Independent, low-budget productions are a mixed bag. The mysteriously named Sodium Babies has been shot over the course of five years on a budget of only 150.000 Euros, and it therefore clearly qualifies as a “labour of love”. It is full of original ideas and interesting visual choices; but in the end, nothing of it comes together to form a film that would work – at least not for me.
Benoit and Julien Decaillon, commonly referred to as the Deka brothers, wrote, directed, edited and co-produced this film. Julien was also the camera-man, while his brother played the leading role of Maurice.
This French independent film tells us of the fate of Maurice, a young man who was turned into a ghoul, doomed to do the dirty work for the vampire elder “Prince”. He is working in a team of four ghouls, led by the unpleasant and short-tempered Max. Ghouls are fed on a diet of vampire blood (in this case, the blood of “Prince”), which creates a bond between master and slave and bestows a number of powers on the ghouls: for example, they do not have to eat or sleep, and they do not age.
Their semi-state comes without many of the vampires’ weaknesses. Ghouls do have a reflection, and, more importantly, they are not harmed by sunlight. Especially this latter point makes them the ideal workforce for vampires. The main job of these ghouls is to provide humans for their masters to feed on. Which creates a circle of life (or, rather: death), in which the ghouls provide human blood for the vampires and the vampires feed their blood to the ghouls.
I say “feed”, and we do see ghouls in this film drink vampire blood; but the more prominent method seems to be for them to inject themselves the vampire blood (not an entirely novel idea), which allows the filmmakers to go for drug-addict aesthetics using heroin paraphernalia. This also allows for parallels, as some humans (and ghouls) also consume various drugs.
While the protagonists of the story are ghouls, we rarely see any vampires as active players. They tend to stay in the background and operate from the shadows. But it is always made clear that it is them who are calling the shots and pulling the strings.
This story apparently takes place in and around the French city of Poitiers (where the film has also mostly been shot), but with its choice of “cold” locations like night-clubs, run-down apartments, and bleak industrial warehouses, this film could basically take place anywhere.
The film opts for graphic-novel aesthetics and includes many frames represented by (or morphing into) comic book panels. It also includes some comic book lettering. The film is not based on a graphic novel, however. Using this illusion of being a comic book franchise is something the film has in common with Ultraviolet; but Sodium Babies has no resemblance to Kurt Wimmer’s slick yet empty SciFi film. Instead, certain scenes in Sodium Babies are reminiscent of Sin City (in style and in tone). Not that the film ever reaches that level of visual quality; but considering the extremely low budget and considering the fact that the Deka brothers did all the digital effects themselves, it is still rather impressive.
So as the film has an interesting premise, takes place in an interesting universe, and uses interesting aesthetic elements, what exactly went wrong?
For atmospheric reasons, the film tries to keep a number of things hidden, shady and unexplained. Early on in the film, we witness a crime being committed by a person in a state of madness, and you are never entirely sure if this madness is triggered by drug use, or by vampiric influence. The latter seems more likely, but you might also feel that it is implied that the earlier drug use made the person more susceptible to that influence. This is a positive example of the story’s vagueness, and there are one or two others like it, but there are also many negative examples. Most importantly, the whole story takes place before the background of a power-struggle within the highest ranks of the vampire world. But this is never seen or explained, and not “unfolded” in a proper manner. Instead, we are fed this information in bits of forced exposition, and almost as a sort of afterthought.
And while the film tries to keep things vague, it also somehow manages to create (but not present or explain) far too much back-story.
So, apparently, “Prince” has a rival named “Gael”, and we are told that Gael’s men make life difficult for Maurice and the rest of Max’s team. But we never see any of this. And then there are two mid-level vampires who have been switching sides in that conflict, and one of the is killed, but apparently not by the party you might suspect, and anyway is blamed, we are told, on a third vampire elder who is never mentioned before or after.
Over the cause of the film, there are many instances where it is not entirely clear, who has been doing what, or who is working with whom. And while some of this vagueness works in the film’s favour, it is also often a distraction, with extreme examples leaving you with the impression that the filmmakers may have slightly lost rack of their plot.
With so many things happening (if often off-screen), and so much back-story being created (some of it unnecessary), the film has to cram in a lot of information, doing so by employing a lot of forced exposition, which starts early in the film, and never really ends.
Throughout the film, a lot of time is devoted to things going on inside Maurice’s head – memories, visions, hallucinations, etc. This is meant to add to the atmosphere and the aesthetic language of the film, and it is at times used to cram in a considerable amount of additional forced exposition, but mostly these scenes are just irritating and often feel pretentious and like a waste of time.
Towards the third act, something is happening to Maurice that triggers a major “showdown” in his head. This is an extremely long and convoluted scene full of those visions and hallucinations I just mentioned. At the beginning of that scene, a voice tells Maurice that this struggle will take a while, but that to him it will feel like an eternity. Unfortunately, this scene, which takes up a whooping 23 minutes of the film’s 85 minutes net running-time, does feel like an eternity not only to Maurice but also to the audience. This internal struggle full of visions and premonitions is not even half as clever as the filmmakers think it is. I am sure they believe it is all terribly meaningful and full of weight, but most of it is just hot air.
And the cramming-in of tons of back-story and belated exposition – enough for three films – is really irritating and feels like poor story-telling.
All of this contributes to the fact that there is very little actually happening in this film, despite so much apparently going on. And it contributes to the fact that this film, in spite of its net running-time of only 85 minutes, feels way too long.
So what we have here is a film full of interesting ideas that never come together as a whole. The story is set in an interesting world, but the world-building is mixed. The filmmakers are mostly good at world-building where the ghouls and their day-to-day work are concerned, but they fail when it comes to world-building of the wider vampire world.
The film’s tone and style are interesting, and mostly work; and there is a very good (albeit in the end amateurish) attempt at creating a unique atmosphere. The locations are all well-chosen; and many of the stylistic ideas used for the scenes set inside Maurice’s head are interesting, even if not all of them work. The film also has a rather impressive soundtrack.
The filmmakers also have an obvious talent for constructing and setting up characters. Yet they only use this talent for their main characters, Maurice and Max. All other characters remain entirely pale.
The acting is mixed. Benoit Decaillon does a rather fine job as Maurice. And Virginia Michaud does a very good job, albeit in a rather undemanding supporting role. Most other characters are too marginal too make any impact. The biggest problem is the acting of co-producer Edouard Audouin as Max, in what appears to be his first ever acting job. I wouldn’t exactly call it overacting, but Max’s rage and anger feel cartoonish, like a caricature. I wish his state of constant stress and nervous rage would have been played differently, in order to try to portray him as more of a conflicted character. That is, admittedly, as much a writing and directing problem as it is an acting problem.
With all other characters being marginal, Max is the only major character against whom the character of Maurice can be acted off; and as the character of Max does only half work, it also affects the effectiveness of Maurice a bit.
Sodium Babies is a project that shows the obvious talents by its multitasking creators, but the project’s many promising aspects and interesting ideas do in the end not add up to a good film. Too slight on substance, too full of style, and with a convoluted story and questionable story-telling, Sodium Babies represents an honest but ultimately failed attempt to create something special.
It is difficult to give this film a rating. It feels like a 2-out-of-10 to me, but that would put it into a realm of films which (although possibly more entertaining) have far less artistic value and integrity than Sodium Babies. But I don’t see how I could push this film’s rating anywhere beyond 3, even with a lot of good will.
This film might be worth checking out for people who are interested in independent film-making and in all matters style & atmosphere. But if you are looking for entertainment, you should look elsewhere.