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Les Diables (The Devils)

(2002) **** Unrated
105 min. Ocean Films (France).

Christophe Ruggia's Les Diables--a French/Spanish co-production--is touring the world's film festivals, including 2003's San Francisco International Film Festival. As of yet, no American distributor will touch this pitch-black fable of martyred urchins, for understandable but cowardly reasons. With explosive violence and increasingly shocking sexual frankness (including a surprising but never prurient turn to incestuous eroticism), The Devils could never be made in America, but its provocative emotional realism and boldly objective intensity in depicting the trauma of damaged youth deserve a wide audience.

Joseph and Chloé are brother and sister fugitives, perpetually on the run from authority of any kind. Ostensibly searching for the home of the parents who long ago abandoned them to the streets, they are, in fact, attempting to locate a dream idyll where they can live safely with each other, free of distrust and betrayal. Their own confusions about their driving, conflicting impulses lead and prod them into escalating trouble. All along, in the dirt and the dust of their hard, endless road, the autistic Chloé renders their dream in broken glass: a house that Joseph must make real and lash out against, for all its deceptive promise.

Ruggia addresses the age-old gulf between well-meaning (and degenerate) adults and their young charges with uncommon sensitivity and incisiveness. Social workers and the children's awkwardly repentant mother try their best to protect and nurture the kids back to emotional health, but Ruggia's gift for revealing the children's perspective quickly reveals the absurd inability of the adults to help. The adults' fundamental error is to threaten, however gently, the separation of the deeply bound siblings, but routine affronts to the children's individual identities also build unscalable walls. At one point, a social worker asks Joseph--in the most warmly welcome tone she can muster--what he likes, and he responds, "Trees." Her perky reply, "Very good. I'll put you down for woodwork," underlines her cluelessness.

Ruggia sticks close to his two protagonists, but implies--with his sizeable chorus of hard-bitten youth lost in a klutzy bureaucracy--that the unwatched pot of youth angst perpetually boils over, flouting failed therapies for sometimes fatal streetwise catharses. Ruggia's masterful immersiveness stems from his commitment to coaching two virgin actors who reportedly come from troubled backgrounds of their own. As Joseph, Vincent Rottiers focuses fiercely protective eyes on any threat to his sister; even in repose, Rottiers conveys serious, adult weight which belies his physical youthfulness. So too does Adele Haenel as Chloé, with the rub of what appears to be autism, honestly witnessed in a series of almost-but-not-quite vacant looks of astonishment, anxiety, or bemusement.

Searing and intensely scary, The Devils teems with powerful drama and a rare depth of feeling. The material is unrelentingly bleak, but Ruggia frames the story as a peristaltic dream-nightmare, long passages rife with beautiful, natural visions as antidotes to the blooms of hellish red on the urban landscape. Unwilling to settle for a comforting resolution, Ruggia asks if a child's profound hurt can ever truly be repaired. Though we may not wish to admit we know the answer, we can watch it play out in this upsetting cautionary tale.

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