Le Grand Franju

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I don’t know why Georges Franju’s short documentaries are so hard to see. Even if nobody wants to package them together as a set, they’re the best DVD extras anybody could wish for.

LE SANG DES BÊTES, of course, has served exactly this function, running as support to LES YEUX SANS VISAGE on the Criterion disc. And a fine, blood-soaked pair they are.

But why has it taken me this long to track down LE GRAND MÉLIÈS, albeit with an English dubbed V.O.? This one could not only fit with a Franju feature nicely, it could also be packaged with Georges Méliès films. The possibilities are quite literally several.

Franju begins at the end, getting the sad bits out of the way, as he puts it, before introducing us to Mme. Méliès, played by the real Mme. Méliès, and Georges Méliès, played by Melies Jnr. The casting is cute and works, and was facilitated by Franju’s role as co-founder of the Cinemateque Francaise. Mme. Méliès had been a friend to the institution, supplying a nude portrait of herself to the museum, although with the stipulation that it should only be displayed from the shoulders up.

At this point, aged 90, she looks exactly like a Ronald Searle drawing of an old lady.

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Then comes the best bit — although later sequences illustrating Méliès’ techniques and tracing his entry into film are also admirable.

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We meet Méliès, retired from film-making, at the toy shop be ran in a Paris railway station. Two children come to buy geegaws, but haven’t l’argentto pay for them. Kindly M. Méliès gives one boy a trumpet anyway, but when the little bugger keeps tooting it in an annoying fashion, the old wizard distracts him and his companion with a display of legerdemaine.

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A wallet of coins is produced. The children are impressed. The coins are vanished and then reproduced. Wonderful. Then M. Méliès transforms his head into a bouquet of flowers. For real.

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“Uh, okay… Back away, slowly.”

Franju cuts to them running, backwards and in slow motion, up the steps from the Metro to the safe, rational outside world.

Purists may argue whether this can really be called documentary, but it’s a lovely sequence, dovetailing from a kind of dramatic reconstruction into sheer fantasy. The flower-headed Méliès is a figure from Dali rather than from Méliès’ own work, connecting with the bird-headed avenger in JUDEX, himself influenced by Max Ernst rather than supposed inspiration Louis Feuillaide. The fleeing kids in reverse is an echo of LOVE ME TONIGHT, where a fox hunt is seen softly galloping backwards. And the setting is returned to at the end of the film, where we see the toy shop transformed into a florist’s (as it was in reality), where Mme. Méliès goes to buy flowers for her husband’s grave.

Now that’s magic!

31 Responses to “Le Grand Franju”

  1. Franju is a poet. One can add, to quote Marcel Dalio says in ”La Regle du Jeu”, “a dangerous poet”.

    I’ve never seen ”Le Grande Melies” so thanks. One Franju short that’s totally AWOL is ”Hotel des Invalides” which is scary in the classic Franju fashion. I saw it in a busted print once before but it still cast a spell.

    The Masters of Cinema have issued ”Judex” and ”Nuits Rouges”, anyone seen ”Nuits Rouges”.

  2. Matthew Flanagan Says:

    Le Grand Méliès is in fact available in the almost-complete Flicker Alley R1 Méliès boxset:

    http://www.flickeralley.com/fa_melies_01.html

    Those in a more comfortable financial situation than I will be able to attest as to whether it has the dubbed VO or not.

    The sublime Judex is full of this sort of ‘fantastic realism’ (for want of a better, or less inherently contradictory, term). Franju’s film worlds are never safe and rational, always blurring a very concrete sense of reality (often in terms of place) with something unfamiliar, enigmatic or utterly unexplainable. I guess this is where the immediate debt to Feuillade comes from, but his films so often derive their power from pushing this dynamic much further. How about a dedicated week as well (nudge nudge)?

