Esther is a French Jewish woman on the run in the countryside of Germany in 1943. Hungry, cold and exhausted, she spies an open door of a cellar at an isolated country home. With nowhere else to go, she ducks inside.
But once inside, she becomes a witness to a domestic dispute of the couple living in the house and is trapped inside the cellar. With no way out, Esther waits, only to overhear when Gisela and Heinrich have a particularly violent fight upstairs — forcing Esther out of hiding to play a role in their abusive relationship.
Director Joey Ciccoline, along with writer Emily Marie Palmer (who also co-stars as the abused wife Gisela), has crafted a intimate historical drama that examines the darkest reaches of Hitler’s insidious totalitarian ideology, the twisted psychology of domestic abuse and the power of female solidarity.
Using a restrained, quieter narrative approach mixed with well-wrought moments of suspense, it immerses viewers in two insular worlds: that of a Jewish woman on the run for her life, and of a woman trying to cope with the terrible secret of her abuse.
With its burnished, earthy visuals and a fine eye for composition, the film has a measured, handsome sense of craft. The history is created through nicely done sets and costumes, as well as sound and writing, but the storytelling wears its era lightly, and also takes its time to developing both the characters and the relationship that grows between them.
But the aesthetics never get in the way of its focus on the characters and their deepest emotional horrors and fears, and the narrative keeps its focus on Esther’s point-of-view primarily, and her character is the prism through we know and understand Gisela’s abusive situation.
Actor Sissi Kal balances both Esther’s very real desperation to get to safety with her sympathy and compassion for Gisela, bearing witness to the wife’s greatest humiliation and shame. Gisela herself grapples with denial, the love she once felt for her husband and her growing fears for her life. But despite her mistrust of Esther and her own flickers of prejudice, Esther’s concerns and honesty are a salve to Gisela in her darkest moment, giving her courage to change her situation — though not without one final danger to confront together.
Sadly, “Les Confines” could easily be set in a contemporary setting, since domestic abuse remains an issue that persists, thanks to the shame and silence that surrounds it. Yet by setting it in Hitler-era Europe, it makes a subtle but unmistakable tie to how political and cultural ideas shape our most private, innermost experiences, giving justification to violence and dominance. By the end of this particular story, though, both women finally step into the light, taking the first step towards different kinds of freedoms together.