Thérèse Desqueyroux (dir. Georges Franju): a skilfully made psychological study of much emotional depth

Georges Franju,” Thérèse Desqueyroux” (1962)

A remake of this film with Audrey Tautou as the titular character was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 so I thought I’d see the Franju original to see the spell it still holds on people 50 years after its release. This is a psychological and social study of a sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent woman unhappy in her marriage and of the bourgeois society in which she is trapped.  Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) has just been acquitted of the attempted murder of her husband Bernard (Philippe Noiret) by poisoning. As she leaves the court-house, she ponders on what it was back in her past that led her onto the tragic path she took and will continue to take. Thérèse’s musings lead the audience to the innocent lesbian relationship she has with her husband’s half-sister Anne (Edith Scob), the affection she has for Bernard’s forest on his family estate and the loveless marriage between herself and her self-centred, boorish mari.

Anne falls in love with a young Jewish man Jean Azevedo of whom her parents and Bernard disapprove. They pressure Thérèse to talk her out of the romance as they believe it will reflect badly on them; the family is quite jealous of its bloodline even though intermarriages among relatives in the past have led to Bernard inheriting a nervous, hypochondriac tendency. Anne goes away, Thérèse strikes up a friendship with Azevedo and both discover they have literary interests in common. Azevedo admits he’s not in love with Anne, composes a letter saying so to her and leaves for Paris. Anne reacts badly to the news and flies off in search of Azevedo. Time passes, Thérèse has a child who brings Anne back into the family although the women’s friendship is practically over; while Anne coos over the baby and mothers it, Thérèse becomes increasingly depressed. One day, a wildfire emergency occurs and Bernard overdoses on his medicine (which includes arsenic) and falls sick, and this instills an idea in Thérèse’s mind that grows and begins to obsess her. One thing leads to another and Thérèse narrowly escapes being convicted of attempted murder. However the punishment that awaits her from Bernard, his family, her father, indeed the entire country town community where they live, turns out to be an oppressive psychological burden.

This is a highly absorbing film even though it’s slow-paced and the plot treads a well-worn path in dealing with free-spirited individuals and their inability to conform to social strictures imposed on them by well-meaning and not so well-meaning others. The quality of the acting by Riva is superb: Riva’s beautiful yet distinctively sculpted face registers every small nuance of emotion and reveals a very complex woman whose feelings and moods run so deep that in spite of her intelligence and sensitivity, she does not always know or understand why she acts the way she does, or why the impulse to murder her husband seizes hold of her and obsesses her so. There is a suggestion of psychological denial on her part and a possibility that she is jealous of Anne’s freedom and impulsive behaviour. The supporting cast is quietly and consistently good: Noiret’s portrayal of Bernard appears brutally stereotyped at times and one sometimes wonders whether the movie would not have been improved if Bernard’s character had been changed to be a little more sympathetic towards his wife but still loyal to his family and community traditions. The two characters’ inability to communicate and to find common ground in their interests and psychology from which a real union of minds and bodies might grow is clear from several scenes between the two alone throughout the film. Scob’s appearances are few but she makes the most of them in delineating a character who is child-like and impetuous in her responses and whose personality, hungry for life and adventure, starts to alienate Thérèse who envies her friend’s freedom and joy of living.

The direction is adroit with use of zoom in some scenes and the shooting of the film from Thérèse’s point of view, including a voice-over by Riva used to express her feelings and motivations, in most parts of the film. The cinematography often emphasises beautiful and peaceful scenes in nature, changes in the weather and seasons, and Thérèse’s feelings for the pine trees on her husband’s estate. Probably more might have been done in the film to contrast the woman’s feel for nature, her closeness to it (near the end of the film, Thérèse reveals a spiritualist connection with the pine trees) and how it sustains her on the one hand and on the other Bernard’s exploitation of nature as a landowner and eager huntsman.

