Director Marina De Van has had a curious career, emerging from the shadows of collaborator Francois Ozon. Her first two films were strongly indebted to a culture of Gaellic body horror that plumbed greater depths than the more commercial sadism expressed in films like “Martyrs” and “Inside,” with her starring role in “In My Skin” providing stomach-turning sights as well as insightfully mapping the sadness of a person alone in her own suffering, addicted to self-mutilation. A similar prison awaited Sophie Marceau in “Don’t Look Back” as she found herself morphing into Monica Bellucci, a fantasy conceit with very real consequences. In some ways, her latest film “Dark Touch” pulls back considerably, tackling a more commercial story of a telekinetic young girl. But in others, De Van is right at home exploring the disturbed side of an identity conflict, and the way our physical experiences shape us as human beings.
At the start, young Neve (Missy Keating) appears to be part of casual suburban family in the Irish countryside, but all is not right with the young girl, who constantly flees the house. What we see, and learn, skews the truth a bit: her parents are complicit in ongoing abuse, De Van elegantly depicting a monstrous act with shadows, sharp cuts, and seemingly innocuous visuals; on its own, the sight of Neve’s father removing his own shoes at the foot of her bed means little. But coupled with a montage of moments putting the girl to bed, it reveals everything we need to know about what secrets this house lies.
But Neve is still just a little girl, and what she’s fleeing from is the natural inclination to get revenge. Neve’s resentment and low self-esteem manifest themselves physically in a horrific onslaught of violence, the house seemingly coming alive one item of furniture at a time. As Neve watches with horror, her parents are impaled and executed in a variety of manners, as if their home has come alive, reacting with rage to what has occurred underneath this roof. Credit to the effects team for going all out: it doesn’t seem like there’d be hundreds of ways to impale a human being, but the crew behind “Dark Touch” certainly find a way.
“Dark Touch” deftly portrays this retaliation in the appropriate light, giving this legacy of youth-revenge films an appropriate moral conscience. Neve isn’t secure or vindicated but rather ashamed. She can’t explain how or why, but she feels as if she is responsible for killing her family (including an infant brother she accidentally smothers, a horrifying accident caused by Neve’s naive kindness). Taken in by a neighboring couple with two children of their own, Neve’s guilt soon manifests itself, an emotional response that leads to traditional horror movie spooks like the opening and closing doors and the shattering glasses. The police believe the initial assault to be the work of meticulous-but-bloodthirsty marauders, but Neve’s new adopted family can’t help but blame her when she’s left alone in the kitchen, only to find pots, pans and chairs strewn about.
For a good portion of its runtime, “Dark Touch” sensitively expresses the struggles of a victim of abuse in expressing themselves. Because of the film’s structure, we don’t know a Neve pre-trauma. This sort of abuse has caused her to feel a lack of agency; her response only conveys the same idea, as she stands by powerlessly while her thoughts lead to casual violence she’d never be physically capable of. “Dark Touch” externalizes the suffering of these victims with surprising nuance, allowing for quieter moments with flummoxed adults of varying degrees of compassion; there are no bad guys, but it doesn’t seem like any heroes are going to emerge to contain the rage that is using poor Neve as a conduit.
It’s unfortunate that commercial considerations seem to play into the third act, adding a more concrete representation of a very abstract idea. “Dark Touch” evolves into either a less stylistically-adventurous pre-teen “Carrie,” or perhaps even a prequel to “Who Can Kill A Child?“: it’s not really necessary to present the issue that powerful Neve is not only telekinetic (and even that feels overly conventional) but must she also be a telepath? By the time a bombastic CGI-enhanced finale arises, it almost feels like we’re in DC Comics territory.
Lacking the intellectual heft of De Van’s earlier films, it’s at least the third straight picture she’s directed with a strong central performance (De Van herself holds the center quite well in “In My Skin,” and it would be a pleasure to see her in front of the camera again). Most children performances in horror films are, let’s face it, terrible. Horror productions usually have smaller budgets and an emphasis on aesthetics and pyrotechnics, leaving the performances lacking, particularly kids forced in a situation that probably isn’t very kid-friendly. But the young Ms. Keating is almost supernaturally skilled in her ability to modulate between disturbed and confident. Tragically, you’re never thinking this is a child actor, but rather that this is a genuinely broken kid. Uncommon for most horror films with kids, she takes up a majority of screentime, but while Neve is not very verbal, Keating remains a compelling, heartbreaking presence, conveying a small lifetime of suffering with only a look. The movie may spin out of control, but she remains excellent throughout. [B]