Beyond the Walls

beyondthewallsA delightful effect of the increasing global distribution of non-English language dramas is how many surprises pop up. Even those of us glued to TV coverage can still be blindsided by a show that comes out of nowhere exhibiting stunning craft, poise, and ambition. The three-part French horror series Beyond the Walls is the latest show to sneak up on me like this. This remarkable supernatural fantasy deserves to be seen by a wide audience and leaves you hungry for more.

The Returned (Les Revenants) announced France’s capacity for terrific genre television, so Beyond the Walls’ technical accomplishments aren’t unexpected. But on hearing the premise and watching much of the first episode, you wouldn’t assume it was anything truly special. Reclusive speech therapist Lisa (Veerle Baetens) learns she has inherited an abandoned old house opposite her Paris apartment despite not knowing the former owner. After moving in, she hears noises in the walls, in which she finds a labyrinthine doppelganger of her house. Unable to escape, she is stalked by silent humanoid creatures called the Others.

So yes, it’s a haunted house story, but for creators Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux the form is just a springboard for a much deeper lore. In three episodes they develop a rich, sprawling mythology, chiefly through implication of deeper history behind the inexplicable imagery. The nature of the house, what it does to people, and why these events are occurring are largely left unanswered.

What we do see could seem like an arbitrary assemblage of creepy motifs. But like The Leftovers and Stranger Things, an iceberg of rules and systems can be sensed beneath the surface, validating how much the creators have chosen to show us and suggesting an exciting realm of possibility just out of sight. The elements we do see are those the viewer can glean a purpose behind.

Individually, these elements aren’t that original: a maze-like house whose configuration changes, humans transformed into monsters, the dead brought back to speak to the living. The freshness is in the design and cinematography, which are Hadmar and Herpoux’s principal tools for unnerving us rather than makeup and special effects. The colour palette of the house is red and black with jaundiced yellow and muddy browns. Figures emerge from darkness as if from black oil. The editing and score build our anticipation that a new sight will emerge, teasing us so skilfully that you lean forward, enthralled.

The subtle execution extends to a rejection of the sex and violence that are frequently included in genre television today, often in an apparent attempt to legitimise the subject matter as adult rather than to add anything essential. The horror and suspense in Beyond the Walls stand alongside the most unsettling work in the genre today, but merely with facial expressions, slow walking, and long periods of darkness. The mise-en-scene, score, and languorous cinematography are so beautifully coordinated I wanted to clap. This series reminds you of the grace and beauty that horror can achieve when fear sharpens into awe.

However, the haunted house story may not be the show’s most direct inspiration. Lisa’s passage through endless corridors and encounters with new sights in each room evoke creepy video games. In one sequence the camera pans around a stationary character, never clearly showing us their face even though they don’t move, like the point of view in a first-person shooter. Figures emerge from the shadows as Lisa hides and waits. One early room with a large green gramophone could be a direct homage to Bioshock. But being in control of your own movement in video games conjures a distinctive form of fear, whereas being at the mercy of Beyond the Walls’ careful orchestration is the source of its power.

The unusual three-episode structure puts the total running time at close to that of a film. Structurally it could have succeeded as one, and some scenes in the first episode could be cut. Lisa’s loneliness is demonstrated more times than necessary, including in a seduction sequence that suggests a dark, manipulative nature that has no bearing on the rest of the plot or her character. Her preoccupation with an ominous abandoned car seems plot-related but in hindsight merely demonstrates she’s thinking about the house.

Nonetheless, by the end it’s hard to believe only three episodes have elapsed. Just as the house with its specific rules and inhabitants feel like a much creepier Doctor Who episode, and like that series the script packs in a significant amount of story. It also reaches a firm conclusion without threads left hanging for another series. But a rich world has been created, almost excessively so for such a short running time. Some may be disappointed by how little is explained, but as in Stranger Things the balance has been struck well. Much remains unclear and the prospect of more time spent in this world is tantalising. But if no more ever arrives, the experience is complete.

The house still exists out there to kindle our imaginations. A lesser work that left us asking questions out of complacency would not linger in the same way. Beyond the Walls does, and it is a triumph.

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