The film’s conclusion seems rather forced and contrived but the screenplay is based closely on François Mauriac’s 1927 eponymous novel which interestingly used silent film techniques to tell its tale. It is significant that Thérèse gains her freedom and escapes her oppressive marriage, family and community but at the expense, it would appear, of Anne losing hers (Bernard waits until after his half-sister’s marriage to a man of his family’s choosing to repudiate Thérèse). The rocky path taken by the relationship between the two women, initially close but becoming strained and ultimately broken by both external social pressure, Thérèse’s own ambiguous feelings about it, and her jealousy of Anne’s relationship with Azevedo (who seems a better fit for Thérèse herself), is described very well indeed by action and plot twists, and needs no temper tantrums or voice-over commentary to reinforce what viewers can see for themselves. This gives the film great subtlety and depth in describing the two women’s feelings for each other and their gradual estrangement at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in most countries (Britain legalised homosexuality in 1967) and could never be mentioned in films, yet was countenanced in many local communities in these societies.

Although the film’s themes may be outdated for most Western audiences – some audiences in Britain, France and other parts of Europe where social class and hierarchies are still strong influences on society may see a connection between their own cultures and the conservative, provincial Catholic culture of Thérèse’s world where appearances count for more than authenticity and hypocrisy is rife – it is a skilfully made film with emotional depth and is worthwhile seeing for film students, especially those wishing to use film techniques and cinematography to tell stories and convey deeper themes and messages.

Judex (dir. Georges Franju): an affectionate, light-hearted homage to Louis Feuillade and silent films

Georges Franju, “Judex” (1963)

A remake of the Louis Feuillade 1916 mini-series about the mystery masked crusader Judex (Latin for “judge”), Georges Franju’s film is said to partake of some of that earlier film’s visual style. Certainly there is an emphasis on careful staging of action and great attention given to details of background scenery and landscapes. Several scenes almost have a Post-Impressionist look in the manner of Georges Seurat’s misty pointillist paintings. The music soundtrack, composed by Maurice Jarre who collaborated with Franju on several films, may be repetitive but is also emotionally expressive when required. The film deliberately blurs distinctions between heroes and villains: main characters are people of questionable character or are sinister somehow, no matter how noble their motivations and principles might once have been.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film initially revolves around the unscrupulous banker Favraux who plans to marry off his widowed daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) to an impoverished aristocrat. A couple of early scenes involving a vagabond reveal Favraux’s moral emptiness and concern only for his own interests. He receives letters from a mysterious correspondent who calls himself Judex (Channing Pollock) which threaten him with harm if he doesn’t return the money he swindled from past investors. Naturally Favraux ignores the letters and later at a celebratory party, he keels over, apparently dead. Jacqueline buries him, dismisses the staff who include one Diana Monti (Francine Berge) and resolves to give up her inheritance. Later Jacqueline is menaced by Monti, her lover and their minions who are after documents detailing Favraux’s investments and other wealth. Judex comes to Jacqueline’s rescue and foils Monti’s plans to rob the Favraux family but not before tragedy occurs.

The plot is pulp-comic ordinary and parts of it appear amateurish and badly staged to 21st century eyes. There are cliff-hangers, scenes of laugh-out-loud soap-opera melodrama – in one scene, two strangers fighting discover they are a long-lost father-son pair! – and characters are stereotyped: Jacqueline as a helpless damsel in distress, Judex as an imposing Batman hero figure, Diana Monti as all-out Catwoman villain and her boyfriend as a somewhat dim-witted sidekick. A detective Cocantin and a small boy add comic flavour and an unexpected diversion to the plot. The action is slow and the pacing awkward.

The acting is so-so but the character of Judex isn’t required to be anything other than strong, silent, always in control and lady-killing in his Zorro cape and broad hat. At least Pollock (in real life, he was a magician and some-time amateur actor) is good-looking and has quite a commanding presence even in scenes where he falls into trouble. Scob spends much of her screen time in one dead faint or another. Perhaps the only decent and intriguing character is Monti who, in spite of failing many times, comes up with one dastardly scheme after another to get her paws on the Favraux fortune and wears figure-hugging black catsuits, in the days before British audiences clapped their gazes onto Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg in “The Avengers” TV series. For sheer determination and resourcefulness in escaping Judex and justice, this Monti dame sure can’t be beat!

