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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » House of Voices
House of Voices
Universal // R // October 18, 2005
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted November 28, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
After creating two making-of documentaries about the excellent Christophe Gans film, Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups), Pascal Laugier finally had a chance to make a feature film of his own. With financial (and moral) support from Gans, Laugier set out to create the haunting tale of a young women sent to look after a decaying, abandoned orphanage in the remote French Alps. The building, and its few inhabitants, harbor some deep, dark secrets that even Laugier seems to have trouble fully explicating. House of Voices, originally titled Saint Ange, is an ambitious first feature that tries so hard to be more than just another confusing thriller or simple ghost story, but unfortunately somewhere along the line the film seems to lose its way.

Virginie Ledoyen's character, Anna Jurin, is the aforementioned young lady who takes residence in the orphanage a decade after the end of WWII. Keeping a few secrets of her own, Anna discovers that also living in the orphanage are Helenka, the veteran cook of the facility, and Judith, the only remaining orphan who resides in a seemingly constant state of childhood. It doesn't take long before Ledoyen – really the only familiar face in the film, at least for an American audience – starts to get some eerie vibes from Judith and the building itself. Shut down after the mysterious death of one of the orphans Saint Ange, Anna soon learns, holds some very dark secrets that it appears Headmistress Francard has been trying for years to keep secret. That basic outline is the basis for your typical ghost story aspect of House of Voices. What Laugier tries to do with his film, however, is much more ambitious than just that (probably to a fault).

Laugier, of course, provides the requisite creep tactics to get his film moving. We see the "mysterious" death of the young orphan as the film opens, which proves to be one of the more effective scenes in the film. There is certainly a creepy atmosphere that Laugier creates with lighting, sound, and the whispered voices of the children. Not to mention a very dank, dirty bathroom that comes to play a rather large part in House of Voices. From that scene forward, however, Laugier's film slows to a crawl for the majority of its remainder. Sure, we get the incredibly disturbing Judith – who reminds me a bit too much (in overall creepiness and physical characteristics) of Zelda from Pet Semetary – and a building full of spooky noises, but Laugier seems to focus more on Anna's internal struggle for much of the film rather than her connection to the orphanage itself. We get a pretty clear sense of her past and her current struggles, but the director takes her link to Saint Ange a bit too lightly, simply assuming the audience will understand why she cares so much for the secrets the building keeps. Unfortunately, we don't fully understand it, and this is where House of Voices loses some of its steam.

The film's fairly confusing sequence of events takes a very drastic turn in the third act. Without giving too much away, the final third of the film makes it appear as if Laugier is trying to turn House of Voices into a David Lynch/David Cronenberg hybrid. Anna's journey in this section of the film not only defies logic, but also becomes way too surreal for its own good. The footage is clearly ripe with symbolism and you get a sense that Laugier knows exactly what he wants to say, but isn't really sure how to say it. Ledoyen soldiers on as the best thing the film has going for it by playing it all very straight. It's quite obvious, however, that the material is in over its head at this point. House of Voices tries to wrap it all up nicely with a few scenes much more grounded in reality, but by now the film has managed to lose much of its credibility with anything resembling reality. It's a shame too because, while slow, the film does have some great atmosphere and some general creepiness up until that third act.

Despite the downfalls of the film's conclusion there are a few more things to like about House of Voices. The main cast is generally very good throughout the film. Maintaining tension with basically just the three main actresses, Virginie Ledoyen, Lou Doillon, and Dorina Lazar do a fine job of carrying much of the film. There are times, of course, when Doillon can be caught overacting or when Lazar's English isn't up to par, but the good aspects of their performances easily outweigh the bad. The orphanage itself plays a major role in the film and its gloomy appearance always seems to cast a shadow of impending doom for its inhabitants. Pascal Laugier certainly knows how to create a good-looking film. It's just when he lets his story spiral out of control that he begins to have problems.

If you plan on checking out House of Voices thinking that you're going to get a French version of The Others or a simple ghost story about an abandoned orphanage, you might as well just not bother. Shot simultaneously in both French and English, Pascal Laugier's film has the potential to be a solid creepfest, but some shaky English from the actors and far-too-surreal conclusion turns House of Voices into ambitious, but ultimately sub-par, first feature. If only the Laugier had kept it in the actor's native tongue, released it as Saint Ange, and kept the simplicity of the ghost story that exists in the film's first act, he might have had something special. In its current form, however, House of Voices tries too hard to be cerebral and weighty, and ultimately ends up being a mildly entertaining, atmospheric thriller. At least for its first two-thirds, that is.

