Locarno 2023 review: La Morsure (Romain de Saint-Blanquat)

“The evocative strength of the film remains greater than its narrative strength.”

Françoise and Delphine, two seventeen-year-old girls at a 1960s French Catholic boarding school, are best friends who share everything, yet they do not have everything in common: Françoise comes from wealth while Delphine attends the school because her father is the janitor; Françoise is convinced she is a psychic and Delphine is very much down to earth; Delphine has already done ‘it’ with a boy, while Françoise is still a virgin. Their differences, prosperity and poverty, faith and pragmatism, discipline and sin, form some of the pairs of opposites among many on display in the first feature of Romain de Saint-Blanquat, a somehow predestined name to make such a movie; as are the names of his main actresses, Léonie Dahan-Lamort and Lilith Grasmug – ‘La mort’ being ‘The death’ in French, and Lilith being the name of a female demon in ancient mythology.

The founding conflict in La Morsure is between Lent and Carnival. As the nuns teaching at the boarding school emphasize the importance of the former, the students’ thoughts are focused on the latter. The story takes place on Mardi Gras and a costume party is held at night, organized by the group of boys they flirt with each time they walk by the gates of the school. Those gates physically and symbolically separate them during the day, but this night, dressed as demons in the ‘lieu-dit des anges’ (the ‘angels hamlet’, where the party takes place), nothing will hold girls and boys apart. Yet, Françoise has two obstacles blocking her way to the party: the teachers’ obvious unwillingness to let any boarders out, and a vivid nightmare from the night before in which she died in a fire.

Both obstacles provide the first act of the film with its most impressive scenes. Shown in the opening minutes, the nightmarish vision of Françoise immediately kicks off the narrative drive of the movie (convinced she has less than twenty-four hours to live, Françoise intends to make the most of it) as well as its pictorial style. The cinematography and the texture of the image create a bewitching blend between the Gothic horror of the Hammer era and the lavish colours of the Giallo genre. As for the ban enforced by the nuns on the teens going out, it is broken by Françoise in a literal fashion when she escapes the infirmary by smashing a sculpture of the Virgin Mary into a window. The exuberant symbolism of the scene is made complete when the young woman splashes all around the room in red antiseptic, clearly looking like blasphemous blood.

Once Françoise and Delphine are free from the constraints of religion and able to do as they please for the night, La Morsure loses a bit of its bite. There are no more enemies to be resisted, hence everything (even occult rituals and satanic manifestations) can become a game in this night of make-believe – after all, that is the true function of carnival. Yet still, thanks to the talent of its cast and to its spectacular visuals in light and shade, La Morsure expresses a lot more through its images than what it tells through its tale until the very end. The evocative strength of the film remains greater than its narrative strength, and the spirit of Françoise stays with us long after her strange and wild night has ended.