Fantastique!

On Film / The Daily — Oct 25, 2018
Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950)

It’s scary movie season, so naturally, lists of favorites are appearing all over. Two of the most ambitious come from Slant and IndieWire, both of them running to a hundred titles and accompanied by succinct arguments for each of their respective selections. While we carry on reveling in all that terrifies us on through Halloween night, another somewhat thematically adjacent series is running at BFI Southbank in London through November. Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema takes its title from the literary genre with roots that reach as far back as the Middle Ages. The fantastique may incorporate elements of horror, but the emphasis is less on fear than on the confrontation between the natural and the supernatural, scary or not. In cinema, the fantastique can bleed into science fiction and fantasy, and the BFI’s series ranges from René Clair’s innovative trickery in the mid-1920s on through Lucile Hadžihalilović’s 2004 feminist fable Innocence.

One title in the series does appear on both Slant’s and IndieWire’s lists, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), in which a surgeon preys on young women to harvest their skin in order to restore the disfigured face of his daughter. At Slant, Fernando F. Croce writes that “an unforgettable portrait of subverted normalcy emerges—one where angelic doves and grisly hounds, obsessive love and appalling violence, the gruesome and the poetic, are all perpetually leaking into one another.” For Christian Blauvelt at IndieWire, this is “a horror movie in the guise of a twisted fairy tale, right down to its tinkly, child-like Maurice Jarre score.” In 2015, Eyes Without a Face landed high on Justine Smith’s list of her twenty favorite French horror films, a feature that ran at the now sadly defunct publication Movie Mezzanine. “Harrowing and disturbing,” Smith wrote, “the film is also well ahead of its time in terms of its visual effects—especially in its surgery sequences, which are excruciatingly convincing even today.”

Smith put another title from the BFI series on that list, Jean Epstein’s 1928 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Fall of the House of Usher, which “ranks among the most poetic horror films ever made.” Slant cofounder Ed Gonzalez adds that “Epstein affects Rorschach-like chiaroscuro, every image a dense, sludgy viscera, a looking glass held up to the audience and characters, daring us to pass through.”

While admired by many for his work in the fantastique genre throughout the 1970s, Jean Rollin appears on neither Slant’s nor IndieWire’s list—but he’s represented twice on Smith’s. The BFI will be screening The Iron Rose (1973), in which a couple wander into a graveyard to make out and then discover that they can’t make it back out again. “A sort of low-brow version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the psychological implications of their predicament send them into a tailspin of sex, loss, and terror,” wrote Smith.


The centerpiece of both the BFI series and the Institut Français’s Jean Cocteau retrospective, currently running in London through November 18, is the new restoration of Orpheus (1950), a reimagining of the myth that sends a poet into the underworld of the dead. For BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, it’s “surely his greatest movie.” Andrew notes that critic Gilbert Adair “applauded the film for being like no other (‘Oh, the magic!’), while Ray Durgnat wrote that it gripped ‘like a bondage corset’—it’s that rich and strange.” Sight & Sound has posted a review that the great screenwriter, novelist, and critic Gavin Lambert wrote in 1950 for the Monthly Film Bulletin in which he predicted that Orpheus’s “importance in the future will be as great as any of the other major films of the last ten years or more.” And celebrating the re-release in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw notes that it “has the mystery and elasticity of a dream, and all the farcical comic horror of chancing across the intricate contents of the Blessed Virgin’s lingerie collection.”

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