The Forgotten: The Phantom of Puberty

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So, Luis Buñuel had a couples of sons, one of whom, Juan Luis Buñuel, worked as his assistant director from 1960, before going on to a directing career of his own. So, is he Jacques to his father's Maurice Tourneur, a worthy successor, or is he another Kinji Fukasaku II?

On the strength of Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse (At the Meeting with Joyous Death), sometimes known, fatuously, as Expulsion of the Devil, there's a talent worthy of further exploration. This 1973 drama behaves like a stereotypical restrained arthouse drama, but charts a story beginning in territory familiar to anybody who has read accounts of poltergeist activity, before heading for more uncharted terrain.

Don Luis Buñuel would probably never have troubled himself with as straightforward a set-up, and indeed his unique sensibility might have rendered him simply incapable of attacking any story as simply as his son does. But the idea of a no-frills, melodrama-free account of a slowly developing paranormal crisis is a fascinating one. American and British directors would most likely be tempted to stray into Gothic territory, exploiting creepy angles and expressionistic lighting, or over-inflate everything to absurdity, as in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's enjoyable Poltergeist. Buñuel Jr. presents his yarn with an admirable lack of showbiz hyperbole, convincing us of the credibility of the country house setting, the resident family (illustrator husband, feminist author mother, teenage daughter, young son) before he introduces objects which move by themselves and strange, deceitful views seen in mirrors and keyholes.

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The film's first act details the slow escalation of unpleasant incidents centering around the fourteen-year-old daughter (Yasmine Dahm), whose burgeoning sexuality and teenage frustration may be causing her to psychically act out in an increasingly violent way. When a family friend is attacked by a refrigerator and hurled from a window (all presented "realistically" and without anything smacking of special effects or fancy technique) a TV crew takes an interest in the possible news story.

Arriving in a van, they include Gérard Depardieu as a Shaggy-lookalike sound recordist, but no talking dog is present. The casual camaraderie and bickering of film crews is well evoked.

The team set up in the now-vacated house. Parapsychology buffs realize that the removal of the teenager should quiet the psychic activity, so we either worry the film is going to get dull or that it's going to take a big leap into fantasy. But then Dahm turns up, unexpectedly, which cues an escalation which does raise the film into a more hysterical and extreme realm than it's inhabited hitherto, but doesn't quite ruin the carefully-prepared tone of naturalism. And despite the appearance of a priest (Claude Dauphin, President of Earth in Barbarella: salute him!), the pathetic English title Expulsion of the Devil remains wholly inaccurate. Exorcism is powerless against sexuality, and Buñuel II is faithful to his father's atheistic spirit.

The movie can't honestly be called surreal, but it does use the unexplained in a way that parallels the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock: the central strange occurrences are never explained, and other odd phenomena intrude, such as a grotty old piece of rope which keeps turning up in different places, apparently signifying some maleficent force. While the film leans hard towards the poltergeistic idea of teenage psychokinetic powers, perhaps wielded unconsciously like a Creature from the Id, there are dark hints of powers from beyond the grave. But they remain only unsettling hints.

Ultimately, asides from the creditable seriousness with which it treats unexplained but oft-reported phenomena, the movie may not have a lot to say, and what it does say may have a lot to do with a rather conservative fear of female sexuality (unless, as is just about possible, the film can be read as a celebration of violence and family break-up). But it's nicely crafted, with a concentration on deadpan moments of creeping unease rather than artificial shock or suspense, and Buñuel's use of chirruping cicadas and birdsong compares favorably to those strange yet meticulously colored atmospheres which suffuse the films of his father.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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  • IA

    I think Bunuel the younger also directed several episodes of a Fantomas TV series, along with Claude Chabrol. It seems unobtainable but I’ve heard good things about it.

  • IA

    I stand corrected—the series is available on amazon.de. But no subtitles, alas.

  • David Cairns

    Yep, I heard about that one. The idea of a Fantomas TV show is quite alluring, and those are some ambitious choices as director. I hope it lives up to its potential, and I hope someday we can see it in translation.

  • Movieyana

    The Fantômas TV show is one that I have been hunting for a long time. Lets hope it will be available here too.

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