La Tête contre les murs (Masters of Cinema) Review

The debut feature of director Georges Franju is a compelling look into the treatment of mental illness. The film comes to DVD in the UK via the Masters of Cinema series.

Like Eyes Without a Face, director Georges Franju’s best known feature film and the one which he made directly afterward, La Tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall) is introduced with a maniacal piece of music from Maurice Jarre. It accompanies a prologue to the picture’s main action which, on its own, helps to prove Godard’s assertion that Franju was particularly adept at creating memorable scenes rather than shots. Pounding, nervous drum sounds are heard against the image of a motorcycle rider navigating the grassy hills of the countryside near Paris before he recklessly comes close to running over a young boy and gets scolded for his lack of care. The motocross superstar is François Géranes (Jean-Pierre Mocky) and his initially critical new acquaintance is Stéphanie (Anouk Aimée). She’s the sister of a friend, sent to deliver bad news. Géranes owes a substantial gambling debt which must be paid but which he lacks the funds to settle. Géranes also will soon be involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric institution. Rather than a multi-layered character study or a piece of cinema fantastique in line with Franju’s Judex or Eyes Without a Face, this film, his debut feature, slides modestly into social realism mixed with the odd occurrence of those beautiful white doves Franju liked so much.

Along the way, various moments manage to provoke the very recognition in the viewer which somehow proves you’re one of the sane or “cured” specimens, popcorn or other delicious snack in hand, who need not worry about the consequences which come with forced detention in an asylum. The confrontation with his father which gets François committed is an early indicator of the film’s wrenching but scattered strength, particularly on subsequent viewings after that relationship has been fleshed out a little. There’s an epileptic seizure and worse for poor Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour). A conversation between Drs. Varmont (Pierre Brasseur, forever sinister and impossible to trust for viewers of Eyes Without a Face) and Emery (Paul Meurisse) over what’s really the best approach for these incarcerated lunatics, or “patients,” if you will, forms the crux of much of the film’s subject matter. (Varmont early on berates an intern for referring to them as lunatics but in a more relaxed setting he uses the same word he’d previously forbade.) Another sequence not easily erased happens near the very end and involves François, Stéphanie, a staircase, and Eugen Shuftan’s resolute lighting. From Quai des brumes to Eyes Without a Face and The Hustler, Shuftan really must be recognized as one of the true masters of black and white cinematography.

If inclined, the ideal viewer for La Tête contre les murs will focus intensely on the film’s themes beyond its somewhat flat surface. He or she will sidestep hopes for intricate patterns and bows in lieu of a visual poetry familiar from Franju’s work. Dimension of character and plot and the transition of such will be forgotten to instead appreciate stuttering questions concerning the treatment of the mentally ill and the presumed mentally ill. This will, it follows, encourage the flaws to fade and the points of interest to be heightened. Ignoring outside questions as to characters’ pasts and futures and remaining neutral on the allotment of time given to Heurtevent or Emery or Varmont or even Stéphanie seems beneficial. This sort of unrefined yet ultimately sympathetic reading seems deserved to Franju and is, I believe, the preferred approach in order to appreciate the film beyond a typical analysis of the merits.

The readiness to admire La Tête contre les mur is certainly there. It’s a film easily given a pass despite any lingering reservations about the cinematic institutional concerns like level of coherence and enjoyment. In other words, this isn’t quite a fun film or a wholly enjoyable one like Franju’s other readily available efforts. We’re instead left with largely undeveloped characters who do and say rather uninteresting things in the midst of a much larger, bold-faced issue in society’s endless carousel of problems. That’s still an endorsement, to be sure, but a cautious one. La Tête contre les mur fails in enough ways that it remarkably transcends the conventional opinion in favor of an auteurist-friendly evaluation which might then deem the film an early Franju triumph supported by an interesting and marketable cast of lovely French faces (also including a brief appearance by Franju favorite Edith Scob). The film is, one could say, a nice mess of idea over execution, of maxim before medium.

Even the exposing of mental health facilities can feel like road previously tread to the point of disinterest. Have you seen Fuller’s Shock Corridor? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? The Snake Pit? Girl, Interrupted, even? Me too. We already know things are not ideal at these institutions, partly out of necessity and partly out of a lack of care from the public, and nothing comes as much of a surprise any longer. These points in Franju’s film and Mocky’s adaptation of the novel by Hervé Bazin often feel too standard and lacking in the degree of provocation. But had the picture gone way over the top in terms of emotion and corresponding infusion of anger in the viewer, we could easily accuse it of being, like Shock Corridor, too pulpy or overly romantic in its pursuit of change. By simply refining things down to resemble reality, Franju and Mocky instead face a charge of the film losing a step over time, of its impact no longer conveying the degree of trouble it perhaps should due to how subtle the hysteria is.

