Some films, and filmmakers, just can't catch the right kind of breaks as far as international reputation goes. A very smart United States distributor circa 1959 or '60 or so, recognizing this film's potential to be marketed as a kind of companion piece to Truffaut's then red-hot Les quatre-cent coups, could have brought it to the art-house circuit and made a fair profit, and introduced a new (as far as features were concerned) and exciting French director to stateside cinephiles. But that didn't happen, and for years Georges Franju's debut feature, La tête contre les murs, has lived in our imagination as a tantalizing must-see, and at the same time somewhat subordinate to his better-known, more "fantastic" films, such as Les yeux sans visage and his playful rethink of Judex.
Franju was long a well-established director of shorts (his best known was the horrific yet compassionate abbatoir expose Le sang des betes, 1949), and approaching 50 when he made this picture. The film, based on a novel by Herve Bazin (no relation) was largely instigated by its young star Jean-Pierre Mocky, who also wrote the adaptation and was an uncredited co-producer. The story is reasonably simple: Francois Gérane (Mocky), a young man splitting the difference between delinquent and misunderstood, tries his lawyer father's patience to the extent that he has his son institutionalized. (He does this by burning, for no good reason, a pile of papers in his father's office, a bit of near-surrealist provocation. As the critic Raymond Durgnat observed, this "act of sadism" has "a visionary quality, and, accordingly, he seems insane.") Locked away, Francois encounters several of the commonplaces of the cinematic asylum narrative. These include a nasty, iron fisted authority figure, Dr. Varmont, played by Pierre Brasseur with pretty much the same serial-villain sinsterness that he will bring to Franju's next feature, which we'll get to in a bit. There's also the fellow inmate who's just too delicate for this world, the spectacularly-named Heurtevent (evoking a phrase meaning "to run against the wind"), played to perfection by Charles Aznavour. Finding some hope in his on-the-outside girlfriend (Anouk Aimee) and the potential ministrations of a more compassionate doctor (Paul Merurisse), François struggles to maintain his dignity and, yes, his sanity.
I've made this sound like a fairly standard story of its kind, and in its particulars, it is. What makes it play so beautifully, aside from the precision of the performances, is Franju's eerie command of atmosphere. When need be, it can be as stark and realistic as Truffaut's treatment of the horrible home for juveniles in the final quarter of Les quatre-cent coups. But when it pleases him, Franju gives things a little twists, injecting notes of strangeness, horror, the irrational. Whether it's the weird, eerily erotic gaze of a female inmate or a strange gathering of doves or a cityscape by night that seems as dank and claustrophobic as the asylum walls themselves, Franju's mastery and palpable adoration of effect is ever evident.
The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 U.K. disc of the film presents a superb transfer of the black-and-white cinematography. Its booklet contains Raymond Durgnat's 1968 appreciation of the film, from his long out-of-print book on Franju, as well as a '58 essay on the director by Jean-Luc Godard, and a piece by Franju himself on the making of this film. The video extras are short but engaging interviews with Mocky and Aznavour, and a trailer.
As for Franju himself, he became a kind of senior confrere of the nouvelle vague, but his American reputation took quite long to recover from his next film. That film was, of course, the sublime and harrowing Les yeux sans visage, starring Brasseur as an obsessive surgeon turned murderer, trying to restore the mutilated face of his beloved daughter. Replete with dark corridors and at least one very memorable dove, in its unscathed form its a perfect marriage of Cocteau and the grindhouse. But for this picture, alas, some smart United States distributor in the early '60s chopped it up, removed the poetics, threw an English soundtrack on it, and dumped it in said grindhouse market under the title The Horror Chamber of Doctor Faustus. Yeesh.