creaking floorboards getting a lot of play.
That assists with putting the audience into the same dreamy visions, but that also includes some of the frustrations. It is very hard to understand why this is happening. It also makes it very difficult to have any sympathies for Eugene, as we don’t really know him. He is just a man under siege, under the covers.
I had a real hard time connecting the nightmares to Eugene’s journalistic work. There are suggestive clues left, but without any dialogue, it is all inferential and not explicit. Most nightmares are rooted in external stresses. Work stress. Relationship stress. Pressure. These visions seem unmoored from the root cause, and I just couldn’t finish the puzzle of why Eugene was going through unless it was just generic work stress. Maybe?
In a way, though, perhaps that’s fine, since dreams are detached plenty from reality. And this film is more of an immersion in the sensation of dread than anything else.
The Eyes Below feels like a very long short film. It only runs for 77 minutes, but since it is essentially a one-act, or at most an act with an introduction, it feels longer than it should. You are almost immediately thrust into the nightmare. By minute 50 you are just about as desperate to break out of the scenario as Eugene. It is a high level of intensity maintained for a very long period, with only a few waking gasps to put a pause on the events.
The film is the second part of a trilogy by Alexis Bruchon, with the first film The Woman with Leopard Shoes being a film noir short, and Point de Fuite (In Production) being a paranoiac thriller. All three are minimalist films built around a single character in a single location and a single story.
Bruchon wrote, directed, produced, edited, and scored the production. Much credit should be given to the innovative way that he was able to collapse the universe of the bedroom, moving Eugene (and the camera) around, through, and under the bed making it feel like a Lewis Carroll meets Dr. Who mind trip. High marks here for artistry.
I will say that the film works. Perhaps it works too well. Nightmares are not pleasant. I now appreciate how A Nightmare on Elm Street, handled the subject material, bringing you in and out of the nightmares, and making them fantastical and punchy. Nightmares don’t really work like that. There are no wisecracking villains in my nightmares. The Eyes Below gives me the authentic feel of true night terrors. Waking up within a dream only to find out I’m still in a dream. Yep. Hate that. Flailing around under a sheet because I let the sheets go over my head. Yeah. Hate that too.
Nightmares are inherently a psychological struggle, whether they are dreams of an existential threat, crushing embarrassments, deep regrets, or the always fun “I forgot to study for that test” dream. It. Is. A. Struggle. And this makes you feel like you are in it with Eugene, for all that it entails and not all of it is fun.
The Eyes Below is having its North American premiere at The Popcorn Frights Film Festival on Saturday, August 20 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is not rated, but I would safely put this as PG-13, though it is intense, and probably runs a high probability of giving younger audiences real nightmares… because this is what they feel like. The boogeyman is under the sheets, under the bed, and in the closet. Good luck putting the kiddos to sleep after this one!