Put the chilly blond Canadian actress Sarah Gadon in a retro dress with a fitted bodice and flared skirt and perch her perilously on top of a Californian cliff and you have something that brings Hitchcock to mind. Vertigo, that thriller of heights and disguises, to be precise.
It's an arresting effect that the French director Alexandre Aja achieves in The 9th Life of Louis Drax but it is rather dragged down by other pieces of his film which seem to be set in the prosaic present.
The result is an intriguing but uneven thriller that doesn't fully establish the tone and style that would be needed for an audience to accept its supernatural plot.
The 9th Life of Louis Drax is based on the 2004 novel by the British writer Liz Jensen; in his debut as a screenwriter, the English actor Max Minghella has moved the action from a ravine in France to a cliff overlooking the Pacific somewhere near San Francisco.
The imagery is often stunning, including the Golden Gate Bridge seen through clouds and the depths of the ocean seen by the nine-year-old Louis Drax as he plunges off that cliff.
He winds up in a hospital bed, lying in a coma from which he narrates much of the film, explaining that he has always been wildly accident-prone as he observes the young brain doctor Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) falling for his fragile mother, Natalie (that's Gadon). Meanwhile, his hot-tempered father, Peter (Aaron Paul), has simply gone missing from the picnic that ended in the accident.
Pascal is a specialist in coma treatment and at first blush the film might seem like some heart-warming tale of an unusual kid and a dedicated doctor. Aiden Longworth's engaging performance as the much-bruised and highly intelligent Louis, seen through flashbacks in his life before the accident, would seem to lend itself to that easily digested genre. But gradually, the film grows darker as Pascal begins to learn the truth about Natalie and Peter – and there, the waters grow very muddy.
I was complaining recently that Gadon was playing an image rather than a person – as a traumatized co-ed in the adaptation of the Philip Roth novel Indignation – but here, her beautiful aloofness is highly effective in achieving the tone Aja seems intent on creating as he costumes her although she existed in the past.
There is also a fantastical element to the film as Louis converses with a sea monster who encourages him to stay in the ocean, a rich metaphor for his coma that is created with sly realism.
The realism that is less sly and seems at odds with the rest of the film surrounds the remainder of the action, set in the hospital where the coma doctor is the centre of a rather improbable plot about anonymous letters, brainwaves and hypnotism.
Dornan seems a bit lost here as the good doctor who falls for the mysterious Natalie.
Perhaps a wholly imagistic film could make us believe in that kind of self-contained fictional world in which a senior doctor who works in the emergency ward can also conveniently pronounce on a corpse in the morgue or a psychiatrist who takes a child as a private patient can wind up working in a hospital for the criminally insane. Anyway, Dornan is no Jimmy Stewart; the gentle character he creates is too indeterminate and contemporary to blend with the rest of Aja's movie.
It's an intriguing piece, but also a messy one with an unsatisfactory ending.