During an oral dissertation that occurs near the denouement of L’Enfer, the youngest sister Anne (Marie Gillain) is randomly assigned the topic of Euripedes’ Greek tragedy Medea, a mythological character who, betrayed by her husband Jason, exacted revenge by killing their children. The allegory of Medea would prove to be an insightful framework into the fractured, disparate lives of Anne’s estranged family as well. Her volatile, married sister Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) has become increasingly consumed with a crippling obsession over her husband’s infidelity. Her introverted sister Céline (Karin Viard) continues to lead an emotionally closed life of self-devotion and predictable ritual by dutifully attending to their invalid, embittered mother (Carole Bouquet) in a secluded nursing home, even as she wrestles with her surfacing feelings for an enigmatic, handsome stranger named Sébastien (Guillaume Canet) who begins to court her undivided attention. Even Anne’s seeming youthful idealism cannot mask a life-altering personal crisis as she struggles to make sense of her married lover (and professor) Frédéric’s (Jacques Perrin) unexpected rejection after informing him of her pregnancy. Segueing into her literary exposition with the remark, “Today, tragedy is no longer possible,” Anne’s evocation of modern-day tragedy as the walking wounded tersely encapsulates the invisible, yet immediately palpable repercussions of the sisters’ own deep rooted childhood trauma surrounding their father’s (Miki Manojlovic) imprisonment (and subsequent death) and their mother’s cold, retreated silence, as the siblings embody a figurative, sacrificial death at the hands of parents’ tumultuous marriage, yet survive to bear the collective scars of their broken childhood into their unreconciled, adult lives. Invoking the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski through similar aesthetics of thematic color palettes (in the compositional representation of the sisters) and imagery (most notably, a drowning insect struggling to make its way out of a glass from Decalogue, and a shot of an elderly lady recycling bottles that recurs through all the films of the Three Colors trilogy) and realizing a scenario by Kieslowski and long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Danis Tanovic further creates a Bergmanesque atmosphere of claustrophobia and Antonioni-inspired interior landscapes of profound desolation. Unfolding as fragments of an elliptical puzzle that, when reconstructed, precisely interconnect to reveal a portrait of revenge, self-absorption, and despair, L’Enfer is a thoughtful and articulate examination of the myopia and untold legacy of human cruelty and emotional warfare: a metaphoric representation of hell as a godless – and graceless – existential plane of inured suffering, silence, longing, and disconnection.
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