While the plotting of La Tête contre les murs is clumsy and undisciplined, the overall impact comes not from how well one scene or point transitions into the next but as a collection of unanswered questions about a topic few want to discuss. These are inquiries which linger far beyond the end of the film and which do remain, as Mocky somewhat overstates in his interview on the disc, relevant even today. It’s not ever going to be politically popular to demand reform for the treatment of the mentally ill. For most, this is an easy topic to ignore, and even when discussion is aroused the viewpoints, as shown by the film’s two doctors, can vary significantly. The delicate balance with which La Tête contre les murs approaches these underlying ideas and then provokes the viewer to consider them without being fed any other position beyond the deficiencies of the system in place is quite remarkable. Conflict becomes the central effect, leaving the viewer unsure what to make of virtually every one of the primary characters and many of the situations with which they’re involved. There is no unlocking of these problems. As presented so affectingly in the film, mental health is not an absolute.

François at one point tells Stéphanie that the worst thing about being in the psychiatric hospital is the contagiousness. The idea that, to put it somewhat crudely, insanity at every turn breeds only further insanity is one brimming with equal parts pessimism and good sense. It seems to reveal a policy which essentially guarantees that even if you’re the frayed picture of stability upon entering the asylum, you won’t be after spending some time there and being treated like you’re ill. We’ve seen similar claims made in other films, like Cuckoo’s Nest and Shock Corridor, that the institutional cure is really one built around defeating individualism. It may not be quite that simple, and to the credit of La Tête contre les murs, the various problems associated with mental illness are fully acknowledged as being complex, with the inadequacy of the system in place as the only certainty.

The Disc

This region-free PAL release of La Tête contre les murs, spine number 83, finds the dedicated folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label once again doing admirable work. It is the film’s first DVD release in the UK, with no rival editions yet in North America.

The image on this dual-layered disc has very thin black bars running along the top and bottom of the frame, making it closer to the proper 1.37:1 aspect ratio than the far more commonly used 1.33:1. The difference is minimal but such a practice illustrates the label’s commitment to providing as accurate and meticulously put together a release as possible. Though the transfer is generally strong – progressive, little to no damage, mild grain without excessive noise – the contrast can be imperfect and some scenes look a touch soft (while others are impressively sharp). There’s also an occasion or two when the frame wobbles and even a brief instance around the 21-minute mark when it becomes noticeably unstable. Small occurrences like those are more obvious because of how well most of the film appears, and it should be reiterated that there are no truly significant issues in the transfer. If a less than ideal contrast is the worst complaint to make about how a 50-year-old film looks, I think the viewer’s all right.

Audio comes in the form of a French mono track. It has a light crackle throughout most of the film, but nothing outrageous or distracting. Maurice Jarre’s score sounds pleasantly commanding when needed and the dialogue exits clearly, at a consistent volume. Subtitles are optional and in English with a white-colored font.

Extra features are perhaps on the light side, at least when considering just what’s on the disc. Star and screenwriter Jean-Pierre Mocky speaks in a 2008 interview (9:34) about his considerable involvement with the film. While only Georges Franju is credited as director, Mocky mentions that he took over when Franju fell ill during filming. He seems determined to be recognized as an equal or even greater contributor to the film as Franju, and his pride for it is obvious. Mocky also guides (from off-camera) the other interview on the disc, a short piece (4:46) with co-star Charles Aznavour which is of limited value in relation to La Tête contre les murs. The original French trailer (1:55) is here too.

More enlightening are the contents of the included 48-page booklet. A lengthy piece (18 pages of text) by Raymond Durgnat, taken from his 1968 book Franju, begins with the author acknowledging many of the film’s deficiencies before praising it as a “minor classic.” I really admired the honesty and knowledge in Durgnat’s writing and this piece alone, conveniently available for reading at any time and in any place for those who pick up this release, feels preferable to having had, for example, a feature length commentary on the disc. And there’s still more to pore through in the booklet, including a glowing review (4 pages of text) of the film by Jean-Luc Godard published in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 90, December 1958. Additionally, various interviews with director Georges Franju from 1959 to 1977 were compiled for the 10 pages which make up “On La Tête contre les murs.” The remaining pages consist mostly of photos and stills from the movie plus the usual listing of film and DVD credits.

Final Thoughts

Georges Franju, co-founder of the French Cinematheque with Henri Langlois and director of short documentaries like “Le sang des bêtes,” found himself making his feature debut in his late forties with La Tête contre les mur. The filmmaker of beautifully constructed pieces of magic and/or illusion became involved after star and screenwriter Jean-Pierre Mocky had to turn directing duties over to someone else out of financial necessity. Dassin, Camus, and Resnais all didn’t work out so the somewhat unlikely solution became Franju. When compared against Eyes Without a Face or the other two Franju films released on DVD by Masters of Cinema (Judex and Nuits rouges), this will seem quite different and, in my opinion, less thrilling. La Tête contre les mur seems conceived with ambition but its effect is only modest on the surface. The anger felt in the details gets conveyed with a whisper. Those patient and receptive enough to listen will be the ones most likely to appreciate the film. You certainly couldn’t hope for a much better release than this, including a good transfer and a thick booklet brimming with interesting material.

clydefro jones

Updated: Sep 16, 2009

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