Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie: Artifacts

Given how the Belgians have always been the butt of French jokes, much in the way the Polish are worldwide, you can't blame them for trying to capitalize on the "French horror" craze. The director, Giles Daoust, admits as much. He wanted to make a quick, low-budget sci-fi/horror film. And while he gets the "quick" and "low-budget" parts of the equation right, the sci-fi and horror aspects don't quite make it through. Artifacts tries to engage the viewer in a mystery—why are these good-looking young friends meeting tragic ends? But as the mystery deepens (they don't know each other at all! they have metallic "artifacts" embedded in their chests! their exact doubles are trying to kill them!), the film stumbles and falls flat on its face.

To be fair, some of the film's shortcomings are readily apparent early on. The writing, in particular, is strained. Exposition is delivered in the awkward ways possible: an overhead conversation in a police station elevator, for example, or a helpful radio news report. And before twenty-five minutes have elapsed, three characters have met their doom, as if there's a quota to be met. (Helpful hint: if you're alone in your apartment, and you see something writhing in your bed, it's best not to pull back the covers.) We're concerned for these people... why? Things don't get better towards the end, when guns magically appear by bedsides, and we finally get an explanatory figure, Carl Francken (found via Google, of all things). But what he has to say is rather ridiculous and frustratingly fails to explain anything whatsoever. Indeed, the explanation makes things more muddled. Maybe the writer tries to say something about the nature of identity (as doppelgängers are an effective metaphor for this). But, really, it feels more like the writers—Daoust and co-director Emmanuel Jespers—simply said, "Oh well, we'd better wrap things up with an anti-climactic chase scene."

To Daoust's credit, however, he milks the doppelgänger aspect of the film for all the creepiness it's worth. The closed-circuit television shot of a woman entering a building twice is appropriately eerie, and the boyfriend who doesn't know where he keeps the coffee establishes a bit of tension—despite being telegraphed from a mile away. There's also a genuinely cringe-worthy moment that involves the physical extraction of the artifact—the director's concession to gore fiends. As well, the low electronic screeching that permeates the soundtrack works overtime to establish atmosphere, which, perhaps, matches the film's low-fi quality of digital video.

The film certainly tries to be ambitious despite its miniscule budget, but in the end, a surfeit of ideas and the failure to consider those ideas fully sinks Artifacts. The film itself becomes one of those nasty little artifacts: a screechy, metallic annoyance that you would prefer to have out of your body.

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