Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 10: Death By Miscalculation

So, it's 1958 or thereabouts. Audiences worldwide have come out in droves to see Diabolique and French studios maybe see that their avoidance of the horror genre is something they should cure themselves of if they wanted to see that kind of money come in. Unfortunately for the makers of the next two major horror films, they relied on two people who had no experience or stomach for horror. Films EGE turned to Roger Vadim, a director with a penchant for marrying his leading ladies, most likely on the basis that because he'd caused a huge stir with both his feature debut And God Created Woman and 1959s Les Liaisons Dangereuses and he could be counted on to bring audiences in. Some distributors thought the answer lay with Jean Renoir, France's most revered director, who'd just made a horror film for French TV. Both were dead wrong. Neither film did even remotely well, primarily because the trademarks of both men were noticeably absent. On top of that, neither was particularly good. Vadim turned in a boring, predictable and conspicuously sex-free take on the soon-to-be-ubiqituous J. Sheridan Le Fanu novel Carmilla and Renoir, who usually made compelling meditations on class divisions, turned the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into a ludicrous film about the horrors of rude people.

The Doctor's Horrible Experiment
by Jean Renoir
Docteur Séverin is a respected scientist who goes to visit a colleague with a discovery to share. The discovery that his friend Dr. Cordelier has made is a bit of medicine that makes him into a hairy fellow with Jo Shishido cheeks who goes around making people's days slightly miserable. Of course, we're not 'supposed' to know that Cordelier and Opale the rude guy are one and the same. The big reveal at the end would be completely without gravity if we knew the entire time that they were the same....oh, wait, it is. In fact the whole film never really makes it off the ground. The stereotype for TV movies is that they're all very tame as there couldn't be even a glimmer of a chance that they might offend someone. Well, imagine they took one of those totally harmless movies then just passed it off as a proper film. It worked sometimes in the 70s, like with Crawlspace or anything by Dan Curtis, but not in the 50s, not in France, and not by Jean Renoir.

There are a thousand reasons with The Doctor's Horrible Experiment doesn't work. The film was initially called La Testament Du Docteur Cordelier, which made as little sense narratively as the Horrible Experiment, the reissue title, does tonally. The experiment and its consequences are far from horrible (I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the film is. There's a stipulation in the contract when you start operating a review-based website that says you need to make at least one obvious title-based joke a year). Cordelier or Opale starts his reign of terror by trying unsuccessfully to separate a woman from her baby and then he trips a bunch of construction workers with his cane. The best way I can think to describe his appearance is something along the lines of a dime-store approximation of a homeless wino version of Mr. Hyde. His clothes are too big, he walks with a limp, he's got those ridiculous sideburns and squirrel cheeks and his idea of an evil walk is nimbly side-stepping people as they approach him. I feel like the film is about twenty minutes exposition, showing what a rich tool Cordelier is, and then 75 minutes of Opale sinisterly avoiding people on the streets of Paris. The performances are all risible. Michel Vitold is a pious wimp as Séverin and Jean-Louis Barrault does less heavy-lifting as Opale then he does as Cordelier. To say that nothing happens is an understatement; granted Georges Leclerc's cinematography is nice but it's like all of Renoir's genius stepped out to lunch.

Let me say that Jean Renoir is one of my all time favorite filmmakers. He made a string of hits in the late 30s that almost no one can touch. Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game are unprecedented masterworks. But by 1959 his career was winding down and he'd made just about every kind of film he'd ever wanted to: dramas, comedies, technicolor musicals and some of the finest politically-charged melodrama on record. My guess is that Horrible Experiment was probably more about Renoir dabbling in horror for once in his life than it was about some long-lost aspiration to make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde The Movie. Renoir's take on life was a bit more worldly than most genre filmmakers so it made sense that after movies like The Lower Depths and La Bête Humaine, the idea of making anything as dark as Diabolique or even, say, The Black Room or The Seventh Victim probably didn't appeal to him. So he took what really bothers most people, some asshole knocking them over in the street, beating up children and kicking the handicapped, and constructed a horror movie around it. Renoir had never shown his age as a filmmaker until this film: I'm quite surprised no one asks Opale to get off his lawn. To be fair, Opale is really worrying, but that's not what horror should be. Horror should be a visceral experience, not the feeling of collective agreement about how socially unacceptable something is. No one watching Horrible Experiment could possibly say Opale isn't annoying, but I don't know anyone (other than apparently the Finnish board of film censors who banned the movie) who would find this all that scary or interesting. I went back and forth about what grade to give this movie and though I feel bad about preying on old man's antiquated view on horror, the film is worse than bad, it's boring, which is unforgivable. It made me uneasy watching this guy trip people in the streets for what felt like hours but it takes more than a bright mind and an accomplished style to make a great fright film. Films EGE learned that lesson the hard way in 1960.

