Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


by Brian Holcomb


To call this very peculiar and original supernatural tale Buñuelian is doubly accurate. While it certainly captures the great surrealist filmmaker's sense of the mysterious within the mundane, it was also directed by an actual Buñuel, Juan Luis Buñuel, the master director's son and sometime assistant. The younger Buñuel had a tremendous hurdle to leap in order to establish his own directorial signature and I'm not sure if he ever really did. Jean Renoir had a similar situation as the son of the great impressionist painter but he, importantly, chose a different art form in order to create his own niche. Working in the same medium as his celebrated father, it was perhaps inevitable that Juan Buñuel would find his looming shadow difficult to escape . This was most obvious in his second film, "The Lady with Red Boots"(1977) which was filled with his father's trademarked jokes and familiar faces like Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve in the cast. While delightful in it's own right, that film was more like Buñuel "doing" a Buñuel . It was an accurate, studied facsimile. His first film, "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" was far more original, spontaneous, and pure. A truly bizarre and disturbing horror film-black comedy that seems to have come much more naturally to the director.

The story is pretty standard but deceptively so: A family moves into a country estate and soon after are plagued by a series of paranormal events which seem to revolve around the teenaged daughter Sophie (Yasmine Dahm). Windows are smashed, furniture moves on it's own and ultimately a visiting friend is viciously attacked and nearly killed. Fleeing the house, they allow a TV crew to move in and attempt to solve the mystery. They do not.

As described, the plot sounds like any number of haunted house thrillers and narratively the film is, indeed, quite mundane. What's kept this movie on the fringes of cultdom, however, is that the filmmaking itself appears mundane and routine as well. There are no extreme long takes, unique and attention grabbing camera angles, or bizarre editing patterns. Visually, this looks no different from any early '70s television film but, once again, this is deceptively routine. A visual economy in line with the elder Buñuel's signature style which he always insisted was no style at all. This was true only in that having no style WAS his style. The economic staging, simple understated framings and consistently objective viewpoint provided the perfect vehicle for depicting his crazy content in an almost journalistic manner. Buñuel seems to have picked up much of this from the great French filmmaker Louis Feuillade, whose "Les Vampires" presents a similar swirl of insane events all photographed on location on the streets of WW1 Paris like some kind of twisted newsreel.

This was the basis of a certain strain of cinematic surrealism but in "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" the younger Buñuel seems to have moved beyond his father's preference for constructing strings of shocking jokes in place of a narrative and gone back to the narrative as spectacle of Feuillade himself. The story is no longer merely a clothesline on which to hang a series of random vignettes but is actually the vehicle driving the movie itself. We not only watch to see what "will happen next", but to see just what in the hell COULD happen next as the events get stranger and stranger. The film has a hypnotic power that is not dream-like but rather dream-real. It's as though Frederick Wiseman was somehow sent into a madman's nightmare armed with a 16mm camera. There is a sense that anything can happen in this story, no matter how random, odd or inexplicable. What's most impressive, however, is the way these random and inexplicable events seem to occur naturally and out of some inner logic

At first, we are presented scenes in which the teenage daughter Sophie is seen carrying on in a very suggestive, enigmatic way with her parents and younger brother. Some of this is based on documented cases of poltergeist activity which often center on the trauma of an adolescent female entering adulthood. Sophie is seen to be at odds with her mother, possessive of her father, and completely dismissive of her younger brother's existence-which appears to be an annoyance at best. When the child complains of sleeping alone, he's placed into Sophie's room causing her to become irate. "I hate hearing people breathe. It's my room!" is her reaction.

One night, Sophie is seen observing with a mix of fascination and revulsion the sight of her parents making love. She slams the door on them to get their attention and storms off. Immediately following this, the windows all over the house begin shattering on cue. The image of Sophie standing in sillohuette at the end of a long hallway while a long line of windows shatter in front of her is one of the film's most powerful, both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. It's an image that almost seems too smart, too affected amidst the much more banal recording of daily events we've been subjected to thus far.

At this point in the story it still seems as though we are watching a rather ordinary case history of paranormal events. But it's the random that really defines the way the film unfolds and creates one of its most inspired ideas. In every haunted house thriller, believability is always stretched once the family realizes that the house is haunted. Why stay and face more terror? Lame narrative excuses are usually created in order to keep the family from just running off like they should. But here, they actually DO run off once the house goes haywire and only halfway through the movie!

Like Hitchcock did with "Psycho", Buñuel shifts gears from his main characters and introduces Perou (Jean-Pierre Darras ), a TV producer friend who presses Marc to allow him to send his crew to the house to see if they can record the phenomena on film. What follows is something that seems along the lines of later work like the BBC "Ghostwatch" or "The Blair Witch Project" as the viewpoint alternates between objective shots of the investigative crew and subjective shots from the point of view of a documentary camera. The focus shifts from Sophie and her family to the producer and his crew which includes a young Gerard Depardieu as a bearded and nervous soundman.

Bifurcated as it may seem, this half of the story is not a complete break from the first. Sophie shows up almost out of nowhere with her hair no longer in pigtails and wearing a very couture fur coat. She looks like the teen fashion model that actress Dahm really was at the time-Nabokov's nymphette. Her father shows up shortly after, but tellingly her mother never again appears in the film. It's as though Sophie has usurped her place in the household in some kind of mock-Freudian coup.