  3. Les Yeux sans Visage is unique, a lovely work, though it must’ve been a bit of a come-down for Alida Valli after such films as The Third Man and Hitchcock’s Paradine Case. I actually caught a knock-off of Franju’s film yesterday, a film offered as a freebie on IMDB by way of Hulu, called Seddok, l’erede di Satana, AKA Atom Age Vampire. I noticed it was produced by Bava, and though not in the same league as Franju’s film, it still had its moments, especially from a visual standpoint. Love the flowerhead, by the way, I think as a kid it would’ve definitely freaked me out.

  4. “A bit of a come-down”? Not at all. Moreover it prepared Valli for working with Dario Argento on Suspiria.

    Franju is to a large extent a fimmaker whose subject is childhood. Raymond Durgnat brings this up in his (now sadly long out of print) book on Franju, in which he comapres Judex to The Night of the Hunter

  5. Alida Valli although primed for stardom by David O’Selznick as the next Ingrid Bergman never caught on despite being superb in ”The Third Man” but she took it in her stride and appeared in many key European films, working with Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci and others. And she’s damn scary in ”Eyes Without A Face” as the doctor’s butch assistant. She gets the creepiest leitmotif in film history courtest Maurice Jarre, that carnivale music.

  6. That sounds like a trick that could come in handy: “Sorry that I forgot your birthday dear but in the words of Eddie Izzard – BUNCH OF FLOWERS!”

    I’d agree that Eyes Without A Face shouldn’t be considered a come down for Valli. The way she tootles around the streets in her 2CV scouting for girls to a jaunty carnival-esque tune is creepy and wonderful at the same time – she’s in her element and enjoying her work! Yet it is also so sad that her obvious affection for her boss goes unrequited. The film seems to be all about capturing (or recapturing) some elusive (or illusive!) state of fulfilment – sadly only one character seems to accept what they have lost by the end of the film.

  7. Let me reiterate: Valli herself may not have thought of her involvement in Franju’s Les Yeux… However, this is the point I was attempting to make, courtesy of Catherine Wheatley and her essay on the film on the site Senses of Cinema:

    At the time of its release in 1960, responses to Les Yeux sans visage ranged from condescending to contemptuous to downright hostile.

    Even Godard found fault with Franju, stating that:

    There’s something very saddening in Franju’s career, and his steadily widening distance from all the hopes we placed in him, his self-burial in conventional productions, in five-finger exercises of style, and in Selected Classics.

    The film’s American release was dubbed, retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and became a cult favorite of horror film fans. Who can say with certainty just what she thought of her participation in Les Yeux… Perhaps her sentiments can be found in something biographical, I don’t know if it’s out there, at least as of yet. It wasn’t until the late Eighties that the film was given reassessment, resulting in its elevated status among those with more than just an interest in the horror genre. And that’s not to say that there weren’t those out there who recognized its merits prior to that time, they just weren’t as numerous as thereafter.

  8. Godard is just jealous he wasn’t having lumch with Ben Barka that day.

  9. But that was before Mr. Barka faced whatever-the-hell-happened-to-him. And Mr. Barka appeared in ”Made in USA”.

    There was a film about that which came. I haven’t seen it but according to reports, Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Franju. Nowadays in his late 50’s, he looks like Anton Walbrook from ”The Queen of Spades” so I suppose he’d be great choice to play Franju.

  10. Leaud these days looks quite a bit like Franju, and the intense stare is identical.

    I think when you see what the nouvelle vague directors brought to French cinema at the end of the 50s, it’s easier to see why they were dissatisfied with what was there… yet what was there was a remarkable cinema by any standards. Godard seems to be criticising Franju for not being Godard.

    Franju week will have to wait until I can afford (or download) more of his work. I have seen Nuits Rouges under the title Shadowman. Not up to his highest standards. But I need to watch the new DVD to see it in better shape.

  11. Ben Bakra was mentioned in <iMade in USA because he had been killed before it was made.

    That intense stare procceds from the fact that Leaud is batshit crazy. Franju was an alcoholic but he wasn’t otherwise unstable.

  12. “He’s a big baby,” was Ruiz’s verdict on Leaud.

    “Not otherwise unstable” is a great quote for Franju. He could’ve had it printed on a T-shirt, except I can’t picture him in a T-shirt.

