First, the good news. Just Philippot’s Acide (2023) has arguably the strongest horror concept since David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). All feature such a palpably nightmarish sense of the inescapable. And the bad news? Phillipot doesn’t have the budget at hand to quite pull off his vision for apocalyptic horror, nor does he provide a satisfying ending.
Acide centres on Biblical-themed eco-horror very much like his excellent debut, The Swarm (2020). That one dealt with blood-drinking locusts threatening to unleash terror upon on the world. As the title suggests, this time it’s acid rain.
Existing as a counterpoint to The Swarm, which focused on a mother-daughter dynamic, here we get a father-daughter set-up. In the film’s opening smartphone-shot scenes, we see protagonist Michal (Guillaume Canet) beating up a cop during a confrontation at a factory where he works. He is estranged from his teenaged daughter Selma (Patience Munchenbach) and bickers with ex-wife Elise (Laetitia Dosch). Bored after being sacked, in love with a woman living in Belgium, forced to wear an ankle tag by the police, he is called to step up and be a father when France begins experiencing extraordinary weather conditions and deluge after deluge of acid rainfall scorches the earth, poisons the air and contaminates the drinking water.
Philippot has huge ambitions for his second feature film. The sense of dread and suspense is executed with real skill and sense of craft, and there are shades of George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968), M Night Shyamalan’s underappreciated The Happening (2008), and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) present as spiritual guides. As Michal, Elise and Selma attempt to outrun the frankly impossible and the world smoulders and burns, Acide is never less than a gripping affair, but when it comes to larger scale set-pieces, the budget just isn’t there for grandeur and impressive special effects.
Canet is good as a disgruntled man prone to making the wrong decisions. There are points along the fraught journey where we don’t really know if he can be trusted to tell the truth or be the protector he desperately wants to be. His spiky personality also means he isn’t the type to make friends easily and he hates authority figures. Given the family is in a bind and running out of options, Michal could be their undoing, not his family’s saviour. All this makes for excellent interpersonal drama and scenes of high tension.
As with The Swarm Philippot should be commended for never going overboard with gore, relying more on atmospherics and suspense to illicit vibes of dread and terror. This is a horror director going places. Keep an eye on his career.
Still: Festival de Cannes