Friday, March 14, 2008

La Tête Contre les Murs

Much of the framework of George Franju's 1959 madhouse picture La Tête Contre les Murs (Head Against the Wall) now seems overly familiar in the post-Cuckoo's Nest landscape. The rabble-rousing young hero who's committed because of anti-social behavior rather than any medically certifiable insanity and whose very presence in the institution represents an act of social commentary. The inflexible authority figure whose interests lie in the assertion of power rather than the welfare of the patients. The repeated attempts at escape. But where Franju's film differs is in the director's complete indifference to establishing the social order of the institution and defining the day-to-day life of its inmates, concerns which generally comprise the principal content of this type of picture. What we have instead is a series of lyrical segments involving his main character, Gérane (Jean-Pierre Mocky), in a romantic attachment with a regular visitor (Anouk Aimée) and a friendship with a clinically depressed inmate (Charles Aznavour in one of his first screen roles), offset with a run of surprising imagery with which Franju hints obliquely at the horror of confinement.

What grants the film its singular impact is chiefly the director's ability to conjure up any number of visual correlatives for the experience of the inmates. In one particularly striking scene, he films a group of patients holding hands and moving around in a circle. When they're forced to let go of each other's hands, they lose confidence and suddenly stop moving. Franju's camera fixes the inmates' faces, crippled with confusion and despair, before they're allowed to rejoin hands and continue their circling, resulting in a sequence alternately hopeful and horrifying and powerfully suggestive of the full range of experience felt by the confined patients.

While Gérane's interactions with his female visitor are largely constricted to benches, his friendship with Aznavour's melancholy patient is cemented through a series of movements around the hospital grounds (the inmates are given surprising freedom of mobility). In an odd recurring image, the two men ride a miniature train along a narrow track that cuts through the institution's fields, building a warm feeling of camaraderie and enjoying an approximation of a longed-for, but clearly unattainable, liberty. In Franju's conception of the experience of confinement, even the moments of tender lyricism are played against images of grizzly horror as when a church service with a haunting solo from pinch-faced Edith Scob segues into a suicide or when the film's romantic consummation gives way to the final seizure of the hero, filmed in overhead from the top of a staircase and brought home through the shock of a dramatic switch in lighting and the sudden surrounding of the hapless Gérane by a swarm of hospital attendants.

Less insistent on its social commentary than either Cuckoo's Nest or (articulating an entirely different set of concerns) Shock Corridor, La Tête nonetheless offers both a critique of bourgeois society and an interesting running dialogue on the social function of the mental hospital. From the start, Franju casts his hero as a figure of defiance. Son of a wealthy lawyer, expected to follow in his father's path, we first see the young man dangerously navigating an off-road course on his motorcycle behind the opening titles. When in short succession, he steals money from his father, burns an important legal brief and hits the older man, the latter responds by having him committed. Although Gérane's actions are not intended as a conscious critique of bourgeois society, but are instead expressive of the youthful rebellion common to young men of strict upbringing, the equation of non-conformism and insanity and the social implications of that equation nonetheless remain, despite their constant iterations in the years since Franju's film, a rather powerful set of conceits.

More interesting, perhaps, is a running debate on the proper function of the mental institution that passes between the inflexible head doctor, Varmont (Franju regular Pierre Brasseur) and the humanitarian-minded Dr. Emery (Paul Meurisse). For Varmont, the primary responsibility of the institution is the protection of society from the criminally insane, a function he fulfills by asserting his absolute power. Emery, concerned chiefly with rehabilitation, provides a far more inviting environment for his patients, reasoning that such a gentle approach is more likely to counter the effects of insanity. In the central exchange between the two doctors, shot against the backdrop of an outdoor aviary, with the birds straining at the boundaries of their cage (the metaphorical implications are clear), Varmont argues that it's far better to keep the mentally ill locked up than risk inflicting an imperfectly cured patient on society. Emery counters that it's preferable to attempt a re-integration of patients rather than to risk an inmate's death by keeping him locked up in inhumane circumstances. This running dialectic grounds the film in a recognizable social framework and offers, through Emery's perspective, an alternative to the horror experienced by the majority of the inmates. Of course, at least in the case of Gérane, it's Varmont's approach that wins out, an approach which forces the young man to repeatedly attempt a series of dangerous escapes, and, in a final moment - the imagery mirroring his initial entry to the institution, as he's driven once more through an ominous landscape and into the gates of the hospital - to acknowledge the inevitability of his own perpetual confinement.

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