Geneviève Bujold is ISABEL (1968)

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 have hidden themselves deep within the recesses of Isabel’s 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 posses 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 laying in state during a wake attended by family, friends and neighbors. Naturally she’s upset by the situation that she’s suddenly found herself in but her beautiful face expresses fear instead of grief. And what is Isabel afraid of? It could 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 Isabel’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 stay in the country to take care of the family farm and her aging uncle 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 hears sounds that no one else can hear and the family portraits occasionally appear to be speaking to Isabel in a faraway language that only she can understand. Isabel 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 somber stories that only seem to upset her more. Isabel’s not learning about the past as much as remembering it and as her repressed memories slowly surface, the ghosts that haunt her begin to take shape in the dark unexplored corners of the family home and through the open windows that beckon Isabel to come outside.

Unfortunately Isabel can’t escape her fears when she leaves the house. The desolate landscape surrounding the family farm only seems to compound them. The cold snow covered hills; icy roads and 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 just like the dead relatives in the family photographs that have been tormenting Isabel since she arrived in town.

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 horror movie won’t appeal to everyone. Its leisurely pace will undoubtedly leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads. If you want to enjoy the film you’ll have to leave behind any and all 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 like incest, sexual molestation, suicide, repressed memories, mental illness and rape were often swept under the rug. Paul Almond’s ISBABEL is a work that was way ahead of its time and has undoubtedly influenced many other filmmakers including fellow Canadians like David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. Almond’s creative approach to the material really 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 the rocks can literally take your breath away. But the Canadian exteriors aren’t the only thing that benefit from Paul Almond’s directing. He also does a wonderful job of making the old family farmhouse seem 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 way that Paul Almond chose to shoot it that really 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 the path that’s been laid out before them also manifests itself in his feature film, ISABEL.

During the making of the film, Paul Almond and Geneviève Bujold were married and their close relationship gives ISABEL a rare kind of intimacy that is apparent in Bujold’s startling performance. Bujold is a beautiful woman and her large 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. Horror films continually use loud musical cues and unhinged brutality to make audiences jump out of their seats and scream. And while I 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 bloody and violent act imaginable unfold right before your eyes. But creating a tense mood of dispair and general unease isn’t an easy task. 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 doesn’t provide any 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.

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.

27 Responses Geneviève Bujold is ISABEL (1968)
Posted By Ben Boom : July 15, 2011 8:49 am

I think you meant to say “The Innocents”, not “The Innocence”, didn’t you? Otherwise, I’d like to hear more about this unknown treasure. :-)

Posted By Ben Boom : July 15, 2011 8:49 am

I think you meant to say “The Innocents”, not “The Innocence”, didn’t you? Otherwise, I’d like to hear more about this unknown treasure. :-)

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 15, 2011 11:09 am

I need to see this tout de suite!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 15, 2011 11:09 am

I need to see this tout de suite!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 15, 2011 12:02 pm

Ben Boom – Typo has been corrected!

Richard – I hope you do. Netflix often removes their “instant watch” selections without any notice but hopefully ISABEL will be available for awhile.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 15, 2011 12:02 pm

Ben Boom – Typo has been corrected!

Richard – I hope you do. Netflix often removes their “instant watch” selections without any notice but hopefully ISABEL will be available for awhile.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 15, 2011 1:50 pm

I’ve been wanting to see ISABEL for years. Thanks for noting that it is available for viewing on Netflix.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 15, 2011 1:50 pm

I’ve been wanting to see ISABEL for years. Thanks for noting that it is available for viewing on Netflix.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 15, 2011 10:55 pm

Jeff – I was really surprised when I stumbled on it at Netflix. If you’re a Bujold fan I think you’ll probably enjoy it or at least find it worth your time. I’m really eager to see more of Paul Almond’s earlier films with Bujold now. If ISABEL is any indication, I suspect that I’d really like his other work but I can watch Bujold in just about anything.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 15, 2011 10:55 pm

Jeff – I was really surprised when I stumbled on it at Netflix. If you’re a Bujold fan I think you’ll probably enjoy it or at least find it worth your time. I’m really eager to see more of Paul Almond’s earlier films with Bujold now. If ISABEL is any indication, I suspect that I’d really like his other work but I can watch Bujold in just about anything.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 16, 2011 8:14 pm

I love discovering new movies thanks to Netflix Instant. There are so many movies I’ve watched now that I never would have before because I wouldn’t have “wasted” a rental DVD. But with Instant, there’s nothing to lose and you can make some amazing discoveries.