The film’s highlight is the fight scene between Monti and a passing circus acrobat Daisy, a friend of Cocantin’s, on a roof-top which must have been a hit for audiences not used to seeing brave and self-reliant women defend themselves without the help of men. True, no flashy martial arts moves are used here but the women fight desperately to avoid falling off. The music used here is partly electronic in sound and sinister in mood.

“Judex” is an affectionate and not at all serious homage to Louis Feuillade and his films – watch out for a pulpy comic book “Fantomas” featuring a picture of nuns with guns in one scene, a reference to Feuillade’s “Fantomas” series; and Berge in the cat-suit is a reference to Irma Vep of Feuillade’s later “Les Vampires” series – and a good introduction to Georges Franju’s oeuvre and style of cinema.



Blood of the Beasts: horror, death, poetry and beauty co-exist in slaughterhouse

Georges Franju, “Le sang des bêtes” / “Blood of the Beasts” (1949)

An amazing if very graphic realist film documentary of the work done in abbatoirs on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1940s, Franju’s “Le sang des bêtes” helped to establish the director as a distinctive voice in French cinema who combined both matter-of-fact realism and dream-like surrealism in his work. And this documentary is both very uncompromising in its portrayal of casual butchery of animals whose meat humans rely on, and poetic, even lyrical, in its deliberate depictions of city and suburban scenes of Paris.

The film slyly immerses viewers into its world with a montage of static shots of the Paris landscape, its bridges and historic buildings, edging us to the city outskirts where there are tableaux of children at play, an old man sitting in the sun and young lovers kissing. It’s a short casual trot over to the abbatoir where, after viewers get a quick look at the workers’ tools of the trade, we and they get down to business: killing the animal, draining its blood, skinning it and cutting out the meat, viscera and other parts either for human consumption or other uses. The scenes are very graphic but filming in black-and-white reduces the gore factor of what we see and replaces that loss with a clinical, dispassionate look at the workers as they go about their necessary tasks. Seeing the hot blood draining away in channels on the ground beneath the slatted frames where the sheep and calves have their throats cut, the light and dark tones of the liquid swirling in a psychedelic monochrome pattern, strikes me as a lyrical, almost meditative scene: blood as the fluid of life ebbing away into a larger, perhaps cosmic river that might power the universe.

The men working in the abbatoir are shown as ordinary humans, neither degraded untouchables nor heroic beings, performing hard but necessary work using skills that are as specific and specialised as the skills needed to be an electrician, a blacksmith, a carpenter or a plumber. The way the men work looks casual but then they’ve had years of experience to hone their skills; even so, the voice-over narration informs viewers that there are health risks (for example, a cyst on the wrist that that suggest repetitive strain injury) involved in carrying out often repetitive and heavy work.

Two narrators, Georges Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral, were employed for this documentary: Ladmiral describes the environs of Paris and Hubert in a neutral tone observes the abattoir workers’ activities. The narration intrudes only when necessary to explain some aspect of the work that’s not obvious on the screen to viewers and very long sections of the film are completely without speech. There’s very little music apart from one worker singing “La Mer” (the tune is familiar to Australians as it has been used in TV commercials promoting tourism in South Australia) who might have been thinking of his former job as a sailor while washing away streams of blood into the abattoir ground channels with water from a pressure hose.

It becomes apparent to viewers that violent death and its horror are much closer to us than we realise and that every time we eat meat and wear or use leather and other animal-derived products, we condone the deaths of innocent creatures that have been conceived, born and raised simply to die for our material benefit and comfort. The horrors also of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Poland which occurred several years before the film was made also spring to mind.


Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.