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La Peau Blanche

(AKA White Skin, Cannibal) 2004, Starring Marc Paquet, Frdric Pierre and Marianne Farley. Directed by Daniel Roby.

The debut film by up-and-coming French Canadian director Daniel Roby, La Peau Blanche is an engaging, but pointedly restrained horror-thriller that offers yet another take on that oft-seen Canadian cult staple, the flesh-eating female. But rather than wallow in the campy B-movie legacy of its local cinematic progenitors, Cannibal Girls and Cannibal Rollerbabes, Roby's film is an attempt to bring Canadian horror to the arthouse in the lauded tradition of David Cronenberg.

The film begins as University of Montreal-enrolled roommates Thierry (Marc Paquet) and Henri (Frdric Pierre) take a pair of hookers to a hotel for a birthday celebration. Before Thierry can get his pants off, though, he hears Henri screaming from another room, and bursts in to find the girl has slashed his friend's throat to feed at his jugular vein. As she takes off into the dark night, Thierry helps Henri to a hospital, where they concoct a false story about a roving gang of skinheads. The near-fatal incident is soon forgotten about as Thierry becomes entranced by Claire (Marianne Farley), a wispy redheaded musician he spies at school. Though he had earlier expressed his distaste for girls with red hair because of their "disgusting" pale skin, he nonetheless ends up in bed with her. Determined to take their relationship further than just a one night stand, Thierry pursues her until she pretty much moves into his room, taking up all his time and energy. Still, Claire remains emotionally distant and seemingly uninterested in Thierry because, as she later reveals, she has cancer. But Henri knows something's not right with Claireever since she moved in, Thierry has become pale and emaciated. When Henri catches the girl licking out a used condom, he becomes convinced she is in fact a demonic succubus, feeding off of his roomate's blood and life energy. Suddenly, all the pieces start to fall together--when Thierry goes to see Claire in the hospital for one of her chemotherapy treatments, he discovers that her visiting sister is in fact the prostitute that attacked Henri at the beginning of the film, and that this thirst for blood is a family affair.

Like Decoys before it, La Peau Blanche has set up Cronenberg as the new referential touchstone of the breakout Canadian horror film. Roby's film does bear some superficial resemblance to some of the King of Venereal Horror's oft-visited themes of female sexuality and sickness, and even features a scene of Henri and his girlfriend watching Rabid one evening, but any comparison ultimately ends there. La Peau Blanche, as its title indicates, is far more interested in exploring modern ideas about racism. This could have been a fascinating angle for a Canadian horror film, as it picks apart some of the racial tensions of one of out most strongly multi-cultural urban areas, but La Peau Blanche gets somewhat muddled around the half-way point, and really struggles to connect the divergent ideas of an evil female temptress and racial hatred. In one scene, Claire complains that she doesn't like Henri because he's black, even though it's revealed later that succubae prefer African-Canadian males since, controversially, they are the "most human" of all races. I admire Roby's efforts here to come up with a unique film, but these disparate themes just don't gel the way they should, and as a result, the last act of the film turns into a supernatural free-for-all, with the earlier intelligence and wit replaced by mild splashes of gore, nudity, and a wholly expected conclusion.

But La Peau Blanche didn't pick up the 2004 Best First Feature Film award from the Toronto International Film Festival for no reason--in its quieter moments, this is still a beautifully shot love story that pulses with a dark and unsettling vibe for much of its running time. Roby creates fascinatingly nuanced characterizations of Thierry, Henri and Claire, and even though the film ultimately touches on areas we've all seen in horror films before, it all feels fresh here, even Claire's ultimate tragedy and Thierry's undying devotion to saving her. Paquet and Farley especially shine as the two symbiotically connected lovers, bringing a intimacy to their characters that makes them truly believable despite the sometimes far-fetched plotting.

It's also exciting to see a French-Canadian horror film so firmly rooted in its home province. Though the identifiably Canadian exploration of racism in a multi-cultural society is pretty much dropped once the succubae threaten to destroy Montreal, La Peau Blanche is a proud and true Canadian horror film that works in flashes of money, local references and identifiable locations without shame. Less encouraging, however, is the fact that Roby only seems to be using the horror genre as a stepping stone to mainstream Canadian film. That's too bad, because La Peau Blanche is a stylishly-made movie that ranks as one of the better hoser horror efforts in recent memory.

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