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La Tete contre les Murs (Head Against the Wall) was the first feature
directed by Georges Franju. Prior to that he made a dozen shot features
documentaries most remarkable of them being his debut 1949th documentary
"Blood of the Beasts". Franju is mainly known for being the co-founder in
1936 of the French Film Archive.
Originally Head Against the Wall was the dream project of Jean-Pierre Mocky, who made a screenplay adaptation of the novel by Herve Bazin and invited Franju to direct it. With Franju came the rest of the cast, namely: Pierre Brasseur, Paul Meurisse and Charles Aznavour, who proved here that he not only can sing, but act also, and how!
The main character of the film François (Jean-Pierre Mocky) is a troubled young man whose main occupation in life is motor-cross racing and whose mother had recently committed suicide. The only glimpse of light in his life is Stephanie (Anouk Aimee). Since the tragic death of his mother he finds it especially difficult to live with his despotic father Mr. Gerane. The tension between them comes too far resulting in François being sent to a Mental Hospital by his father, under a false medical report. Here we come to the second main theme of the film (the first being father-son, in fact generations conflict) which is sanity behind the insanity, sanity in the world of the insane. Entering this world François finds a friend Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour) who is like him has little to do with the place they are in. He's a kind of a very sad day-dreamer who simply wants to get free from Hospital's surroundings and constant control of a kind of a substitute for his father, it's director - Dr. Valmont (Pierre Brasseur) and peacefully live somewhere by the seaside. Together with François they are beginning to make plans to escape. 7/10
La tête contre les murs (AKA: The Keepers/Head Against the Wall) is
directed by Georges Franju and adapted to screenplay by Jean-Pierre
Mocky from the book written by Herve Bazin. It stars Mocky, Pierre
Brasseur, Paul Meurisse, Anouk Aimée, Charles Aznavour and Jean
Galland. Music is by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Eugen
François Gérane (Mocky) is seen as a loose cannon by his father and finds himself committed to a mental asylum. Within the walls he finds two doctors who have very different ideas on how to administer psychiatric care. Struggling to keep hold of his sanity, François finds solace in a friendship with fellow patient Heurtevent (Aznavour) and the visits he receives from Stéphanie (Aimée). But will François ever get out? And if so will his sanity be intact?
Jean-Pierre Mocky had initially planned to direct the film himself, but Franju was brought in and it proved to be a superb meeting of minds. Mocky's youthful zest and grasp of the Gérane character's predicament marries up beautifully with Franju's hauntingly poetic leanings.
In core essence the narrative is about the inadequacies of psychiatric care at that period in time, with a clash of ideals between two doctors acting as the axis. The story is actually based on fact, the author of the novel, Herve Bazin, really having been sectioned by his own family. This adds a harrowing air of realism to proceedings, and with Franju firmly cloaking the film with a disquiet atmosphere, the results often feel like being part of some feverish nightmare.
This is what it sounds like when doves fly!
Technically the pic comes close to being a tour de force, the crisp black and white photography magnificently emphasising Franju's eye for off-kilter details. There's is much grim imagery on show, where weird models made by the patients and the hospital cemetery prove particularly eerie. The hospital itself is cold on the inside with chessboard flooring holding the weight of lifeless looking walls. Exterior of the building is ominous, especially at night where it's transformed into a Gothic place of secrets never to be told.
Some scenes stay embedded in the mind, for better or worse as it happens. A suicide, a violent attack, an escape attempt through a burning field, the two doctors arguing about the ethics of their beliefs in front of a cage full of beautiful doves, the reoccurring shots of the poor patients in their surroundings, or the devastating noir finale; both in visual excellence and story denouement, the film consistently arrests your attention. Jarre's musical score is eccentric in the extreme, fluctuating between being creepy, jolly, wistful or just plain weird, it's perfectly at one with the material on the page. While the cast all give quality performances, especially Aznavour. Great film making, smart, challenging and daring. 8/10
The Masters of Cinema DVD release is a beautiful restored print doing justice to Franju and Schüfftan's skills, and the 48 page booklet is most impressive. Unfortunately the extras really don't add up to much. Two videos of interviews with Mocky and Aznavour taken in 2008 add up to just over 13 minutes, with the Aznavour one only 4 minutes and hardly about the film really! The Mocky interview is excellent, some real insights into the making of the film, his thoughts on the pic's importance, and some frightening revelations during filming. But at 9 minutes in run time you can't help but be annoyed there wasn't considerably more of that interview.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I would not label this movie "nouvelle vague" because it would be
pejorative to describe that way a movie so harrowing ,so disturbing,so
madly beautiful.Georges Franju 's hero is a sane young man,absolutely
normal,he's a misfit only for his bourgeois father and the latter's
desire for respectability.Sure,he leads a wild life,but when he's with
his friend Stephanie,he reveals his longing for tenderness and
love,this love that eludes him since he lost his mother,in mysterious
circumstances,maybe because of her husband's harshness. So,the hero is
not allowed to exist anymore;the best way to get rid of him is an
insane asylum.Here,no possible dialogue with the shrink(Pierre
Brasseur):the deal is done,all was arranged in advance with his father.
