The films of Georges Franju are full of sleepwalkers, automatons, and prisoners. Oppressed stages of being reign over his characters, eclipsing psychology and even drama as signifiers for understanding his strange stories.
Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962), always on the verge of turning into Madame Bovary, or, more promisingly, La cérémonie (Chabrol, 1995) in terms of hatred, violence and acting out, repeatedly thwarts the desire to see poor Thérèse break out of her engagement, then break out of her marriage, then break out of domestic imprisonment, her husband's family, and the French countryside. Finally, she is freed in a Paris that seems no more free than the booze-addled, smoke-clouded bedroom she resigned herself to as a prisoner in her husband's estate.
Sympathy is downplayed for these wretches, who exhibit an awareness of their desire to be free that fails to encompass the oppressive regimes they live in: bourgeois society for Thérèse, and society in general for the biker-nihilist "hero" of Head Against the Walls (1959), who is declared insane by his influential father and kept in an asylum by an ambivalently rational but death-courting doctor. Like the confines of the asylum, there are the walls Thérèse and our biker see, those immediate limits to their happiness and freedom, but their hypnotized mind-states fail to perceive the greater walls beyond, ones that not only keep them imprisoned, but even go so far as to instill in their subjects the desire to escape their visible enclosures.
From the very beginning, Thérèse's voice-over and point of view tell of a woman who is secure in her belief in her own superiority to the threats around her, who can see the need to break free, who is smarter (or "wittier" as he husband calls it) than the rest. But she, like most of Franju's characters, is a sleepwalker, head down in a dream whose contents she thinks she has mastered but whose limits she fails to perceive. Even as obvious an offering as the pledge of life-long love from Anouk Aimée fails to knock our biker-nihilist out of his stupor, a stupor all the more dangerous because its symptoms are, like those of Thérèse, a sense of omniscience, false-distanciation, and false-individualism. The nightmare of Franju is that we are all stuck in this system that we think we can escape, yet the only escape is the one created for us by the nightmare itself. To wake up completely is impossible.
So is it that mesmerism—by society, by Franju's chosen genres—keeps our heroes and heroines unable to escape? Or is mesmerism the defense, even the escape itself? A process to regularize actions, to walk down hallways dreamily, under arcing tree branches harshly moonlit in the dead of night, without fear or dread, without a desire to break out and wake up? The atomic couple of Judex (1963) blissfully traipsing down the beach at that film's end, or Thérèse's supposed satisfaction with her release in Paris, are these really any kind of images of happiness, or wakefulness? Better the melancholy dream-walk of the young boy alone in the woods at the end of La première nuit (1958), turning away from the promise and disenchantment of his romantic dreams of the Paris metro; or even perhaps the screams of our biker-nihilist, a look of terror that hopefully suggests a rupture, a realization. A wakefulness that is so desperately desired, so desperately required. Only in Franju's documentaries, in the slaughterhouse State-of-the-World short Blood of the Beasts (1949) and the dark military whimsy and pessimism of Hôtel des Invalides (1952) does ones eyes seem fully open and awake, and the visions they see are terrible indeed.