  13. Yes a baby, but also insane (remember his attack on his landlady?) and a great actor (Out 1, The Mother and the Whore, Masculin-Feminin, Stolen Kisses, The 400 Blows et. al.)

  14. Well, who hasn’t attacked their landlady from time to time?

    He’s an amazing performer, indeed. Worth any number of landladies.

    Just got my hands on luc Moullet’s A Girl is a Gun. The idea of Leaud in a western gets me all a-quiver.

  15. My landlady was attacked in fact, earlier this year. Stabbed to death in her apartment by her ex-boyfriend. She had been hired on only six weeks prior. They got him on surveillance camera throwing his bloody clothes into a dumpster next to the building, and found him hiding in his mother’s basement. The victim also had a dog, a Shepherd/Huskie mix, and it was stabbed three times, but survived. But I still know what you mean, there are those landladies that come across like Shelley Winters in Polanski’s Tenant (or concierge, to be more precise).

  16. That’s awful. I was being flippant, of course.

    Shelley Winters’ other great apartment building movie is Gran Bolito, in which she kills her neighbours and turns them into soap. Since many of her neighbours are men in drag, including Max Von Sydow, it’s a pretty bizarre affair…

  17. Of course you were. No offense meant, none taken. You just go through life thinking these things only happen at a distance, and then when it takes place in such close proximity… Never heard of Gran Bolito, but you’re right, it sounds pretty damn bizarre.

  18. The director, Mauro Bolognini, has had a long and often distinguished career — this is one of his oddities.

  19. Bolognini is another director deserving of “Shadowplay” retrospection. His La Notte Brava, scripted by Pasolini was quite the deal back in the 60’s. He also did a great fluffy comedy, Arabella with Virna Lisi, that I reccomend.

  20. David Wingrove has a substantial collection of Bologninis, which he can translate, so I hope to get further into this distinctive oeuvre. There are a few subtitled ones available too.

  21. I don’t know a lot about Leaud’s personal life. What exactly did he do to his landlady.

  22. He physically attacked her. He’s quite paranoid, and has been given to collecting his feces and saving them in bottles.

    No, I am not making this up.

    On a trip to Los Angeles a number of years ago, Bill Krohn picked him up at the airport and Leaud announced that before anything else — even going to his hotel — he MUST be taken to the nearest prostitute in order to have sex. Bill managed to talk him out of it.

  23. Okay…He is crazy.

    I always wondered why his character in ”La Chinoise” was so convincing and believable, now I know why.

    Still he’s a great actor and as long as the landlady got compensation and as long as it doesn’t affect his work, I don’t think I have complaints. And also the fact that I don’t have to know him to see and admire his films.

  24. Well, his behaviour to his landlady doesn’t stop me enjoying his films, but I don’t think compensation is enough. He should give her the next major role he’s offered, let her play it instead. And he should have to collect the rent from his neighbours.

  25. “…collecting his feces, and saving them in bottles”. That’s one neat trick. Depending on the bottle, of course. And that whole thing with the prostitute, I’m reminded of Dino in Kiss Me Stupid (who had to have it once a day, or else the ensuing migraine).

  26. I bet he uses whisky miniatures. He’s that good.

  27. I suppose it all depends on the consistency of….oh, for goodness sake, is there nothing I won’t discuss on the Internet?

  28. A funnel and/or blender may have to be used too. I suppose if M. Leaud had beaten his landlady with some faeces (maybe while shouting “Mange!” like a jaded Pasolinian powermonger) then it would have been the coup de grace.

    But is it really such a strange hobby? Sometimes I look at my DVD seasons of 24 and wonder if I’ve got boxes of the same stuff lovingly displayed, only stuff I’ve paid money for instead of – ahem – ‘produced’ myself.

  29. I wonder if Leaud alphabeticises his collection?

  30. But how can you possibly tell what files under A or B, as opposed to a R or a Q.

    I wonder what Godard or Truffaut thought about this(if they knew that is).

  31. Point 1) Answer: Instinct!

    Point 2) It would have made a great new episode of the Antoine Doinel series. Les Quatres Cents Poo.

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