Blood and Roses
by Roger Vadim

The first thing we hear is voice-over narration by Annette Vadim (née Stroyberg) telling us that once upon a time, a trip from Italy to the Carribbean took more than the few hours it does now by plane. "What does that have to do with anything?" I hear you asking. Well, the narrator it seems has been around long enough to see the advances we've made in transportation and what we're about to see is just one of her many incarnations in human form. The narrator is also never going to shut the hell up, so get used to her. We're then taken to an Italian villa in what's probably the present day (1960). Leopoldo De Karnstein (Mel Ferrer, who's career was about to take a nose-dive into Italian schlock) is preparing for his marriage to Georgia Monteverdi and so invited his close friend Carmilla and her father up to his villa to celebrate. Carmilla and Leopoldo have been friends since adolescence and she harbours a pretty big crush on him (And really, who could blame her? Mel Ferrer looks like a cross between an aging Henry Fonda and a youngish Martin Landau but he's called upon to cavort with two women fifteen years his junior). Leopoldo also invited Guido Naldi, a fireworks expert to set up some pyrotechnics at his engagement party. Naldi is also a card-carrying member of the exposition police because his announcement that the perfect place to set up his fireworks is an old mausoleum sends out a wave of shifty eyes amongst everyone in the sitting room.

Carmilla is a bit more impetuous than Georgia, which she demonstrates by explaining the local lore concerning the vampires who are supposed to have inhabited the manse once upon a time; they're also the reason that that mausoleum is considered haunted. All but one, Millacra, was killed by villagers; her tomb was simply buried in the mausoleum, leaving her fiance alone to wonder what happened. He suffered in ways beyond being jilted; his next three fiances all died before their wedding day. Carmilla apparently believes the legend as she goes into a trance just telling the story and is later impelled by the narrator to put on Millacra's old wedding dress, which is just hanging out in the attic for some reason. She then goes out and finds the mausoleum (because the narrator won't stop telling her how great it is) just as Naldi's fireworks accidentally set off some long-forgotten German explosives and open up passage to Millacra's tomb. Well, with all that convenient build-up it'd be a shame if Millacra's spirit didn't posses Carmilla's body, now wouldn't it? 'specially considering their names are pretty clumsily thought-out anagrams. And so commences phase two, wherein a newly possessed Carmilla turns on the charm to win her cosmic boyfriend away from that Monteverdi girl, drinks the blood of a maid and does so much goddamn voice over you want to strangle the life out of her. Along the way we get a really excellent dream sequence that probably gave American censors a heart attack.

I have a few theories concerning Blood and Roses or Et Mourir de Plaisir as it was known in its home country. The first is about the name: And To Die Of Pleasure probably didn't have the poetic horror (read: zing!) that distributors were looking for, so the name Blood and Roses was chosen because both things appear in the movie, often around the protagonists. My next theory concerns the future ex-Mrs. Vadim. My guess is that she asked for more screentime and when her husband couldn't give her any, because he hadn't filmed any, they went back and added enough voice over for a Ken Burns documentary. Vadim leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination of the viewer and explains her motivation for doing everything! So all that stuff that's usually clouded in shadow, so as to create some blessed tension, is completely out in the open. I don't know if you can really call this a horror film considering there's no doubt in anyone's mind how it will end and who will have been harmed. The ending could have had some bite to it if he hadn't let the voiceover explain to us in painstaking detail just what a great idea it is. In fact the only thing left to the imagination is what's under the oddly antiquated gowns on Elsa Martinelli and Annette Vadim. Considering that Roger Vadim became famous for showing the world Brigitte Bardot's ass (another ex-wife) he shows considerable restraint. I don't know if this is because the producers (of which there were none on his first film) finally got him by the collar and said "knock it off" or if he was just bored by the project. There are flashes of Vadim's charmingly prosaic risque direction, like when he flirts briefly with lesbianism between Georgia and Carmilla, but mostly all he does is hint. When you realize that Barberella was in this man's future, this becomes incredibly maddening. And my final theory concerns said nightmare scene. The French version of this film is fully fifteen minutes longer than the version that the English speaking world got. My guess is that maybe some of the implied sexuality became more than that before the censors got their scissors on it. My guess is maybe a more satisfying version is out there, but I have no way of knowing or getting to it. But what confuses me is that the dream sequence features a topless woman on an operating table (one of a few memorable images) so what exactly were the censors afraid people would see? Was lesbianism a bigger threat to American morals than bare breasts? That's not the America I know...

Blood and Roses was a series of gambles that didn't pay off. EGE bet that Vadim could generate anything more than sexual tension, and he couldn't. Vadim thought his then wife could carry a film and boy could she ever not do that. Someone thought Mel Ferrer could laugh and carry on like a man twenty years younger, and he couldn't. Screenwriter Claude Brulé thought that any take on Carmilla could make a name for itself without heaps of the novel's famous sexual content. Ten years later, the name Carmilla became synonymous with foreign sex films that lost all but the faintest glimmer of Lefanu's story. Both Renoir and Vadim were men with a style that filmgoers had become accustomed to and their horror films failed those in the audience with expectations. That's why only film nerds and serious critics have any knowledge of either film. Horrible Experiment was put in a box along with some of the director's lost silent short films, which is wise given its aching dissonance with his major works. Blood and Roses is mostly unavailable (I watched a rather sorry VHS copy for this review). Just goes to show you that sometimes the arthouse and the grindhouse aren't meant to mix.
The movies are important if for no other reason than studios needed something more alluring than two floundering titans to fill theaters. The next time around, though, things would be different. A film was on it's way that would cement France's place in the history of fright films, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Diabolique.

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