The Little Theatre of Georges Franju

Georges Franju finished his long career making short features for French TV, of which the last, appropriately enough, is THE LAST MELODRAMA, scripted by his actor friend Pierre Brasseur, the mad surgeon in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and featuring the essential Edith Scob from that film. It deals with a touring theatre troupe, an extended family,

At first, the film seems flat and lifeless. The major stylistic element is the zoom lens, jerked around for crude reframings. But the conjunction of theatre and “real life” (which, as we all know, is less real than theatre) in Brasseur’s script begins to allow Franju opportunities to flex his stiff imaginative muscles. Scob, dining al fresco with the troupers, goes into a monologue from La Dame aux Camélias, and Franju shoots her against the painted backdrop of the little theatre-wagon, fades up piano music, and intermingles life and art.

The film is played contemporary, late seventies, though it seems barely credible that such a set of strolling players could exist in the age of punk (or, in the case of France, slightly gone-to-seed hippies) and Brasseur’s memories of such a scene surely date from the late twenties. But let’s agree not to care about that. The elderly often appear chronologically adrift to the not-yet-elderly, so we consider this a benefit we’re getting from the unusual treat of having a sixty-seven-year-old director (and Franju at 67 looked a bit like the animatronic zombie-skeletons in LIFEFORCE, so we should really think 87). This Billy Pilgrimesque unstuckness may also be why everyone except the wee boy seems to be playing a character of a different age from their actual one.

The film begins with an iris-out, so Georges isn’t exactly trying to be with-it. The iris is echoed a bit later, too:

The company make a last-minute switch from La Dame aux Camélias to Les Miserables, due to Grabo having just played CAMILLE on TV. The boy is dragged up as Cosette and evokes the kid in KILL, BABY, KILL!

The archaic world of the troupers is disturbed by a startlingly camp biker gang, anticipating THE NINTH CONFIGURATION by a year. Maybe old George has his finger on the pulse after all… or he has his finger on where the pulse would be, if there was in fact a pulse. The gang leader, in his vinyl bolero jacket, is hardly a wild angel. “What are you rebelling against?” “Je ne sais quoi.”

The trouble with the gags is they have too much screen time. In Fellini’s ROMA, the bike gang at the finish get basically nothing to do except ride their bikes loudly through the nocturnal streets, representing for the director the fact that “Rome is now full of people with whom I have nothing whatever in common.” Franju and Brasseur are even more gen-gapped (Brasseur, in fact, had been dead seven years), which means they’re not in a position to write lines or extract performances suited to these characters.

Old-stager Raymond Bussières brings the authenticity of his years to the role of the most senior thesp, and gives mt favourite of the uneven performance. Even he is acting at a whole different pitch and pace to those around him, but I think they should have adjusted to him, not the other way around. Mostly, Franju seems to be satisfied with whatever anyone does.

Oh, and then Juliette Mills turns up and burns the theatre down. The stage in flames does make a fitting pyre for Franju, even though he has another eight years to live. Reminds me of the burning screen in Nick Ray’s demented-swan-song, THE JANITOR. That, and the image of a man killed for real by a blank-firing gun (his heart) are the grace notes.

I’m glad I saw this but it illustrates more the weaknesses of late work than the strengths. It’s hard to say whether the bigger problem is the old director or the dead writer. As with MANK, having a screenwriter you can’t interrogate without using a planchette, and whom you admire too much to rewrite behind his dead back, is a bit of a millstone.

6 Responses to “The Little Theatre of Georges Franju”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    If you can find it, Raymond Durgnat’s paperback “Franju” published by the University of California Press is superb. Franju s with Meliville, Gremillion and Vecchiali one of the French cinema’s subtlest masters.

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I was always amazed that Franju’s career after Les yeux sans visage is so neglected. (Judex being the exception).

    I recently saw two of his other known features. The first one, “La tete contre les murs” written and starring Jean-Pierre Mocky is a great film, worthy of the asylum movie sub-genre (Shock Corridor, Shutter Island, The Cobweb, Titicut Follies among others). I also saw his adaptation of Therese Desqueroux which wasn’t as good but still interesting.

    Which of the other features are worth checking out?

  3. La Faute de’lAbbe Mouret is next, but not an altogether rewarding movie. It feels terribly stilted and uncertain. It’s also his first color film which doesn’t seem to inspire him greatly. The real; treasures are his pre feature era shorts which are all to a piece miracles of anarchic and surreal sentiment. Some of them are on youtube. There only match during the 50s era are Resnais’ shorts which are just better known.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Pleins Feux Sur L’Assssin with Kean-Louis Trintignant (The World’s Greatest Film Actor, IMO) is excellent and his adaptation of Cocteau’s Thomas The Imposter with Emmanuelle Riva, Edouard Dermithe and the very beautiful Fabrice Rouleau is heartbreakingly intense.

  5. Yes, I own the Durgnat Franju book in its UK imprint.

    I’ve seen Pleins Feux and it’s really good. Shadowman isn’t nearly as good as Judex but has some of the same Feuilladesque fun. I want to see the others.

    In addition, Franju is just about the world’s best maker of short documentaries and fiction, with not just the well-known Blood of the Beasts but also La Premiere Nuit, Le Grand Melies, Les Poussieres, Hotel des Invalides, all incredibly poetic.

  6. Michael Sloan Says:

    May one ask, Mr. Cairns, where you saw this? I didn’t realize it was available for streaming or did you resort to grey market? Been trying to run this one down for years now.

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