And RHS, she’s right, things go off Instant before you know it so I plan to check it out this week. And Bujold – what a great actress! Always a favorite of mine, since seeing COMA way back when.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 16, 2011 8:14 pm

I love discovering new movies thanks to Netflix Instant. There are so many movies I’ve watched now that I never would have before because I wouldn’t have “wasted” a rental DVD. But with Instant, there’s nothing to lose and you can make some amazing discoveries.

And RHS, she’s right, things go off Instant before you know it so I plan to check it out this week. And Bujold – what a great actress! Always a favorite of mine, since seeing COMA way back when.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2011 11:58 pm

I’ve been keeping track of a lot of my Netflix discoveries here at the Morlocks. It’s sort of turned into a regular monthly feature but I haven’t bothered giving it an original name yet. How about “Kimberly Does Netflix” or “Netflix A Go-GO” ? I’ll have to think it over…

I know a lot of people are angry with Netflix right now due to the rate hikes but they’ve been adding some rare gems to their “Instant Watch” over the last 9 months that you just can’t find anywhere else so I’m not planning on giving up my membership anytime soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2011 11:58 pm

I’ve been keeping track of a lot of my Netflix discoveries here at the Morlocks. It’s sort of turned into a regular monthly feature but I haven’t bothered giving it an original name yet. How about “Kimberly Does Netflix” or “Netflix A Go-GO” ? I’ll have to think it over…

I know a lot of people are angry with Netflix right now due to the rate hikes but they’ve been adding some rare gems to their “Instant Watch” over the last 9 months that you just can’t find anywhere else so I’m not planning on giving up my membership anytime soon.

Posted By Tom S : July 17, 2011 12:12 am

Haha, I switched to Hulu specifically because their Criterion page has been beating Netflix hollow in terms of otherwise-unavailable gems. I’m watching Things To Come that way right this minute.

Posted By Tom S : July 17, 2011 12:12 am

Haha, I switched to Hulu specifically because their Criterion page has been beating Netflix hollow in terms of otherwise-unavailable gems. I’m watching Things To Come that way right this minute.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 17, 2011 12:36 am

Ha, ha? Really?

I have no idea what you find so funny, Tom. Are you laughing at my post? Or are you laughing at the fact that you can find a lot of rare gems on Netflix such as ISABEL that aren’t easily accessible and definitely not available on Hulu?

And for the record, I don’t think there is any law against renting films from Netflix and Hulu, which I would recommend to any serious film fan if they can afford memberships with both services.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 17, 2011 12:36 am

Ha, ha? Really?

I have no idea what you find so funny, Tom. Are you laughing at my post? Or are you laughing at the fact that you can find a lot of rare gems on Netflix such as ISABEL that aren’t easily accessible and definitely not available on Hulu?

And for the record, I don’t think there is any law against renting films from Netflix and Hulu, which I would recommend to any serious film fan if they can afford memberships with both services.

Posted By Tom S : July 17, 2011 12:53 am

I was laughing at the mild irony that your reason for staying with Netflix was more or less the same as my reason for switching to Hulu, namely the hunt for obscure movies.

Posted By Tom S : July 17, 2011 12:53 am

I was laughing at the mild irony that your reason for staying with Netflix was more or less the same as my reason for switching to Hulu, namely the hunt for obscure movies.