With her arrival things really get weird again. Everyone goes crazy almost immediately, Depardieu in particular. Preparing some homemade soup for dinner he suddenly feels compelled to place his hands into the boiling water. Which he does in a totally non-dramatic, matter-of-fact manner which makes it all the more hilarious and weird. After an eruption of vibrations and flashing lights the story looks to be settling into its new form as a paranormal investigation "thriller" in the vein of "The Haunting(1963)". But once again this new stasis is interrupted by the random: the sudden arrival of the local Vicar (Claude Dauphin) with his flock of young children. Never mind the "explanation" that the Vicar always brings the children to stay at the house for a night, they've now crashed this cinematic party. An elderly Priest and a rag-tag group of children who look like refugees from a touring production of Dickens' "Oliver Twist", they are allowed to stay the night and are immediately drawn into the general flow of the action.

What transpires during this final phase of the film is a series of oddball vignettes as the narrative gives way to a freefall of inexplicable events and images. It's at this point that the film reveals that it has been setting up certain symbols throughout which were meant to re-appear in the final act in some subconciously logical way. The elder Buñuel had a personal distaste for symbolism. He felt that it reduced the power of mystery to a kind of intellectual code-breaking which is why his early films in particular, like "L'Age D'Or", are filled with obvious symbols used in nonsensical ways in order to confuse the pretentious. Juan Buñuel seems to have broken from this influence as his use of symbols in "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" seeks to evoke a more private and self contained point of reference. In a more Kubrickian way, he creates a series of enigmatic and repeated images which clearly mean SOME-thing. Exactly what is open to wide interpretation. In "2001: A Space Odyssey", Stanley Kubrick used the monoliths to visualize something intangible-the alien influence on human evolution and progress. In "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse", there is a filthy old rope that's discovered several times, once in the bed of the younger brother and also the sudden appearance of mounds of dirt. The dirt is first seen smeared all over the drawings of Sophie's father. Later, Perou finds himself being seduced in the dark by what appears to be Sophie but in a precursor to the book and film of "The Shining" she is revealed to be a frightening old hag. When his crew come running after hearing his screams of horror, they discover him writhing in the bed, covered with the same mysterious mound of dirt.

The filthy old rope returns at the very end. The final act of the movie is not unlike Mario Bava's "Bay of Blood" in its harsh depiction of self-serving humans doing whatever they must in order to save themselves. As several of the crew try to escape including the wounded Depardieu, each finds themselves falling prey to something inexplicable. As if to remind us of the Lewis Carroll influence on this weird tale of burgeoning female sexuality, Perou tries to make a run for it and basically falls into a rabbit hole: he takes two steps and falls through the floor of the living room into a bottomless old well. Inexplicably, it seems that two of the crew's vehicles have become rusted and overgrown with weeds. Depardieu escapes to the only vehicle left undamaged, the mini-van. The children pile in and he and the Vicar get into a desperate physical battle for the driver's seat, the Vicar banging on his wounded hands and Depardieu finally beating the old man down with a crowbar. But soon after Depardieu loses control of the vehicle crashing it into a clump of trees on the property. Inexplicably, Depardieu is suddenly attacked by the children themselves. They put a blanket over his head, bind his arms, and finally strangle him to death with the filthy old rope itself.

The film ends with Sophie and her father again, just like in the beginning, staring at the idyllic country house. The father says that the house should be burned to the ground. Sophie doesn't answer but her strange expression seems to suggest she knows that the trouble was never really with the house at all. She goes back inside alone to find her drawing of the house. She depicted it covered with ivy as that's how she wanted it to be. The film ends on a series of lap dissolves on the house, as it is slowly covered by the ivy as she wished.

"Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" is the kind of film that seems simple on the surface like Kubrick's film of "The Shining" but rewards multiple viewings as it becomes clear that there is much significance in the smallest of details. It's a creepy film in the tradition of "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" in which the fear is not from a direct physical threat but rather in the whispered suggestions just below the level of consciousness. One of the film's most amazingly ordinary and yet powerfully surreal scenes involves "two" Sophies seen dressing and undressing at the same time. Reflected in a mirror, we see Sophie dressed in her stylish fur coat and turtleneck sweater as she begins to slowly disrobe staring the whole time at her "innocent" self in the room, dressed in a nightgown and starting to put on the very turtleneck sweater and fur coat her doppelganger has removed. The power of this short and strange scene is enhanced in that there is no music or sound effects to be heard on the soundtrack at all. This is an extremely quiet film which features no scored music and only the most subtle of sound effects judiciously used. Much of the movie has the power of old home movies in which the only accompaniment was often the whirr of the projector which gave the mute people and world on the screen a secret life of its own. It creates the uncanny feeling of something both impossible and magical that just happened to be recorded from reality. An uncanny mood that could be called Buñuelian.

Screenplay: Juan Luis Buñuel & Pierre-Jean Maintigneux
Director of Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Director: Juan Luis Buñuel

Cast: Francoise Fabian (Francoise), Jean-Marc Bory (Marc), Yasmine Dahm (Sophie), Jean-Pierre Darras (Perou), Claude Dauphin (Father D'Aval), Michel Creton (Leroy), Gerard Depardieu (Beretti), Andre Weber (Kleber)

90 mins.


Charles Frappier said...

Any idea where I can get my hands on this gem? I saw it when it first came out I've been looking for it for almost 40 years! Thank you.

Brian said...

Wow. Sorry about replying a century later but I just saw this message this morning. You are in luck as someone has uploaded the film to YouTube under the title EXPULSION OF THE DEVIL. It can be found at this link