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Head Against the Wall  
Georges Franju
1959 || 95 mins

Francois (Jean-Pierre Mocky, who also wrote the adaptation of Hervé Bazin’s novel) is a French rebel-without-a-cause. He rides around on his motorbike in a leather jacket, goes to beatnik clubs and has casual relationships with girls like Stephanie (Anouk Aimee). He spurns his wealthy lawyer father, who catches him stealing his money and burning some important legal documents. Determined to teach him a lesson, Francois’ father has him locked up in a mental institution under the supervision of the hard-line Dr. Varmont (Pierre Brasseur). Inside, Francois makes friends with another patient named Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour), who, like him, dreams of escape. Together, they make a break for freedom…

see also articles on:
Top 10 Films by Lesser Known Directors || Georges Franju Profile || French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Franju’s first feature film, unlike his better known Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face, 1960), is not a horror story – at least not a horror story of the blood and gore and mad scientist variety. It is, however, the stuff of nightmares. Francois is neither mad nor particularly dangerous, but certainly foolhardy in thinking he can defy authority figures like his lawyer father and the psychiatrist Dr. Varmont. Like most of us, Francois takes his freedom for granted, until it is taken away from him. Only then does he discover how defenceless the individual can be when pitted against the system and those charged with the task of keeping it in place. “It is my responsibility to protect society from men like these,” Dr, Varmont informs a colleague. But who exactly is being protected and from what?

The visiting Dr. Emery has a more humanitarian approach. Unlike Varmont, he believes in the possibility of rehabilitation. In his institution he provides a far more inviting environment for his patients, reasoning that a more sympathetic approach
is more likely to heal the mentally disturbed. Heurtevent (a fine performance from Charles Aznavour) pleads with Emery to take him on as a patient. But the doctor regretfully doesn’t have the space – a circumstance that will have tragic consequences later. Under the circumstances it is no wonder that the desperate take the only course left open to them, but there are more than just outer walls to surmount if they are to find the peace they long for.

Ultimately what makes the film so extraordinarily memorable is not the compassionate message, compelling though it may be, but the otherworldly atmosphere conjured up by Franju in a succession of haunting images: the train that chugs through the forest, the Rappaccini-like greenhouse, the escape across burning stubble fields, the dream-like gambling den whose inhabitants seem just as stony and absent, if not more so, than the statue-like patients at the hospital who suddenly animate and come to life when they join hands and march in a circle. This is a world where darkness is always encroaching, where even lovers talk in sombre whispers, and where death is always close at hand. It’s there in the cemetery scene, in the epileptic’s gruesome suicide, in the odd zombie-like manner of the players in the gambling den, in the feeling – as Francois is being pulled down the stairs of his lover’s apartment – of being buried alive.

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