The Descent of Man

01/11/2012 4:00 AM |

The Divide
Directed by Xavier Gens

The heroes in Xavier Gens’s The Divide don’t simply stumble into some prefab horror-movie depravity. The French splattermeister doesn’t take the conditions of a torture porn for granted: rather, his characters slowly fashion them—all it takes is nine normal New York neighbors locked in the superintendent’s fallout shelter following a nuclear attack for a matter of weeks before shaved-hairless men are living beside the bound and battered corpse of their former sex slave, trying to rape the rest of the male and female survivors. The question is whether Gens’s brutality and gore have a purpose. His breakthrough, 2007’s Frontier(s), was so blatantly political that its politics were inconsequential, receding behind a pointless exercise in envelope-pushing degeneracy. But I don’t think The Divide is so nihilistic, perhaps because the director is working from a script he didn’t write.

First-time screenwriters Karl Mueller and Eron Sheehan waste little time on human drama, which is good; it’s neither theirs nor Gens’s strength. The movie opens with bombs falling, survivors fleeing in panic, fireballs exploding. With civilization toppled in one fell swoop, many of the characters quickly regress to a state of nature, with its primal sexual power dynamics and an ethos of governance by might. The first line of spoken (not screamed) dialogue is “let there be light,” as generator switches are flipped. But this ain’t no Garden of Eden. We’re back at the beginning, without social order, in a kind of postdiluvian condition.

Or perhaps akin to something more recent? With prominently featured newspaper clippings, the filmmakers encourage us to remember September 11th, and the drama in the basement sanctuary plays out as microcosmic parallel to recent American history: the initial confusion, the falling buildings, people caked in dust, the brief unity, the eventual mistrust, an act of torture that begins a slippery slope into rape, madness and violence, all culminating in the breakdown of the body politic into opposing teams. Those savage madmen who control the bunker by film’s end? That’s how 21st century Americans must look to Frenchmen like Gens.

Opens January 13