Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Les créatures

 Under the Sign of Resnais

After so many back-to-back successes, Varda in 1965 with Les créatures [The Creatures] allowed herself a first film maudit. (The premiere dates of this film and Elsa la Rose are often listed as "1965," but the copyright on both reads 1966. Les créatures was produced by Mag Bodard's company, Parc Film.) A magnificent title, one that encompasses the sea-species of the island of Noirmoutier where the film takes place; the human-species that keeps colliding into one another like so many crabs in migration; and the figurine-avatars of the science-fictional board game played by Piccoli (here christened "Edgar Piccoli") and his mad opponent. Adding to the Resnais material is Pierre Barbaud's crazy score, which Varda explains in her 2012 video introduction was generated according to certain conditions set forth on a mainframe computer programmed in ALGOL.

Typically it will not do to synopsize a plot and call it a text. But the rapid change from one scene to the next constitutes the very fabric of Varda's film, just as it does with her Left Bank buddy Alain Resnais's Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour or La guerre est finie or — two years later — Je t'aime je t'aime. The last I checked there was hardly mass cinephiliac excitement or stimulation about this restoration of Les créatures in Criterion's Complete Varda box, but I believe it's because the picture has been so underseen, that is, difficult to see, until now. Piccoli and his wife Mylène (Catherine Deneuve) have gone on vacation to Noirmoutier — literally, "black monastery" — and the former, like Jack Palance with Brigitte Bardot riding shotgun in the Piccoli-starring Contempt, smashes up their convertible when he loses control of the car. This leaves Deneuve mute with the exception of the ability to utter a few feeble growls for the rest of the film, and results in the stigmatic crevasse running down Piccoli's brow. A shot of the zodiacal crab, though beyond its ominous signal I couldn't say much — I make up my astrology as I stumble along, just like astrology itself. Edgar reads Gérard Klein's 1958 novel Le gambit des étoiles [The Stars' Gambit]. A water-sign: Varda shoots the sea with an undercranked camera such that the sun-dappled water ripples and flows at an incredible clip, images from Piccoli's vantage atop his tower, where on the lower floors he proceeds penning a rather inchoate novel. All the townsfolk seem to have it out for him, down to the grocery market proprietress's sniveling daughter, Suzon, who smashes a wine bottle then claims it's because Edgar threw her a weird look. Two linen salesmen assault him and extort some dosh after he gets rooked into tearing their bedsheet in the scuffle. A fog-filled forest, foam at the tide, the treeline outside of Deneuve and Piccoli's property: on the parapet flanking its drawbridge Edgar discovers a dead black cat. The shopkeeper's daughters guide him to the nearby hotel's kitchen: the frame in an instant shifts from greyscale to a red filter, and Piccoli explodes: "Imbeciles! Savages! You think I killed the cat?!" He beats the men with the animal's corpse before the tint "turns off" and his rage subsides.

All the while, alien silver discs bearing strange patterns of holes are slipped in close-up into coat-pockets (of whom?) by a disembodied hand (whose?)...

Edgar leaves to bury the cat. He encounters Michèle (Eva Dahlbeck from Bergman; Les créatures is a Franco-Swedish co-production), the daughter of the hotel's owner, who asserts that the creature isn't hers. As Edgar examines the cadaver he discovers one of the discs taped onto the feline's belly.

Michèle fulfills a rendez-vous in the hotel lobby with an older gentleman; the infrequency of their meetings dissatisfies her. She: "I dreamed of a life that was all one piece." He: wants "unexpected, explosive things." Cut to Piccoli writing, repeating Dahlbeck's words. Is this film we're watching his own invention, brought to being on the fly? Cut to Piccoli on a marshy plateau, telling a white horse that he's writing a story about someone who can "control people from afar with a remote control device. But his power only lasts a minute." Following another red-tinted sequence (Michèle becomes sexually inflamed in the hotel dining room after fingering one of the silver discs), we move back into Edgar and Mylène's tower. Edgar: "Am I boring you with my creatures?" Deneuve rejoins that no, on the contrary — she's not feeling well because she's at the onset of pregnancy.

Suzon and her sister are the surreptitious slippers of the silver discs.

A man arrives with what appears to be a chesssboard.

Piccoli volunteers to enlist with the linen salesman — perhaps for research on how to properly conduct a break-in. He will control the remote. The crooks take off. The match begins: the townspeople are arranged like game-pieces on the board. "An honest battle." "I know everything. I enjoy destruction." "Mine moves my trap. Yours moves your characters." "The game of the creatures has begun. To move one square, push the corresponding button." Thus the two men 'intervene' in the 'real-world' actions of the islanders away from the game-board, positioning them into situations of conflict and harm.

Mylène, reading Une vieille maîtresse [An Aged Mistress, Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, 1851, later a Breillat film] kisses Edgar — he's awake, or asleep, before the game... Piccoli's power is purple-cast... His work of choice now is Lautréamont.

Piccoli shatters the control room after his opponent, whom he subsequently hurls from the balcony, makes a lascivious suggestion regarding Suzon.

"Yes, I'm back now darling. I'll get the doctor now." — "It's a boy."

Thus ends Les créatures. Varda tells us in her introduction that the film did not go over well, with one exception: Henri Langlois.


Other writing on Agnès Varda at Cinemasparagus:

La Pointe-Courte [1955]

Ô saisons ô châteaux [O Seasons, O Châteaux, 1957]

L'Opéra-Mouffe, carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard par une femme enceinte en 1958 [The Opéra-Mouffe: Diary Filmed on the rue Mouffetard in Paris by a Pregnant Woman in 1958, 1958]

Du côté de la Côte [Around the Côte, 1958]

Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald, ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) [The Fiancés of the Pont Mac Donald, or: (Beware of Dark Glasses), 1961]

Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962]

Le bonheur [Happiness, 1964]

Elsa la Rose [Elsa the Rose, 1966]

Les créatures [The Creatures, 1966]

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