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La tête contre les murs, directed by Georges Franju

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La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. by Georges Franju

La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. by Georges Franju

I think Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face was the first “new wave” (if you, like Jean Douchet, would call it new wave) film I ever saw. I was 18 and living in New York City’s East Village by myself. I had a rumpled copy of The Village Vioice and, being a country girl from Ohio and having never heard of a “repertory cinema” before, I thought I’d strike out with the sort of adventurous spirit a smalltown person gets when staying in the city for the first time, and camp out for a few nights at The Angelika (or The Village East Cinema I think it’s properly called). I’m sure I saw six or seven movies then, but I only remember two. Eyes Without A Face, and a fantastic documentary about Nina Hagen (“Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory”), presented by Peter Sempel.

I barely remember the plot of Eyes Without A Face, but I do, with perfect clarity, remember the imagery. The bandaged heads. The car along the riverbank at night. The ghostly house with the masked girl floating across the hallway, the dogs barking. Franju has a way of using nighttime mis-en-scene and Twilight Zone-ish pacing to create these hauntingly memorable moments that imprint, daguerreotype-like, in one’s brain.

No different is Franju’s first feature film La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall), which I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago at the NFT in London — a real treat as the film is out of print and not available on DVD (update: apparently they are releasing it in September 09! hooray!).  Unlike Eyes Without A Face, Head Against the Wall is not a horror story — at least not of the blood and gore and mad scientist variety. It is, however, undoubtedly the stuff of nightmares.

The story opens with our hero riding his motorcycle through the shadowy countryside night.  François (Jean-Pierre Mocky, who also wrote the adaptation of Herve Bazin’s original novel) is a French rebel-without-a-cause. He rides around in a leather jacket, smoking and going to beatnik clubs and talking to girls. He also spurns his wealthy lawyer father, who one night catches François stealing his cash and gleefully burning his rather important-looking documents.

After a bitter argument, Francois’s father uses his medical contacts to put his son in a mental institution, ostensibly to cure him of his “anti-social” behaviour. What follows is a series of Francois’s escape attempts (one successful before he is caught), through Franju’s unique double lens of filmic style and substance. For one, Franju keeps one eye on the surreal beauty of the asylum itself: the train that chugs through the forest, the Rappaccini-like greenhouse, the walled cemetery, the dream-like gambling den whose inhabitants seem just as stony and absent, if not more so, than the statue-like patients at the hospital who suddenly animate and come to life when they join hands and march in a circle. At the same time, Franju does not want us to forget the theme, that the politics of an asylum are such that, once imprisoned, whether or not you are sane or insane is completely immaterial. All that matters, as in a fascist state, is that you obey and behave. In order to gain his freedom, Francois knows he must first become an obedient subject of his doctors, to agree that he is ill, and thus – in a way – to escape the asylum he must first give up his sanity.

This isn’t exactly an original idea, but I find it interesting that La tête contre les murs was released in 1959. Foucault published the french version of Madness & Civilisation in 1961. Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1959, but didn’t publish it until 1962. The Rosenhan experiments were in 1972. So, while Herve Bazin’s novel and Franju’s movie were probably addressing something already at the crest of people’s consciousness, they were among the first to articulate it. I do wonder what effect, if any, La tête contre les murs had on any of these later works…

I’m leaving a lot out (this is by no means meant to be a proper review – just my impressions really), but I wanted to make a final note about the visuals. I was looking on Google for an image of the one frame from the film which most stuck in my mind – that of the archway-like copse of trees through which Francois rides his motorbike at the beginning of the film. In my search for the perfect image, I was surprised to find that I was not alone in liking this image. I found this thread on Criterion that draws some interesting parallels:

La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. Georges Franju

Franju’s La tête contre les murs

Gremillon’s Maldone

Gremillon’s Maldone

Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of Brie

Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of Brie

I haven’t seen Maldone so can’t draw any narrative parrallels (I hope one of you will, though!).There’s something about this image with the trees, though, which for me acts as a kind of multi-layered metaphor for the atmosphere for the whole film: the trees alone and divided from their landscape, a tunnel into darkness which can’t be contextualised sensically into its environment, and finally the idea that beauty exists only in the non-conformation of an individual thing to its environment. A riot of red roses to an eye used to fields of green. Fields of green to an eye used to pavements. The crooked tree. The supermodel. The ruined church. We pick out things as beautiful because they are remarkable. Because they are memorable and perhaps even strange, even if only in the context of our own hierarchy of perception. But in any case, they do not conform to their surroundings. They are not subjugate. They are insane.

Back to Cartier-Bresson… Rather than comment on his photo specifically, I was thinking about his ouevre and the sorts of things he captures and also something he said: “A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.”

A vestige, a trace. If the nouvelle vague is about capturing small moments in time, enlarging and examining them, the image and the detail being on higher ground than the grand narrative (Cartier-Bresson also said, “smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” He was clearly sympathetic to that idea!), then Franju’s films are dark memories: “a vestige of a face, a face in transit.” Even in a film like this one, which is more about human failing than death, there is everywhere the whiff of death, the atmosphere of the corpse. The epileptic’s gruesome suicide, the cemetery scene, the odd zombie-like manner of the players in the gambling den, the feeling — as Francois was being pulled by the asylum attendents down the stairs of his lover’s apartment — of being buried alive. If Godard wants to peel away the surface of everyday meaning, and Truffaut wants to expose our desires, our human frailty, then Franju wants to remind us that we are mortal, and to remember that there is always something lurking just beyond our field of view.

….

ps. You can see the trailer here.

pps. The “Frank Sinatra of France”, Charles Aznavour, as Francois’s epileptic nautically-infatuated friend, is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful in La tête contre les murs. It’s one of his earliest performances in film and perhaps also one of his most deeply moving and best.