Posted By suzidoll : July 17, 2011 8:23 pm

Well, if you are really looking for obscure movies, you could try Facets, where I work. Facets actually pioneered the rent-by-mail program in 1984 with VHS, though you will never get Netflix to admit this. Also, you can still get films on VHS that are not on DVD and may never be.

However, I wanted to chime in and say, you gotta go with Netflix A-Go-Go. This is so 1960s and so you (and, so me, too).

Posted By suzidoll : July 17, 2011 8:23 pm

Well, if you are really looking for obscure movies, you could try Facets, where I work. Facets actually pioneered the rent-by-mail program in 1984 with VHS, though you will never get Netflix to admit this. Also, you can still get films on VHS that are not on DVD and may never be.

However, I wanted to chime in and say, you gotta go with Netflix A-Go-Go. This is so 1960s and so you (and, so me, too).

Posted By Tom S : July 18, 2011 3:39 am

Yeah, I’ve heard Facets and GreenCine are the way to go if you really want to get the out there stuff

Posted By Tom S : July 18, 2011 3:39 am

Yeah, I’ve heard Facets and GreenCine are the way to go if you really want to get the out there stuff

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 18, 2011 12:13 pm

Facets is great. I’ve never rented from them but I own plenty of their films on DVD and video. It’s great to know that they’re still renting films.

Who you decide to rent from really depends on your tastes & interests as well as how long you’ve been buying and watching films seriously and what you’ve had access to in the past. One person’s idea of a “rare” film isn’t going to be the same as mine for example. I’m used to digging through the dregs of Sinister Cinema releases and scouring through video stores in San Francisco’s Japan Town and renting from places like Naked Eye (R.I.P. – amazing video store that is missed). Other people naturally wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the same stuff if they didn’t live in the Bay Area.

The simple fact is that all of the exclusive Netflix films I’ve written about this year such as DANGER ROUTE (1967), JENNIFR (1953) and ISABEL have never been released on video, laser disc or DVD in the U.S. In other words, you can’t find them anywhere else. Except maybe on bootleg DVD if someone recorded the film off of television (or Netflix at this point) but even that’s doubtful because they rarely, if ever, were aired on U.S. TV.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 18, 2011 12:13 pm

Facets is great. I’ve never rented from them but I own plenty of their films on DVD and video. It’s great to know that they’re still renting films.

Who you decide to rent from really depends on your tastes & interests as well as how long you’ve been buying and watching films seriously and what you’ve had access to in the past. One person’s idea of a “rare” film isn’t going to be the same as mine for example. I’m used to digging through the dregs of Sinister Cinema releases and scouring through video stores in San Francisco’s Japan Town and renting from places like Naked Eye (R.I.P. – amazing video store that is missed). Other people naturally wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the same stuff if they didn’t live in the Bay Area.

The simple fact is that all of the exclusive Netflix films I’ve written about this year such as DANGER ROUTE (1967), JENNIFR (1953) and ISABEL have never been released on video, laser disc or DVD in the U.S. In other words, you can’t find them anywhere else. Except maybe on bootleg DVD if someone recorded the film off of television (or Netflix at this point) but even that’s doubtful because they rarely, if ever, were aired on U.S. TV.

Posted By Chris Fitzgerald : April 19, 2015 6:32 pm

Sadly, Paul Almond passed away on April 9th. My wife and I saw a re-release of “Act of the Heart” about 10 years ago at Archives Canada (Ottawa). Here is a bit of info:

Remembering Canadian filmmaker, director and author Paul Almond , creator of the ground-breaking documentary “Seven-Up!”
http://goo.gl/u3HmSA
Browse through his fonds, which include textual records, moving images, sound recordings, photographs, correspondence and even film project files: http://goo.gl/Iich0E
Our collection also includes items from Quest Film Production, a film company Almond formed in 1968. Find the Quest Film Production fonds here: http://goo.gl/vFmbPu

It does seem true, though, that most if not all of his films have not been released or been made available in DVD format, which is very sad given his status as a preeminent Canadian film maker.

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