Tag Archives: French

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Epstein

FEATURING: Charles Lamy, Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Abel Gance

PLOT: Roderick Usher invites an old friend to the portentous mansion where he lives in the company of the servants and his dying wife, Madeline, whose portrait he has been obsessively trying to paint.

Still from The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like it’s source material, Epstein’s silent film treatment of ’s short story doesn’t explicitly depict any extraordinary phenomena, but the aura of metaphysical discomfort and  mysterious menace is so pervasive that it lends it an oneiric character—one that’s likely to give a stronger and longer lasting impression than any more overt effect.

COMMENTS: Despite the expected controversy over the precise definition and characteristics of the movement (or whether it even qualifies as a movement), one could say that the underlying tenet of French Impressionism is the search for an emancipated cinematic language, with its own forms and techniques, in contrast to the “filmed theater” approach. Instead, cinema was to articulate, with its own unique means, certain realities (and modes of expressing them) that no other art-form could. Impressionist films focused on, among other things, subjective, psychological reality: dreams, madness and all sorts of altered states of consciousness, The methods necessary to compellingly bring it to life were unconventional camerawork, including character point-of-view perspectives, innovative editing techniques, a preoccupation with the visual composition of shots and their picturesque qualities (such as the contrasts between light and dark), etc.

With this said, it’s easy to see how such a movement proved vitally influential to weird cinema (and filmmaking in general)—as well as why it’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And indeed, Jean Epstein aptly translates the author’s most revered hallmarks—a constant, underlying sense of unease—to the language of cinema. It’s so well-realized that the viewer can predict the house’s impending ruin even without the title. The suggestion of a spectral world of shadows and unconscious forces subtly advances on diurnal reality, and the persistent aura of mystery and the uncanny reveals itself at each new turn, be it in the enigmatic presence of Madeline Usher, in Roderick’s afflicted mood and behavior, or in the many disquieting details of the mansion and its surroundings.

The resulting atmosphere of dreamlike disquiet is sustained through the film’s runtime, as if the viewer were trapped in the elegant and ethereal matter of a cloud as it gradually darkens and thickens before the storm. And as overused as it might be, “atmosphere” is indeed the appropriate term, considering the amount of shots purely devoted to its establishment (the ominous images of Nature, the manor’s vast, empty spaces where nothing but the wind manifests itself)—especially when compared to the more practical approach Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: LITAN (1982)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Pierre Mocky

FEATURING: Marie-José Nat, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Nino Ferrer, Marysa Mocky, Roger Lumont

PLOT: While staying in the small town of Litan, where the annual festival of the dead is underway, Nora has prophetic dreams about her boyfriend Jock’s death.

Still from Litan (1982)

COMMENTS: Nora’s dreams are bad. Coffins float down streams. Bodies fall from great heights. And worst of all, she sees her beloved Jock covered in blood, seemingly murdered. It doesn’t make for a restful night. Well, it’s not going to get any better. Upon waking, we see that Nora’s barely dreaming at all. An annual festival has taken over the town of Litan, with strange people in strange costumes behaving in strange ways. If you believe that the things that happen to you during your day will affect your dreams at night, it’s clear that she’s one of the most literal sleepers around.

For you see, Litan is one of those towns where everyone is weird. You know the kind, like The Wicker Man or Midsommar or The Third Day. Residents saunter about with featureless masks, or with uncovered faces that are equally blank. Doctors perform inexplicable experiments that involve flashing lights and beeping machines. Men in pig masks loot and murder without fear, bodies dissolve and turn into glowing blue worms, and a marching band made up to look like mannequins in red tailcoats conducts impromptu concerts. You know, one of those towns. It’s painfully obvious that There’s Something Funny Going On, and that Nora and Jock need to Get Out Of There. 

It’s to Litan’s credit as a weird movie and to its debit as a watchable movie that this tension, this sense that trouble is only steps away, is present from the very start and never lets up. It doesn’t get more tense, mind you. It just maintains that worrisome threat from start to finish. That gets the heart rate elevated, but the relentlessness of it gets dull after a while. 

Where director/star Jean-Pierre Mocky succeeds is creating an ominous atmosphere through startling imagery. Every exterior is next to a rushing river or amongst sharp, craggly mountains (the film was shot in the commune of Annonay in southeastern France), while every interior seems to be set in a room carved out of a cave. Bold blasts of color break the monotony of the gray settings, particularly the bright crimson blood and the electric blue spermatozoa that seem to be the result of falling into the water. Strongest of all is the very creepy vibe he gets from his zombified actors, whose stillness is so effective that they immediately grab your attention when they snap out of it. A scene where a returning patient terrifies his family is an effective set-piece.

