SHEITAN (2006): Multicultural French Hillbilly Horror
On one level, Sheitan (Kim Chapiron, 2006) is a French take on the classic American hillbilly horror film (e.g., The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance), seasoned with tropes borrowed from classic American slasher films that are also present in their country cousins. In the French movie, the title of which is transliterated Arabic for “Satan,” a group of young urban people faces off with an inbred and apparently demonic cult of rural folk led by French megastar Vincent Cassel’s character, Joseph.
The title signifies a significant departure in Sheitan from the American films it references. The typical Christian religious undertones of the latter are mixed with those of Islam. Another difference is the multicultural nature of the city youth who invade the territory of the uniformly white French hillbillies. Except for one person, the former group is made up of representatives of France’s history of colonialism: the children of Asian, Black, and Muslim immigrants who moved from former French colonies in Southeast Asia and Africa to the banlieue of French cities.
Appropriately, the plot begins on the eve of the Christian holiday of Christmas. At the Styxx Club (another hard-to-miss metaphor) in Paris, small-time criminal Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) and his friends Thaï (Nico Le Phat Tan) and Ladj (Ladj Ly) meet bartender Yasmine (Leïla Bekhti) and another customer, Eve (Roxane Mesquida). After a brawl that gets Bart thrown out of the nightclub, Eve invites the group to continue to party at her house in the country.
When they reach the dirt road that leads to Eve’s cottage, they encounter Eve’s housekeeper, Joseph. At first, Joseph appears to be a simple-minded but hospitable host, but gradually discloses his real intentions for the group of visitors. The Biblically-named Joseph is, appropriately enough, a shepherd, but his flock consists of devil worshippers rather than God-fearing people. Joseph also reveals a sort of attraction to Bart, who takes it sexually and is instantly repelled (but, as it turns out, for the wrong reasons).
It becomes progressively clear (aided by racist/Islamophobic lines of dialogue delivered by Cassel) that the film is about Old (colonial) France vs. New (postcolonial) France, with the former identified with Satan. Nevertheless, New France’s flaws (e.g., hypocrisy, homophobia) are also on display. In addition to these thematics, this movie delivers a solid horror-thriller plot that involves creepy dolls and body horror, but also includes some darkly comic moments, most of which involve Cassel (who also produced). Another French film megastar, Monica Bellucci (who just happens to be married to Cassel), has an excellent cameo role in the plot’s conclusion.
In addition to its thematics and the star-power of Cassel (who also plays Joseph’s pregnant wife in the film) and Bellucci, this movie flirts with but does not quite reach the extremes of boundary-crossing and risk-taking violence and sexuality that characterize the core films of the New French Extremity (NFE). Still, it’s a good horror flick, one that continues to mine a favorite theme of the NFE: France’s continuing struggle to reconcile its contemporary multicultural society with its history of colonial imperialism. It’s also the directorial debut of Kim Chapiron, who has since made two additional feature films.
I gave Sheitan three out of five stars on Letterboxd.