In this appalling place,he meets another patient (Charles Aznavour's
best role) who places his trust in another shrink(Paul Meurisse):this
therapist is a much more open one,who treats his patients as human
beings,and who gets good results. Franju's genius explodes
everywhere:the brutal kidnapping with these cars rushing in the
night,heralding the unbearably violent last scene,one of the more
desperate I know;the asylum with its patients,turning round like lions
in a cage;Aznavour's failed escape attempt and his suicide.Sometimes a
light shines in this darkness:Stephanie (Marvelous Anouk Aimée)comes
and her luminous beauty brightens up this hell on earth;A singer in the
church with an angel's face (Edith Scob,
the heroine of "les yeux sans visages")breaks into a canticle and hell turns into some kind of paradise. Compared to "la tête contre les murs","les quatre cents coups" seems gentle and nice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The place: An institution for the mentally-disturbed. There 25-year old
François is sent, at the bidding of his father. For him the young man, who,
apart from moto-cross racing, has no regular occupation, is simply a
failure, and it can be suspected that he manipulated the admission of the
son with the help of a falsified report of the family doctor, just to get
rid of him.
This institution is a dead end, a place, which one cannot leave any more, however much obvious it is that one is not mentally-disturbed. Escape attempts must fail inevitably, as the senior consultant's thugs never fail to recapture the runaways. The senior consultant is a devil in disguise, the institution a hell on earth.
But it is doubtful whether the outside world is much better. François finally does succeed in fleeing, but only to be absorbed by the Paris underworld. His only hope is Stéphanie, the first girl in his life, who shows true feelings to him. But it is precisely because he puts his trust in her that he rushes headlong towards ruin: the thugs get to seize him on the stairway that leads to Stéphanie's flat.
Another section is mentioned in the film, in which the patients might get healed by the help of modern methods. But the prospect to be transferred there is close to zero, and this hopelessness leads to resignation and even suicide. Humans are like ships on the sea of life, but they go different ways, as one of the characters points out just before he hangs himself: Either they are led by other humans, or they are led by nobody and therefore doomed.
François seems to have experienced the same lack of leadership throughout his life. His mother died when he was a child, obviously driven into death by his father. Changing relationships with women never gave him the support he craved for. Only Stéphanie represents something like an enlightening figure to him. But it's too late. Nobody can stop him on his way to the precipice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
La Tête Contre les Murs is an odd mixture of film genres. It begins
with our hero Gérane riding his motorbike across wasteland on the
outskirts of Paris. He seems to be rebel without a cause, two thirds
James Dean and one third Marlon Brando. But, we learn, he's a
twenty-five year old who refuses to settle down to bourgeois french
life. There's a strange "decadent" scene on a river boat where the
middle classes throw off the restrictions of everyday life and dance
the Charleston. Gérane needs money to make good on gambling debts and
is caught stealing from his father's desk. Held at gunpoint by his
father (they don't get on) he is committed to a psychiatric
hospital/lunatic asylum. The rest of the film deals with his life at
the hospital and his attempts to escape.
The early part of the film is now discarded except for the visits of Stéphanie who Gérane met in the opening scene and who now seems inexplicably attached to him. The film takes a cursory interest in the mental state of Gérane and whether he's actually ill. It contrasts two psychiatric methods, humane and inhumane, mostly through tired dialogue between two doctors, but isn't quite a searing indictment of mental health treatment. It seems to be going to talk about patriarchy and social repression but doesn't really get anywhere with that either. The film is confused and sometimes dull, but it has a couple of redeeming features.
Although it is difficult to believe this rather flat, grey film was shot by Schüfftan, it is occasionally visually striking. An ambulance drives out from an avenue of trees whose foliage looks like a huge heart in the twilight. In a billiard hall the punters watch in an agony of expectation as a ball rolls ,endlessly it seems, around the holes on a roulette table. These visual flourishes are emphasised by odd clashing musical accompaniment from Maurice Jarre. Often the music is loud and intrusively in opposition to the content of a scene. It often expresses dread through clangs and drones. There is jaunty piano in the depths of the night and twangy banjo at a funeral. This gives La Tête Contre les Murs the atmosphere of Hammer Horror film at times,the sense that the ordinary conceals some disturbing unknown. Unfortunately this is not enough to rescue a film that doesn't seem to know what it's purpose is and which at times is very clumsily put together.
If a film is hard to find and directed by an interesting director, this
does not automatically make it a masterpiece. "La Tête Contre les Murs"
is mostly heavy going, talky, and often tedious. The film is nicely
shot in black & white, but Maurice Jarre's score adds little to the
experience. A sluggishly paced film with few memorable moments.
Mocky, Brasseur and Meurisse are certainly assets to this project. Fans of Charles Aznavour can see him shortly before his great breakthrough in "Shoot the Piano Player". He is quite good here as well. Anouk Aimée is fine too, soon to make an impression in "La Dolce Vita".
"La Tête" is on DVD finally, so the curious can see for themselves. Just OK, not some great lost masterwork.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With hindsight this can be seen as Franju's dress rehearsal for his classic Les Yeux sans visage inasmuch as Pierre Brasseur plays a doctor and both Anouk Aimee and Edith Scob are on hand. Jean-Pierre Mocky - now a prolific director with his own cinema - adapted the novel by Herve Bazin and wrote himself a fine central role as a troubled young man struggling to cope with the loss of his mother, unable to relate to his father and finding release of sorts via a motor bike and a sympathetic girl (Aimee). Appallingly the father 'controls' what he sees as a wayward youth by having him incarcerated in a mental hospital in which two doctors (Brasseur and Paul Meurisse) echo the conflict between father and son by conflicting over methods of treatment. Mocky befriends another patient who suffers from epilepsy (Charles Aznavour) and dreams of escape. As another commenter has said it would be monstrous to tar this great film with the brush of that bad joke Nouvelle Vague which was just exploiting the drool glands of international pseuds. Released in 1959 this shows the Godards and Truffauts what phoneys they were.
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