French auteur Alexis Bruchon made an impressive debut in 2020 with his minimalist, noir-infused thriller The Woman with Leopard Shoes. His follow-up, the more horror-tinged THE EYES BELOW, delves deeper into his already trademark fascinations: investigations and intrigue, single-location suspense, dialogue-free thrillers, and — above all — formal experimentation. Though the film occasionally runs out of momentum, even with a sparse 77-minute runtime, it’s a frightening, compelling, and audacious artistic statement from a filmmaker whom genre fans will want to keep their eyes on.
Eugène Darancourt (Vinicius Coelho) is an investigative journalist working on a story about corruption in high places. When he retires for the night, he finds himself under attack by a mysterious black figure. The creature blends into the shadows, crawling on Eugène’s furniture and his floors in disconcertingly unnatural ways until it crawls into his bed and terrorizes him as he tries to sleep. Eugène must fight the creature off and figure out what it wants before it makes sure he never sees another sunrise.
On paper, the plot for THE EYES BELOW is as simple as it gets: a man fights a monster in his bed. What Bruchon does with this concept, though, is nothing short of mesmerizing. Just as he did with The Woman with Leopard Shoes, Bruchon fills nearly every role in his newest film’s crew: he serves as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, composer, sound designer, and editor, as well as sharing an art director credit with Pauline Morel, who plays the figure plaguing Eugène. Bruchon’s unique vision is on display in every frame of the film, from the opening images of Eugène’s op art bedspread undulating in front of the camera to the slightly surreal moments when Eugène gets lost in his bedsheets and finds that his bed has grown to a size even larger than his bedroom.
While it is dialogue-free, THE EYES BELOW is not entirely wordless. It cleverly uses emails, books, and letters to move the plot forward and to play with the film’s pacing and mood, recalibrating the visual and narrative tempo at much-needed moments. A large portion of the film features Eugène thrashing around in bed, but Bruchon’s dynamic camerawork and sharp editing keep the viewer engaged and frightened. One particularly striking shot shows the camera, situated at Eugène’s feet, looking up at him from under the covers. It’s a deceptively simple shot that emphasizes how vulnerable Eugène is and how horrifying it is to feel something unseen crawling into bed with you. Later scenes descend further into the nightmare, showing Eugène engulfed by the sheets and the frame of the bed, completely at the mercy of the creature hunting him where he’s supposed to feel the safest. The creature is also quite simple — Morel appears to wear a black bodysuit and face mask with black makeup around her eyes — but it is terrifying, crouching in shadows, grasping with slimy fingers, and occasionally opening an eye or two to provide a horrific jolt to the audience.
Bruchon’s score and sound design do a lot of work in carrying the film’s tension and dynamics. While the score can occasionally feel overwhelming, it’s only appropriate for such a nightmarish scenario to feel like an assault on the senses. The score itself often sounds disoriented or panicky, as if it is trying to wake itself up. Discordant, frenzied tones pair with sped-up sounds and other audio effects that distort reality and throw the viewer into Eugène’s hellish dreamscape encounter with the creature.
THE EYES BELOW is a master class in doing a lot with a little. It’s fascinating to see Bruchon play in this highly stylized formal playground, stretching the boundaries of his limitations to prove what a filmmaker can do with ingenuity and talent. The film is simple but diabolically effective, turning a three-word horror story — “man fights monster” — into a cinematic experiment that plays with the language of horror movies. THE EYES BELOW is a mesmerizing nightmare from an equally fascinating director; Bruchon now has two stellar films under his belt, and it will be a thrill to see what he does next.
THE EYES BELOW had its world premiere at this year’s Arrow Video Frightfest.