'Into the Forest' ('Dans la foret'): Film Review

Pyramide Distribution
Jeremie Elkaim and Timothe Vom Dorp in 'Into the Forest'
High on atmosphere, low on scares.

French filmmaker Gilles Marchand (‘Black Heaven’) delivers a third feature that toes the line between family drama, coming-of-age camping movie and supernatural thriller.

French writer-director Gilles Marchand broke out onto the scene back in 2000 with the clever comic thriller With a Friend Like Harry…, which he wrote for Dominik Moll. He followed it up with his well-received directorial debut Who Killed Bambi?, and has since penned several genre-benders for Moll and other filmmakers — including Cedric Kahn’s excellent Simenon adaptation Red Lights — while taking a second stab behind the helm with the shaky virtual reality thriller Black Heaven.

In his third directorial outing, Into the Forest (Dans la foret), Marchand offers up a mélange of family psychodrama and supernatural storytelling with this twisted tale of a Swedish camping trip that quickly goes awry. If the premise is enticing and the locations beautifully photographed, there’s not enough underlying tension to help the slow-burn narrative build to a satisfying climax in a film that putters out rather than leaving you with a chill. After premiering in Locarno and London, Into the Forest is receiving a small release in France and could find overseas action on discerning VOD outlets.

Most excursions to the great outdoors in the company of your father can end in some kind of debacle, but the one that besets a French dad (Jeremie Elkaim, Polisse) and his two sons, Tom (Timothe Vom Dorp) and Ben (Theo Van de Voorde), is worse than expected. Even before they set out from Stockholm — where the dad, separated from the boys’ mother (Bambi’s Sophie Quinton), works and lives alone — to visit a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, it’s clear that this will not be your classic camping trip or moment of father-son bonding, but something significantly more sinister.

And therein lies the problem: From nearly the very first scene, Elkaim’s character seems so deranged and psychologically damaged that you know we’re in for trouble. He says weird things to his kids, scares them a few times and becomes such an unlikable brute that you’re hoping they’ll escape at one point — which is what the older son, Ben, attempts later on. But there’s little nuance to their interactions, while Tom’s recurring visions of a disfigured boogeyman hardly ratchet up the suspense, especially when it becomes obvious that the monster may be a metaphor for daddy.

It would have perhaps worked better if the father shifted from hot to cold instead of being so unpleasant all the time, — a scene where they cross a trio of Swedish backpackers only underscores the notion that Parisians can act like total a-holes — though Marchand does insert a bit of tension by showing how the sons are too young and helpless, not to mention too far off the cellphone grid, to do anything about it.

Some of the woodlands sequences do have an eerie flavor to them, with DP Jeanne Lapoirie (Under the Sand) shooting the landscape in frosty widescreen compositions, intercutting with reaction shots of Tom that are bathed in shadows and darkness. Overall, Into the Forest looks and feels like a hybrid between a coming-of-ager about reckless parenting and something much more macabre (think Captain Fantastic meets The Babadook), and it’s unfortunate that Marchand didn’t find the correct dose of drama and genre to make it all click.

Elkaim — producing alongisde Valerie Donzelli, with whom he starred in the Cannes hit Declaration of War — delivers mostly a one-note performance, wallowing in his anger and resentment for the majority of the running time. (It was obviously a bad breakup.) Not that this is the actor’s fault, and Elkaim does create a strong level of inquietude throughout the film, but you feel like Marchand isn’t giving us any room to be surprised or even scared when things eventually go from bad to worse in the final act. Vom Dorp, whose Tom serves as the story's unspoken narrator, is otherwise convincing as a little boy who sees dead people. 

Production company: Les Films de Francoise
Cast: Jeremie Elkaim, Timothe Vom Dorp, Theo Van de Voorde, Mika Zimmerman
Director: Gilles Marchand
Screenwriters: Gilmes Marchand, Dominik Moll
Producers: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Gilles Balabaud
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Yann Dedet
Composer: Philippe Schoeller
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French, Swedish
103 minutes