The DVD

Video:
House of Voices is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format that doesn't hold up quite as well as I had hoped, but still does a fine job with the source material. The film has a layer of graininess that fluctuates throughout the film. Darker scenes are often riddled with grain while brighter scenes appear much cleaner. Detail isn't as sharp as it could be, and the muted color palette of the film sometimes looks a bit soft. Flesh tones are accurate, however, and shadows and lighting come across fairly well. There are a few instances of spots and some very slight scratches on the print, but no compression artifacts to be found. A little noticeable edge enhancement appears at times, but it's very minimal. An adequate visual presentation, this transfer manages to get the job done without really raising any eyebrows.

Sound:
The audio on this disc is presented in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 format that carries the overall soundtrack well. You may be wondering why a French film would include only an English audio track. I thought the same exact thing, until a little further investigation reveals that House of Voices was filmed simultaneously in English and in French. It would have absolutely been great to have the French track included on this disc as well, but at least the English isn't a dub track, as the original actors all recorded their own parts during filming.

The track itself, nevertheless, does a fine job of balancing the sound effects, Joseph Loduca score, and dialogue. Speech is always clear, crisp, and distinct (even though some of the actor's English appears to be really bad), and spatial separation is just fine across the front channels. The surrounds don't get a whole lot of action, but they do help carry the soundtrack and provide some surround effects during a few key moments in the film. The .1 LFE channel seems a bit underused throughout the film, and there is a slightly noticeable level fluctuation overall in the track. Just like the visual presentation, however, this is an adequate audio track that manages to suffice without really providing anything extra.

Extras:
For a low-budget French film with the only recognizable face being that of Virginie Ledoyen, Universal has provided a few nice extras to round out this disc.

First up is a fairly exhaustive behind-the-scenes feature called "The Making of House of Voices." Originally titled "Saint Ange: Behind the Mirror," this nearly hour-long documentary takes the fly-on-the-wall approach as it catches the cast and crew on the set of the film. The participants speak in both English and French throughout the feature, switching between the two very quickly at times, so English subtitles are almost always present on the screen. While this isn't the most informative feature of this sort that I've seen – at times it becomes quite repetitive – this documentary does manage to have a great sense of urgency to it. You really get the sense that Christophe Gans has provided Pascal Laugier with his one great shot at making a quality film. Laugier appears hurried, but confident, and works furiously to get his vision across. The most interesting parts of the feature are when Laugier is working with his actors, as we get to see them go back and forth so seamlessly between the two different languages while discussing their scenes. Just like the film itself, this documentary is clearly very ambitious. It may not be a great feature, but it is often informative and entertaining.

Also included on this disc are seven deleted scenes that run approximately twenty minutes long. As with many deleted scenes, these are mostly extended sequences from scenes that already appear in the film. There are, however, some nice bits with Anna exploring more of the large orphanage and even a little more skin for those wanting to see even more of Virginie Ledoyen. The curious thing about these deleted scenes is that they are all presented in French with optional English subtitles. This is all fine and good, but that makes me wonder why they couldn't have just included the original French soundtrack for the film as well. These scenes, however, might not be all that significant, but they are a welcome addition to this disc.

Finally, when you insert the disc there are trailers for My Summer of Love, Cry Wolf, and Land of the Dead. These trailers are easily skipped but, mysteriously, don't appear anywhere on the special features menu.

Final Thoughts:
There's a part of me that wishes Christophe Gans would have taken all that Brotherhood of the Wolf money and used it to finance his own project rather than give Pascal Laugier the chance to take his story to the places he takes it in House of Voices. The film is effectively creepy for its first two-thirds, but fails to capitalize on any of the momentum by tossing the viewer into a very surreal third act that tries way too hard to appear like a combination of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. House of Voices, nevertheless, shows that Laugier does have some chops. He just has to learn when to rein his story in a little more effectively.

Universal's disc provides adequate audio and visual presentations, and even a few nice extra features that actually work to make the film itself slightly more interesting. It would have been nice to have the original French language track included as well, but at least the English track isn't a dub. Still, House of Voices isn't quite good enough to warrant much more than a rental. Not even for the diehard Virginie Ledoyen fans who want to see a little bit of skin.

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