Film Fantastique

Josette Day and Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast (1946)

Léa Mysius’s The Five Devils stars Adèle Exarchopoulos as a lifeguard at a local pool, the mother of a young daughter with a magically heightened sense of smell (Sally Dramé), and the former lover of her pyromaniac sister-in-law (Swala Emati). In March, Beatrice Loayza made this sophomore feature from Mysius (Ava) a New York Times Critic’s Pick, praising “the uncanny intrigues of the film, part queer love story, part supernatural psychodrama.” Tomorrow, The Five Devils will open Film Fantastique: Lust and Blood, a series of Halloweenish movies from France running Tuesdays through December 19 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York.

FIAF will follow The Five Devils with two irrefutable classics. “When it comes to ‘fairy-tale movies’—if such a genre exists as something other than a profit center for the Disney corporation—there is Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast [1946] and then there is everything else,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in 2011. “It is a safe bet that no one who surrenders to it at an impressionable age ever quite escapes the distinct and disturbing enchantments it sets in motion.”

Last year, O’Brien praised the work of Sybille Schmitz in Vampyr, the 1932 nightmare director Carl Theodor Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté shot on location outside Paris. Schmitz plays Léone, “a young woman fallen victim to the vampire Marguerite Chopin.” O’Brien notes that Schmitz’s “catastrophic final years, wracked by addiction and ending in suicide, provided the direct model for Fassbinder’s death-haunted Veronika Voss,” but in a sequence in Vampyre lasting barely two minutes, she “enacts, in almost mediumistic fashion, the mortal combat between desire and revulsion as Léone tries to resist the vampirism that has already infected her and that finally asserts its full power.”

Overall, the FIAF series is supercharged with female energy. “Psychologically rich, unobtrusively minimalist, at once admirably straightforward and slyly comic, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard [2008] is a lucid retelling and simultaneous explanation of Charles Perrault’s nastiest, most un-Disneyfiable nursery story,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 2010. “This gruesome account of a wealthy serial wife-killer (the most celebrated ogre this side of Shrek) picks up where other fairy tales end.”

In 2014, filmmaker David Cairns caught up with Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960), “a minor revelation.” Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg), a descendant of the vampire Millarca, takes a predatory interest in the woman (Elsa Martinelli) engaged to her cousin (Mel Ferrer). “By plundering freely from Cocteau,” wrote Cairns, “and doing so with some panache, Vadim surpasses his usual standard of titillation and serves up some haunting images, with much help from regular cinematographer Claude Renoir (yes, of that family), and anticipates a whole lot of developments in the European horror field.”

December begins with two features drawing on the folkloric legends sprung from the real life of Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious Hungarian countess accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and women between 1590 and 1610. In 2011, Eric Henderson, writing for Slant, found that Harry Kümel’s “sapphic, Eurotrash vampire drama” Daughters of Darkness (1971), starring Delphine Seyrig, “has less in common with the likes of Vampyros Lesbos than it does with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and [Radley Metzger’s] Score, to name two great and, to be more direct, intensely homophiliac debasements of the sanctity of heterosexual newlywed-lock.” With The Countess (2009), writer, director, and star Julie Delpy plays up the likely fabricated myth that Elizabeth bathed in the blood of sacrificed virgins in order to preserve her beauty.

The series wraps with Beauty and the Devil (1950), René Clair’s reimagining of Goethe’s Faust starring Michel Simon as Mephistopheles. When the film screened at the Brattle in 1954, Stephen R. Barnett, writing in the Harvard Crimson, found it “as sparkling and stimulating to the audience as it is subversive to the tragic moral dilemma that earlier Fausts enacted.” As for Simon, “merely the lascivious wink of his eye, coming devilishly through a heavy growth of beard, seems to epitomize just what author Clair had in mind.”

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