In the recent period of Benoit Jacquot’s more than thirty years of filmmaking, with movies like “Seventh Heaven,” he has often embraced a sharp psychoanalytic perspective. “Deep in the Woods” (“Au Fond Des Bois”), the French director’s seventeenth feature and the opening night Piazza screening at the 63rd Locarno Film Festival, offers no exception to this tendency. However, Jacquot’s dark, sexy tale of savage love lacks the emotional clarity to match its ideas.
Set in the woodsy South of France in 1865, the story revolves around Timothée (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a nomadic forest dweller who sets his sight on Joséphine (Isild Le Besco), a young woman living in upper middle class comfort with her protective doctor father. Long before speaking a single line, the scheming Timothée’s motives become clear. He spies on an affluent man attempting to woo Joséphine with poetry, then introduces a different tactic to achieve the same goal with far more successful results. At first, Timothée stumbles into her home under the guise of a deaf-mute, garnering her father’s sympathies while catching Joséphine’s eye. And then, when the coast is clear, he rapes her.
Suggesting a thematic blend of “The Last Tango in Paris” and “The Virgin Spring,” although less profound or intellectually stimulating than either, “Deep in the Woods” launches into a meditation on sexual desire. Although initially horrified by Timothée’s actions, Joséphine finds herself attracted to his grundy outsider status and chases him back to his outdoors turf. An emphatic orchestral score and picturesque cinematography by Julien Hirsch (“Lady Chatterley”) flesh out the dark storybook tone, as an uneasy chemistry develops between the characters.
Biscayart (whose character actually speaks in a bastard language that blends Spanish, Italian and Languedoc dialect) and Le Besco share a unique screen chemistry, creating a literal manifestation of the notion that opposites attract. Alternately curious and horrified by Timothée’s uncivilized world, Joséphine appears to come out of her shell. Rough sex becomes their shared kink, and she slowly adopts his savagery. A more accurate comparison than the aforementioned works would be “Secretary,” because much of the affair’s power stems from the ambiguity of Joséphine’s submissiveness.
It’s never entirely clear just how much of Timothée’s game Joséphine chooses to play, or whether she manages to wrestle control of it when authorities capture the man and accuse him of rape. It’s here that the plot devolves into a series of bland judicial proceedings that lack the raw sexual power of the earlier scenes.
To the extent that it sustains an element of psychological mystery, “Deep in the Woods” has merit, but the fits of inspiration are hampered by the absence of story momentum. Once Benoit reveals the unlikely love affair, he can’t seem to find a good strategy for building on it. The director gets points for establishing the intellectual heft of the scenario (based on a real incident) — the question surrounding the extent to which Joséphine submits to Timothée’s seduction has plenty of provocative appeal. But once Jacquot poses that question, he never gets around to establishing answers.