Fantasy films are not particularly popular in France. And it is a fact that big hits in the genre are scarce, Cocteau's version of "Beauty and the Beast", René Clair's "Beauty and the Devil", Jeunet and Caro's "The City of Lost Children" being nothing but exceptions which confirm the rule. Some attribute this country's relative disinterest in fantasy to the Cartesian nature of its people. Maybe so... but why then do French viewers turn into a triumph an English or an American movie like "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1,842,700) or "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (4,263,389) while they snub a Gallic counterpart such as "Cinéman" (297,882) or "Girl in his Pocket" (421,270). Likewise, to take one example among many, why are they so few to acclaim Jean-Pierre Mocky's "The Big Scare" (676,693) or worse, "Litan" (42,164) - yet two of his best films - whereas they flock to comedies like "Light-Fingered George" (2,371,855) and "The Big Wash" (2,111,923), good as they are? A phenomenon which also affects to various extents - such highly regarded directors as Claude Autant-Lara ("Marguerite of the Night"), Cedric Klapisch ("Maybe"), Jacques Demy ("Parking"), François Ozon ("Ricky") or Pierre Jolivet ("A Mere Mortal"). And even when it comes to a successful director like Luc Besson, he will attract only 279,139 viewers if his sci-fi opus is French-made ("Le dernier combat") whereas he will pack houses (7,696,667) provided his anticipation movie is English spoken and featuring American stars ("The Fifth Element"). All this to say that when Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe chose to adapt a fantastic short story for his first film effort he did not give himself the best possible chance. Even if, the author of "L'araignée d'eau", Marcel Béalu, is one of the masters of the literature of the fantastic. And despite the magnetic aura of the ultra sensual Elisabeth Wiener.
And yet this strange story of an entomology enthusiast who, while walking by the side of a pond, picks up a water strider and brings it home only to find it the next day metamorphosed into a beautiful naked girl never ceases to fascinate. This is mainly due to Verhaeghe's excellence at describing in pictures the intrusion of the impossible into everyday reality. At every minute of his film he indeed manages to find convincing equivalents to Béalu's words and not only do the filmmaker and the writer's respective worlds (written and visual) meet but they add up and enrich each other into the bargain. There is no denying that the film version abounds in assets, which makes the adaptation much more than just a carbon copy of the book : the creation of a stifling atmosphere (a remote village circa 1900 caught in the grip of at once a harsh winter and that of superstition and backwardness), amazing dreamlike sequences (the flight of the dead butterflies, the attack of the wild cats in the church), a very unsettling metamorphosis scene, the unbridled beauty of Elisabeth Wiener, as well as an interesting reflection on the dangers resulting from the regimentation of minds and its subsequent frustrations
Unfortunately all that was not enough to make this lost classic the hit it should have been. Only 12,900 people in Paris left the comfort of their well-organized home to dare go wrestle with the depths of their hidden being in the theaters showing the movie. Elisabeth Wiener did not become a star, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe did not become another Jean Pierre Jeunet (although he turned to television for which he made topnotch TV movies like "La controverse de Valladolid", "Jaurès, naissance d'un géant" or "En cas de malheur"). Whatever the case may be, his 1968 made masterpiece does exist and please, fantasy lovers, if you can dig out a video of it, feel free to... jump at the chance! You will not be disappointed.
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