February 7, 2010By Tom RidgwayArchive

The Devil You (Don’t) Know

Would you want to spend the night here? Photo: Alex Lamarque

Sheitan is “un film de genre,” a disparaging term in France for any movie that isn’t exactly high art, which this most definitely isn’t.

Four friends leave a Paris club on Christmas Eve with a girl who invites them back to her house in the country. When they arrive the next morning they meet Joseph (Vincent Cassel), the caretaker of the house, who is, to say the least, a little strange. From the moment they arrive you know that things aren’t going to turn out well.

Sheitan (the title means “devil”) is also a genre film because it uses genre conventions to
witty and intelligent effect. It isn’t, thankfully, one of those now-tedious Scream-like “deconstructions” of a genre – it’s smarter than that. Its references and genre fun are used to establish character and send the story forward, not just to make us feel clever for spotting the references.

First up are the now well-established – almost to the point of cliché – conventions of films set in the French banlieue (suburb): young men with short fuses ready to explode into violence at any moment; women who, while accepting their men’s threats of violence, are their own people. (In what must have been a deliberate choice, the film never actually goes near a banlieue, however.)

Starting with that first scene, when the inevitable fight breaks out, the film plays around with our expectations, referencing film after film, genre after genre, including horror films, porn films (with a stupid yet funny gag involving goat’s milk) and an extended homage to John Boorman’s Deliverance.

Then there’s Vincent Cassel. He appeared, of course, in Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal La Haine – the original “banlieue film.” Here he plays the archetypal cinematic banlieue character playing a lunatic country bumpkin. He’s obviously having a ball and provides the film with some great comic moments, but his presence is a constant reminder of the earlier film and so in passing offers up the notion that violence has nothing to do with location: people have the potential to be violent and cruel no matter where they’re from, which is a welcome antidote to the usual clichés about Paris’ satellite cities.

This is probably a point that the film’s director, Kim Chapiron, would deny trying to make. He is one of the founders of Kourtrajmé, a collective that has made its name with short films and music, and Sheitan is his feature debut. (Cassel has been a supporter of Kourtrajmé for years.)

Perhaps the best thing you can say about Sheitan is that it does something rare in today’s cinema: it creates images that lodge in your brain long after you’ve left the cinema. When I tried to go to sleep the night after seeing the film I was immediately met by Vincent Cassel, who wanted to poke my eyes out; I gently refused him the pleasure.

Tom Ridgway

© 2006 Paris Update

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