Thursday, April 5, 2012

La Redevance Du Fantôme (1965)

Cambridge 1850. Divinities student Fanning (Stéphane Fey) spends the time he isn't studying (which seems to be most of the time) with long walks across the countryside. On one of these walks, the young man comes upon a seemingly uninhabited, locked house that develops a strange power over him. Even though Fanning does not believe in ghosts or hauntings, he is convinced something supernatural is surrounding the house, an opinion that only rises in intensity once he realizes how little the people in the area like to talk about it.

Fanning becomes so fascinated by the place that he begins to visit it regularly to stare at it. One evening, the student observes an old gentleman (Francois Vibert) nearing the house, bowing to it, and stepping inside. Fanning's can't see much of what's going on inside, but he hears the clinking of coins before the old man steps out again.

Fanning manages to "accidentally" meet the man again at the local graveyard, but his attempt to get his story only provides him with the man's name, Captain Diamond, and some rather peculiar pronouncements concerning the existence of ghosts.

Now completely fascinated by the mystery before him, Fanning starts pestering his landlady (Reine Courtois) about the man and the house, but at first, she is reluctant to speak of it, uncharacteristically fearful of something. Only when Fanning insists through an impressive display of passive aggression does the landlady tell her tale. Captain Diamond, so she says, once had a young daughter (Marie Laforet) who died (or just fainted and disappeared) when he cursed her after finding her with her lover. But over the following year, the ghost of Diamond's daughter returned to her former home, making it slowly impossible for the Captain to stay there, cutting him off from renting rooms away and farming, his only sources of income. Somehow, the Captain and his dead daughter came to an agreement. He would leave the house, and she would pay him a sum in gold four times a year as some sort of rent.

Having heard this story, Fanning understandably continues to be fascinated, and begins to worm his way far enough into the old man's trust to be allowed to take a look inside the house himself.

Robert Enrico's TV movie adaptation of a Henry James story is an interesting experiment in first building a mood and then not exactly deconstructing it, but at the very least turning it around. The film spends its first half expertly constructing the mood of a classic ghost story - there's the old dark house, some highly atmospheric nature shots, a protagonist slowly unravelling a horrible secret of the past, and a secret that may sound slightly ridiculous but does not feel ridiculous in the least thanks to the way the story is told. Then, the film shifts into the realm of strange psychology, where the outside story becomes a self-created expression of the internal struggles of the story's characters, while still keeping elements of the unexplained, the inexplicable, and the ambiguous. Depending on one's tastes, La Redevance then is not necessarily a ghost story anymore - though there sure are ghosts, especially of the characters' pasts, and even some supernatural agency - but a strange tale that circles ideas of guilt and forgiveness, trying to express difficult and highly ambiguous mental states through metaphors its characters create all by themselves in the real world.

This being a French movie from 1965, Enrico also adds a sense of romance that may not exactly have been in James's sense, but enhances the sense of ambiguous (the characters' motives are never explained, wide open to interpretation, and perhaps even unknowable) tragedy of the film's ending.

Apart from being wonderfully ambiguous and strange to its core (if a little slow and a little long), La Redevance is also as much of a visual feast as a film made on a mid-60s TV budget can be. Even though he has to work with only a handful of locations and sets, Enrico makes fantastic, at times even hypnotic, use of his black and white pictures, loading every shot with as much meaning and/or mood as he can get away with, which turns out to be a lot. The director also makes excellent use of the soundtrack - the minimalist music of François de Roubaix, as well as some subtle shifts in sound effects. The only flaw I see on the sound side is that the film's final emotional scene uses a horribly overwrought arrangement of "Katy Cruel" sung by Marie Laforet where something much simpler would have fit the emotional aspects of the script and Laforet's acting much better.

But, unlike certain videogamers, I'm generally not the sort of person who condemns the whole of an impressive work for a flaw in its final five minutes, so I'm happy to recommend this one to the more patient among you.


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