Inside was one of the lynchpins of the New French Extremity – and like many other films in the movement, it wasn’t merely driven by violence, but by bodies in absolute trauma. We open with a devastating car crash, told initially from the perspective of a foetus, and from there shift to our main character, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), covered in blood, realising that her partner, and possibly her baby, have been killed. The baby survives, but there is still nothing outside this originary trauma, since the next scene, in which Sarah consults with an obstetrician the day before she is due for delivery, quickly shifts to the testimony of a nurse whose first birth took thirteen hours, and ended up with a still-born child. This is clearly the last thing Sarah needs to hear, but the nurse still insists upon telling the story in graphic detail.
The film proper now follows, and takes the form of a double home invasion drama, in which a mysterious woman only known as “La Femme” (Beatrice Dalle) breaks into Sarah’s house, and then tries to break into her womb, in order to claim the baby as her own. From the moment Sarah returns home, and before La Femme even arrives on the scene, it’s clear that we’re not merely in for body horror, or even torture horror, but trauma horror. For Sarah has a chronic fear of the pain of childbirth, and is now less than twenty-four hours out from delivery, bringing the surface of her belly into almost unbearable relief. This continues to be a motif throughout the film, starting with La Femme running a scissor blade over Sarah’s belly, and resting it in her belly button, in order to awake her to the torture that is to come, to her stabbing of Sarah’s stomach, which leads to her water breaking, and so collapses the horror of the evening into a sustained childbirth, an allegory for the tortures of expelling a human.
These promises of violence are largely framed by analog media, especially Sarah’s camera. When La Femme first appears, ghostly, outside her back window, she takes a photograph of her, and then develops it in her darkroom, but the image is too blurry and inchoate to be of much help to the police when they respond to her call. Similarly, when La Femme enters the house, she doesn’t announce her presence right away, let alone get stuck into the ultra-violence. Instead, she emerges, and then recedes, from the back of the frame, with such mercurial delicacy that, beyond a certain point, the film can no longer represent her, but only mirror her, through a series of fades that percolate throughout the narrative, and invoke La Femme whenever they do so, until she seems to emanate from the syntax of the movie itself.
For all the anticipated extremity of the violence, then, the opening of Inside isn’t different in kind from the traditional horror films that preceded it. We’re presented with a fairly traditional home invasion and body invasion narrative, each of which depend on the permeable yet tangible distinctions between inside and outside that also drove an older kind of classical suspense, and the analog media on which it depended. This tended to be venue-specific, and so reiterate the same inside-outside boundaries in the process of consuming it. Yet this all makes the departures of the second act all the more striking, as directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo lean further into the peculiarities of the New French Extremity.
Whereas American torture horror of this time was fixated on organs, guts and viscera, the NFE was more preoccupied with the primal relation between skin and celluloid. Rather than entirely dismantle bodies, these directors continually reconfigured skin and blood, as if to disrupt the distinctions between inside and outside that drove traditional horror in the first place. Accordingly, La Femme has one basic modus operandi – she stabs, anywhere and everywhere, but never in the right place to cause a single clean death. She also stabs in a particularly deliberate way, driving her various implements through different layers of skin, bone and cartilage, although we only tend to see this manifest through skin and blood. Over time, this spectacle extends to characters pulling objects back out of their skin, while the climax comes when Sarah realises she must stab herself in the throat to liberate her windpipe.
Gradually, this moves us away from the analog suspense of Sarah’s camera, as the continual disruptions of the skin, which never quite constellate into a singular fatal penetration, give way to a digital glitch aesthetic. Neither the skin nor the screen is a stable or static surface now, as blood sprays, splatters and seeps across every possible object, like abstract expressionism rendered in blood, or a glitch manifesto for a new era of handheld cinema. The violence escalates by confounding this surface between blood and skin, inside and outside, distorting and convoluting physical space more generally until the house starts to dissolve into a series of inchoate disruption zones where traditional rooms, doors and corridors used to be. By the end, there is no inside or outside, and everything is just above or below the surface of the skin, meaning we can’t even fall back on the catharsis of traditional violence, as death itself ceases to offer closure or catharsis in the face of this undead digital ecology.
In a final resistance to this new world order, Sarah arms herself with an enormous spear, and adds several successive chunks, as if to finally wield the penetrating blow the film has been yearning for, and prove that there is indeed something real, some kind of closure, beneath the endless skin and blood. She then recovers her camera and uses it to scour the house for La Femme, determined to wrest some power back from it, if not as a representative device, then as a physical guide and weapon. But as she moves from room to room, the continuous strobe flashes of bloodshed just embed the glitch aesthetic even deeper – so deep, in fact, that even when La Femme gets the upper hand again, and slices the baby out of Sarah’s body, it doesn’t restore any sense of bodily depth or interiority. Instead, childbirth turns into another abstraction of skin and blood, another place where inside and outside fail to properly ramify, until the “inside” of classical suspense, and of an older analog body, can only exist as consolatory fantasy, as a residue of a former world order, as a title without a reference point.