Benoît Jacquot’s Deep in the Woods screens this weekend as part of this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema series, hosted by the Film Society at Lincoln Center and IFC. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.
The title refers not only to a physical position, but also a psycho-spiritual condition: this peculiar road movie-courtroom drama is often set on the back trails of rural 19th Century France—it meanders through isolated villages like Xena stripped of kitsch—but also features characters whose minds are lost in the deep recesses of human ignorance, naivete and superstition.
Nahuel Perez Biscayart plays the Templeton-faced itinerant Timothee, who rapes and ensorcells a young maiden (Isild Le Besco); as though he is literally magnetic, she abandons her father and her home to follow him on his wanderings. He is the master mesmerist, a puppeteer of human marionettes, the opposite of an exorcist. On the trip, he ravishes her at his whim, until one day she’s riding him, as if she contracted a sorcerous form of Stockholm Syndrome. She slips in and out of a trance, one moment a zombie under his thumb—when he publicly sears her like chattel, she hardly grimaces—the next a willful companion. Later, in court, she charges him with “repeated rape…by means of bewitchment”.
Timothee is a stand-in for movie directors—he’s a voyeur, and a controller, abuser, manipulator, and exploiter of women; as such, and with his fondness for spectacle, he seems an heir to Bergman’s Magician. But he’s also a Caligari-esque Svengali: this is less a movie about movies than one about sexual politics. Woods explores the mysteries of female subjugation, set when distaff sexual desire was still mystical and strange. But Timothee eventually loses his grip, and ends the film in jail; Woods also captures the moment in history when women snapped out of the spell of oppression into which they’d been helplessly cast. Humanity eventually emerged from the woods.