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The Forgotten: Intimate Strangers

An escaped POW in Occupied France seeks to marry a stranger under a false identity, but is he walking into some kind of trap?
The writing team of Boileau and Narcejac penned the source novels for Les Diaboliques and Vertigo, and also collaborated with Franju on Eyes without a Face and Spotlight on a Murderer. Les Louves, a.k.a. Demoniac, is their second film, from 1957, an adaptation of their own novel. Unlike the Clouzot and Hitchcock films, it doesn't so much hinge upon a fantastic imposture unmasked towards the end, but it instead piles on secrets and intrigues until the viewer is both giddy and despondent (it's a bleak film, like all their thrillers).
The setting is France during the Occupation, and the movie begins with Joseph Kosma's ominous score imitating the scream of a POW camp siren. François Périer (from Cocteau's Orpheus) plays an escaped French soldier who takes his slain buddy's ID and finds himself impersonating the dead man in the house of his "war godmother" (Micheline Presle), a woman he had become engaged to by mail without the two ever meeting. Périer falls into this imposture without meaning to. He's not a bad guy. Or is he? And what kind of woman is she, really?
Soon, complications are piling up: under his previous name, Périer was suspected of murder. Under his new name, he's heir to a fortune. Presle has an attractive sister (Jeanne Moreau) who has suicidal tendencies, works as a medium, and seems to suspect the truth. The dead man has a blackmailing sister. The sister has a blackmailing fiancé. The chief of police is suspicious, as well he might be. About the only narrative element that doesn't cause our hero any real trouble is his German pursuers. It's the French you have to worry about, it seems. As the cast is whittled down by accident, suicide, murder or random military action, the tangled plot, rather than being winnowed down to a simpler dilemma, seems to get messier.
Our director is Luis Saslansky, an Argentinian emigré who brings the noir style popular in his native land to bear on the curfewed streets and shuttered homes of a small French town, before the action relocates to an isolated villa with high walls, and things get really dark.
It's all suitably intriguing, with a genuine melancholic quality, but what's it really about, and does it have anything to say about the period it's set in? The Occupation was a hard subject to talk about in France for many years, unless you were celebrating the Resistance, which is perhaps why the film makes a point of showing the French police in a sympathetic light (a tip from the pages of history that may be useful again: if your country turns Fascist, the cops will not be your friends). But Boileau-Narcejac don't even acknowledge the existence of the Underground, their French characters being too wrapped up in scheming against one another. It's possible that the film's avoidance of overt politics is a smokescreen disguising a profound disillusion.
One of the striking differences between the novel D'entre les morts and Hitchcock's film of it is that the novel's action is divided by the war: the heroine's fall immediately precedes that of France. A French version might have given the early scenes the misty, doom-laden romantic quality of the poetic realist school, ripping away the veil of fantasy in the second half: Carné replaced by Clouzot. Les Louves has more real bitterness than any of the team's other adaptations, by the end, death is to be longed for, to live is to be buried alive.
All the same, something doesn't quite add up in the movie. Maybe there are simply too many red herrings or, more likely, just not enough Jeanne Moreau. Though to see her conduct a seance is to see a forgotten dream come true: there just had to be a scene somewhere in cinema where Moreau talks to the dead, and this turns out to be it.*
*But see also Agatha Christie's The Last Seance, a 1987 TV play.
***
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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