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.