It could be argued that “Savage State” ultimately seems worse than it really is only because the opening scenes of this French-Canadian-produced period drama are so deceptively promising. But, really, writer-director David Perrault (“Our Heroes Died Tonight”) has no one to blame but himself. Despite any good will (or at least simple curiosity) he might generate during his intriguingly offbeat first-act set-up, he actively encourages his visually splendid but dramatically fuzzy film to gradually devolve into a gonzo mashup of gothic melodrama, Wild West survival story, and voodoo-flavored supernaturalism, with a side order of slasher-movie tropes and a sprinkling of kinky sex insinuations.
“Savage State” begins by noting that, as early as 1861, Emperor Napoleon III warned “French settlers on the new continent” to maintain “strict neutrality” during the American Civil War. But by December 1863, Edmond (Bruno Todeschini) — paterfamilias of a well-to-do French family situated in St. Charles County, Mo. — recognizes that there’s no way to avoid involvement with the North-South conflict. His worst fears are confirmed when rowdies from an advance party of Union soldiers disrupt a fancy ball with recklessly playful gunfire that has deadly serious results.
So Edmond, his wife Madeline (Constance Dollé), their three beautiful daughters (Alice Isaaz, Déborah François and Maryne Bertieaux), and their Black servant Layla (Armelle Abidou) set out to find a ship that will carry them off to the relative safety of France. (Layla, by the way, is emphatically identified as hired help, not a slave like the human property owned by neighbors pointedly described as “those barbarians.”) For reasons never made entirely clear, this game plan requires a cross-country trek through the wilds of the American West, with womenfolk required to walk most of the way while the family is guided by Victor Ludd (Kevin Janssens), an enigmatic hired gun with a facial scar that suggests a violent past and a brooding manner that suggests constipation.
Esther (Isaaz), the youngest and least inhibited of Edmond’s daughters, is romantically attracted to Victor, in large part because of his man-of-mystery vibe. (“Do I have the right to ask about your scar?’ “It is the past. I prefer to look ahead.”) Unfortunately, Victor also is an object of desire for Bettie (Kate Moran), a sultry bandit queen who’s pursuing the travelers because, apparently, she wants Victor and some diamonds Edmond may be carrying. Even more unfortunately, Bettie is accompanied in her pursuit by a group of tough customers decked out in the sort of masks one normally associates with violent thrillers about home invaders.
Like so many other things in “Savage State,” a painfully protracted and glacially paced movie with little regard for such niceties as logic and continuity, the exact nature of the relationship between Bettie and the masked men is ill-defined and arbitrarily mutable. In one scene, one of the guys brusquely bats her aside when she tries to stop him from firing at Victor. In another scene, however, Bettie seems to be whipping the masked men into a worshipful frenzy like some high priestess. Well, either that, or she’s setting herself up as the guest of honor for a more bacchanalian gathering. Either interpretation could be valid.
Meanwhile, Layla sporadically evinces extensive knowledge and possible mastery of the occult arts. All of which proves to be very handy when, late in the movie, a heretofore sympathetic character inexplicably turns treacherous, and a score must be settled. Some viewers might be discomforted by the very idea that the only Black woman in this 19th-century scenario is, of course, a voodoo queen. But to be truly offended would require taking “Savage State” much more seriously than it deserves.
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