But while Litan is unquestionably weird, it’s also a mess. There are barely any characters to speak of; Nora does little but scream and fret, while Jock is a little too ignorant at first and a little too studly as the story progresses. Everyone else seems designed to be inexplicable, such as Jock’s colleague Bohr, who goes from assaulting Nora to worrying about his own son to becoming a victim in the space of 15 minutes. Meanwhile, there’s a possible candidate for a villain whose connection to the plot is vague until the closing minutes, culminating in a comically anemic fight scene. And there’s a very off-putting musical score (from star Nino Ferrer) that shifts wildly from atmospheric synthesizer noodlings to action tracks that sound like a strange melange of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score and the Swingle Singers, with some Shostakovich woven in for seasoning.

There’s no doubt that Litan is odd, but it isn’t actually compelling. With anxiety but no suspense, with momentum but no destination, Litan is just a series of surprising things that happen. Dreams are weird, but not every dream is worth sharing. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One-of-a-kind bizarre French sci-fi. It’s like some scenes from a variety of thriller, crime and sci-fi movies were stripped of their back-stories and plots, jumbled together, and then transported to this weird town of Litan that looks like something out of The Prisoner.” – Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

(This movie was nominated for review by shawn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALICE OR THE LAST ESCAPADE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Claude Chabrol

FEATURING: Sylvia Kristel, Charles Vanel, Fernand Ledoux

PLOT: After leaving her husband, Alice Caroll’s travels leave her stranded during a storm; she ends up at a mysterious mansion populated by odd characters, discovering that she can’t leave.

Still from Alice or the Last Escapade (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Your present author stumbled upon Alice or the Last Escapade on Tubi, and I could not shake the feeling that “366 Weird Movies should have this one already.” That’s because Alice or the Last Escapade brings to mind several movies already in our canon. First, the sparse “” elements give the story a thin fairy tale flavor. French director Chabrol (himself often described as “the French ”) dedicates the film to the memory of Fritz Lang. We have a classic ontological mystery in which a character is trapped by strange forces without explanation. A few reviews of this movie even compare it to ‘s The Exterminating Angel. I can see that, but more importantly, there is one specific movie on The List, a seminal cult classic, which I dare not mention lest I spoil the movie, because Alice or the Last Escapade has the exact same plot and ending.

COMMENTS: If you ask me, the best comparison for Alice is an hour-and-a-half long “Twilight Zone” episode. Alice Caroll (Sylvia Kristel) leaves her annoying bore of a husband to set out on the road. Driving at night, she finds herself in the classic Euro-Gothic plot: stranded at night with car trouble during a storm, forced to seek refuge at a strange mansion. The inhabitants of said mansion welcome Alice and insist she stay overnight, even offering to fix her car for free. But in the morning, Alice tries to leave, only to be confronted by reality-warping events that prevent her departure. There’s a “broken” clock which starts up at odd hours and seems to control other events in the house. The same view is visible out the front door and the back. She tries to trace her way around the property wall only to discover that the gate has vanished. When she does drive around, all roads lead back to the mansion. Meanwhile the mansion is populated by oddball characters who speak in riddles and have odd rules about conversation, such as not responding to any direct question.

The “Alice in Wonderland” elements are kept to a minimum. We have the protagonist’s name, of course; the checkered floor tiles in some rooms suggest a chessboard; a gentleman dressed all in white confronts Alice in the surrounding woods. Alice’s meals and tea are left prepared for her by an unseen entity, but aren’t specifically labeled “eat me” and “drink me.” The wake/dance party she encounters stands in for a “mad tea party.” Among elements definitely not drawn from Lewis Carroll, we get a single nude scene, when Alice gets lectured by a ghostly voice in the bath. (This blink-and-you-miss-it scene is there just to remind people that Sylvia Kristel used to play Emmanuelle.) Otherwise, there are no hints of sexuality to the proceedings; this movie seems designed as a vehicle for Kristel to demonstrate her advanced acting chops—which aren’t much to write home about, truth be told. But at least her character is no pushover. Alice quickly learns the arbitrary rules of her captivity, and even turns the mansion inhabitant’s own conversational rules back at them, as she schemes to figure out the situation and find loopholes.

Alice or the Last Escapade did not fare well at the box office, and is seen today as a one-off venture for director Chabrol, who had an extensive and otherwise successful career. Actress Kristel stated in interviews that she thought the movie would have fared better with more nudity. I disagree; the movie would have fared better if it took more chances and pulled out the weird stops. For being made in 1977, it feels like a much later movie made from parts of other popular weird cinema. As it stands, this is more of a slow-burn “comfort weird” movie, to be enjoyed in the good faith that it treads ground already familiar to those who have extensively explored our canon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “In the incredibly varied oeuvre of director Claude Chabrol there are few films as bizarre as Alice ou la dernière fugue, a dark, hallucinatory fairy tale in which fantasy and reality become intertwined to chilling effect… a haunting excursion into an Escher-like dreamscape from which there is no possibility of escape.”–James Travers, FrenchFilms.org