SATURN BOWLING is a horror film as cold-blooded as the serial killer it depicts on a rampage through Calvados, France. And as cold-hearted as the father whose sins are visited in abundance upon two brothers attempting a détente after a lifetime of estrangement. Chillingly observational, and unflinching in its depiction of violence, psychological and physical, against women, children, and animals, Patricia Mazuy’s journey to the crimson-tinged heart of darkness is framed in the common experience of the vie quotidinenne. Here, the psychopath is hiding in plain sight and the authorities are rendered impotent by blind spots and misplaced loyalty, and there is no comfortable remove between what is on screen and what lurks in our own reality.
The brothers are Armand (Achille Reggiani), the bastard and abandoned son of that ci-mentioned father, and Guillaume (Arieh Worthalter), the favored sibling. Kept apart by their father, their lives have taken drastically different paths. Armand wanders through a series of low-paying jobs, sleeping wherever he can, swallowing with good-natured passivity the insults from those better off. Guillaume is a police detective trying to do right by his half-brother by offering him the management of the eponymous business left him by their father. Suddenly, Armand has a place to live over the bowling alley, a position of (meager) authority, and the python motorcycle jacket left in his father’s apartment. In fact, the first time we see him smile is when he looks at himself in a mirror wearing it. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing considering that the old man was an enthusiastic hunter of rare and endangered species, and then gloat over the kill.
Mazuy toys with her audience’s perceptions of these brothers, eliciting our sympathies for the rootless Armand, while presenting Guillaume as emotionally disengaged, acting out of a sense of duty. There’s a distinct relief to his laconic face when Armand accepts the job offer but only if Guillaume stays away. It’s a clever set-up. When we witness a murder, the sudden shift from sexual playfulness to rage is even more of a shock. The camera is relentless, focusing on the face of the victim as the life slowly drains from her. It stays there as she is wrapped in plastic, the sound of tape sealing in her corpse heightened as an everyday object becomes something as sinister as the hissing of a snake.
The murderer, coolly detached from his actions while committing the crime, is shown in just as tight a close-up afterwards when that face becomes a shifting display of psychological reactions from bliss to anguish, catching us up in the storms roiling inside him.
The body count grows, and Guillaume begins to crack under the pressure even while being pursued by Xuan Do (Y-Lan Lucas), the animal activist (yes, ironic) he met when one of his father’s old hunting buddies threatened her with a rifle. Meanwhile, Armand’s eccentricities as a manager drive the brothers apart, as does Armand’s disrespect for his father’s friends and fellow hunters, further testing Guillaume’s resilience.
Reggiani and Worthalter are compelling in low-key performances that perfectly match the idiom of the film. They allow you see their characters’ minds at work, revealing great things with small gestures, or a stare than lasts just a beat too long.
Amped up in no small part by a pile-driver of a music score by Wyatt E., SATURN BOWLING is not for the faint of heart. Slick on the surface, the depths it dares to plumb are treacherous viewing. Prepare to be unsettled.