Paul Almond’s ISABEL (1968) begins with a train journey across a snow-covered landscape. We watch as the film’s star, Geneviève Bujold, sits awkwardly in her seat and squirms uncomfortably in front of the camera’s unrelenting eye. She is biding her time by shuffling through a small stack of books and papers in an effort to fend off unpleasant thoughts and feelings. You see, Isabel is a woman haunted by ghosts. These ghosts are hidden deep within the recesses of her troubled mind but when she’s asked to return to her family’s ancestral home following her mother’s death, Isabel is forced to confront the phantoms that possess her.
Geneviève Bujold gives an astonishingly nuanced and deeply moving performance as the star of ISABEL. After arriving in the small isolated Canadian coastal town where she was raised, Isabel comes face to face with the corpse of her deceased mother lying in state during a wake attended by family, friends, and neighbors. Naturally, she is upset by the situation that she’s found herself in but her beautiful face expresses fear instead of grief. And what is Isabel afraid of? It might be her uncle (Gerard Parkes) who mourns the loss of Isabel’s mother. He isn’t particularly conscious of Isabel’s needs and his offhanded compliments about his niece’s appearance seem to irritate and unnerve her. Isabel also expresses concern that she might have to give up her life in the city and return to the country life she left behind to take care of the family farm now that her mother is dead. But throughout the course of the film other random things start to eat away at the volatile young woman’s sanity. She begins to hear sounds that no one else can hear and the family portraits occasionally appear to be speaking in a faraway language that only Isabel can understand. Our protagonist knows very little about her family and their history so she insists on asking questions of her uncle, neighbors, and relatives but they reply with violent, confusing and deeply somber stories that only seem to upset her more. Isabel’s not learning about the past as much as reliving it and as her repressed memories slowly surface the ghosts that haunt her mind begin to take shape in the dark unexplored corners of the family home.
Unfortunately, Isabel can’t escape her fears when she leaves the house. The desolate landscape surrounding the family farm only seems to make matters worse. Snow covered hills; icy roads and the raging sea all mirror Isabel’s inner turmoil and offer her no relief. Even the various townsfolk she encounters seem threatening and unfamiliar. She finally finds some comfort and companionship with a handsome stranger (Marc Strange). But underlying Isabel’s interest in the man is the noticeable fact that he looks like a dead relative in one of the family photographs that have been tormenting her since she returned.
This unusual Canadian horror film doesn’t contain many visceral shocks or gory surprises. Director and writer Paul Almond seemed to have found his inspiration in films like CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur; 1942), THE INNOCENTS (Jack Clayton; 1961) and REPULSION (Roman Polanski; 1965), which all explore female eroticism and horror in unexpected ways. But Almond’s own film does away with the phantasmagorical nature of those celebrated films and generates its own fears as well as an overwhelming sense of dread from the natural world and the mundane tasks that we often fill our hours with.
In ISABEL looking at an old photograph, milking a cow or taking a bike ride down a deserted path can generate unease and apprehension in viewers. This incredibly subtle and slow-moving thriller won’t appeal to everyone. Its leisurely pace will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers so if you want to enjoy the film you’ll have to leave behind expectations and just appreciate ISABEL for what it is; a thoughtful and unconventional look at one woman slowly unraveling her past and reluctantly facing her future while fending off the phantoms that haunt her mind.
In 1968 topics such as incest, sexual molestation, suicide, repressed memories, mental illness, and rape were often swept under the rug. Paul Almond’s ISABEL is a work that was way ahead of its time in many regards and has undoubtedly influenced other filmmakers including fellow Canadians such as David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. While other directors may have explored similar territory, Almond’s creative approach to the material sets ISABEL apart from countless other “women in mental peril” films. Along with cinematographer George Dufaux, Almond masterfully captured the beauty and bleakness of the Canadian landscape. His detailed close-ups of melting icicles and daring shots of crashing waves hurling themselves against rocks can literally take your breath away. But the Canadian exteriors aren’t the only thing that benefit from Almond’s directing choices. He also does a wonderful job of making the old family farmhouse appear extremely menacing. In a 2004 interview with Take One magazine the director mentioned that, “Everyone had a wonderful time shooting ISABEL, although the house is full of ghosts and no one would go in at night. It was pretty scary at times.” That might explain the ominous look of the old farmhouse used in the movie but it’s the impactful way that Almond chose to shoot it that makes all the difference. The film also benefits from an eerie and unsettling score by composer Harry Freedman
If the name Paul Almond isn’t familiar to you don’t be alarmed. Almond is an award-winning Canadian director but only a few of his films have been made available on video and DVD in the U.S. Today he’s probably best known for his work on the fascinating documentary series, SEVEN UP! This smart and touching “reality television” program began in 1964 and asked a small group of children at age 7 about their hopes and dreams for the future then proceeded to revisit them every seven years. It was a fascinating and insightful social experiment that turned into a series of amazing films highlighting the ways in which human beings are shaped by past experience as well as circumstances that are often beyond their control. In other words, the bumpy road that life may take you down doesn’t always lead to the destination you originally set out for. But the journey can take you to some surprisingly rewarding places as well as some dark dead ends. Almond’s apparent fascination with how human beings navigate life’s journey also manifests in ISABEL.
During the making of the film, Almond and Bujold were married and their close relationship gives ISABEL a rare kind of intimacy that is apparent in the actresses startling performance. Bujold is a beautiful woman and her fawn-like dark eyes, gentle manner, and petite frame make her appear extremely vulnerable, which works in the film’s favor. When she finally begins to unravel there’s a naturalness about her performance that’s extremely touching and just plain unforgettable. I’ve always deeply admired Bujold’s work and over the years she’s become one of my favorite working actresses but I gained new respect for her after watching ISABEL. I’m also eager to see more of Paul Almond’s early films.
It’s easy to generate visceral fears. Modern horror films regularly employ loud musical cues and unhinged brutality to make audiences jump out of their seats and scream bloody murder. And while I can appreciate a good shock to the system, I have a preference for films that scare audiences by creating an overwhelming sense of dread that can make a viewer feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Fear that creeps over an audience and makes them question everything, including what they’re seeing on screen, can be more powerful and unnerving than watching the most violent and unhinged act imaginable unfold right before your eyes. But conjuring a mood of utter despair and profound unease isn’t easy. It depends on a myriad of seemingly simple gestures such as the way a camera is placed, its point of focus, the use of lighting and choice of music. It also depends heavily on the skills of all the actors involved. Your cast has to have the ability to convey fear and menace in the most unexpected ways. ISABEL is effective because it leaves so much to the imagination of the viewer. It refuses to provide easy answers to the various questions it raises and in the end, we’re left to sort through the murky collage of images and sounds that the film has left behind to find some kind of meaning.
ISABEL is currently available to watch on Netflix but as far as I know, it’s never been released on video or DVD in the U.S.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on their official blog in July 2011.