Marina de Van is perhaps best known for her debut feature In My Skin (aka Dans ma Peau, 2002), which was a precursor to the brief wave of French horror films that saw filmmakers like Alexandre Aja, Xavier Gens and Pascal Laugier come to international attention with brutal, graphic films that pushed the boundaries of on-screen violence and frequently ended up on the wrong end of censors’ scissors in the States. In My Skin shared the gruesome, queasily realistic makeup effects with those films, but was more of a character-driven psychological thriller than a straight genre exercise. It came as some surprise that her follow-up feature, 2009’s Don’t Look Back, came at the tail end of the horror wave her first film helped kick off and completely rejected violence and blood for a much more unsettling and disorienting depiction of a character suffering a psychotic break. In that sense, it was a natural follow-up to In My Skin, but Don’t Look Back suffered from too much direct explanation of its central mystery: the more the audience knew about what was causing the problem, the less interest the film held. Dark Touch is de Van’s latest film, and while it features some intriguing ideas and unsettling imagery, it overcorrects the major problem with Don’t Look Back, presenting pieces of a mystery but nothing to tie them together.
Late one night, Neve (Missy Keating) arrives at the house of her neighbors Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Padraic Delaney) after running through the dark forest. The girl is traumatized, frantic and covered in blood. They call her parents to pick her up, but they seem more annoyed than concerned. Neve is something of a problem child, causing frequent trouble at home while blaming the house itself for trying to attack her and her baby brother. Nat suspects there may be something else going on with the family, but Neve’s father is a well-liked doctor in their small community, and no one else seems too interested. After a fire in their home kills her parents, Nat volunteers her home as a place for Neve to stay while the police figure out what happened to Neve and her family. Nat, Lucas, and Tanya (Charlotte Flyvholm), a counselor at Neve’s school, try to help bring her out of her trauma and find out what happened.
But Neve is more disturbed than any of them could guess. She flinches at the slightest movement, and is unsure what to do with affection. She talks to Tanya about how Nat and Lucas hug her and smile at her as if she had never seen such behavior. Worse, she is singled out at school by the other kids, who whisper about her being a killer. Her only relationship like friendship is a tentative rapport with a pair of similarly ostracized siblings whose unkempt, shell-shocked look is not unlike her own. Neve becomes preoccupied with Nat and Lucas’s daughter Mary, who passed away years earlier, and as her behavior becomes more erratic and unpredictable, the couple are pushed to their limits. It becomes clear that whatever was happening in Neve’s family before was nothing anyone could have guessed, and Neve’s role as victim may not be as simple as it seems.
Dark Touch starts off strong and de Van injects it with some intriguing and unsettling ideas and imagery, but as the mysteries behind what happened in Neve’s family and how she came to become whatever she is just keep piling up with no clear answers. This actually keeps happening all the way up until the end of the film, and like Don’t Look Back, Dark Touch suffers from a weak third act. Again, though, it’s for completely different reasons: Don’t Look Back loses its power when it explains too much, whereas Dark Touch holds too much back and ends confusingly, seemingly tying up things that were never main threads of the plot to begin with. There’s no denying that the first hour of Dark Touch is bleakly compelling, but some overt “scary kid” stuff at a disastrous birthday party breaks the film’s fragile spell, and it never quite recovers. While de Van remains a filmmaker to watch, Dark Touch is not the masterpiece her fans have been waiting for, but it remains worth watching as de Van is willing to face head-on dark territory from which even her fellow French horror filmmakers would shy away.
IFC Midnight released Dark Touch on DVD on 28 January 2014.