As evidence that France can produce hospital thrillers as silly as any made in America (“Coma,” “Extreme Measures”), we offer “Who Killed Bambi?”–a nutty serial-killer spiel set in the sterile halls of an architecturally forbidding center of healing. Its lack of sense is exceeded only by the absence of chills.
The Bambi of the title is actually named Isabelle; she’s a nursing student played by doe-eyed Sophie Quinton, renamed by dour Dr. Philipp (Laurent Lucas) because she faints when she first encounters him in a hallway–her legs collapsing beneath her like those of Disney’s deer. Dr. Philipp is a stone-faced, eerily sinister guy who spends much of his time lurking in the hallways of the largely deserted place at night–showing a special interest in the rooms of heavily-sedated or comatose young female patients, some of whom either disappear (presumable runaways) or wind up suspiciously dead. He’s also prone to the occasional angry outburst, with a tellingly anti-female slant. But he’s very good at his job: he’s the one who operates on Isabelle’s inner-ear condition, which is causing her spells, and seems to take a special interest in her even as she begins to fear that he’s the cause of all the unexplained deaths and disappearances. Also involved in the resultant cat-and-mouse game are Isabelle’s older cousin Veronique (Catherine Jacob), a senior nurse who finds her concerns about the stern doctor absurd, and her boyfriend Sami (Yasmine Belmadi), an orderly she occasionally sneaks into her dorm room who can serve as a useful red herring from time to time.
About the only successful element of the movie is the cool, sterile atmosphere it creates–a testament to the skill of production designer Laurent Deroo and cinematographer Pierre Millon, as well as director Gilles Marchand. The mood they fashion is unsettling. But there’s nothing in the script by Marchand and Vincent Dietschy that takes advantage of it–a disappointment, considering that Marchand was co-writer of the smart, suspenseful “With a Friend Like Harry.” There are really no surprises in “Bambi”–from the very beginning Philipp is shown to be a lurking, menacing figure, and the original impression is never really challenged. The tension is supposed to arise from the fragile, vulnerable Isabelle’s against-all-odds efforts to prove his guilt, but she’s such a recessive character, and Quinton so pallid an actress, that her plight never engenders much interest. Meanwhile, Lucas’ stone-faced turn doesn’t strike fear into our hearts, either. But both performers are struggling against the unhappy fact that the narrative is filled with holes large enough to drive a truck through. Things have gotten so implausible by the end that one expects a twist revealing that everything we’ve seen has happened only in Isabelle’s fevered imagination–perhaps as a result of anesthesia during her operation, which would have been an easy cop-out, and much more satisfying too. Unfortunately, Marchand chooses to play things straight instead–and credibility winds up in the dustbin. By the close the only thing you’re wondering about is why it took no fewer than five composers to provide the thoroughly unremarkable music score.
Still, we ought not to single out France as a European source of nonsense along the lines of “Who Killed Bambi?” A few years ago Germany produced an even more preposterous specimen of hospital horror in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “Anatomy.” We might be inclined to write off the genre as impossible and leave it at that, were it not for the fact that Cronenberg has shown us–in “Dead Ringers”–that it can produce a masterpiece as well as a turkey like this one.