La Tête Contre les Murs (Georges Franju / France, 1959):
(Head Against the Wall)

"Is it a hospital? Is it a prison?" asks the young misfit in the ward, slowly awakening to the nightmare. Long before he’s sent to the asylum, the leather-jacketed biker (Jean-Pierre Mocky) is already bumping into the walls of alienation, getting involved with local hoods and burning his stern father’s documents, running in circles even as he motor-crosses up and down hills. Social and political imbalances are to be swiftly washed out of the bourgeoisie’s hair, "wild beasts in any society must be rendered harmless," the head of the psychiatric hospital (Pierre Brasseur) sees to that. Situated on a tranquil countryside with a cemetery and piles of mangled cars in the back, the institute is adorned with bricked columns and checkerboard floors and filled with black uniforms contrasted with white straitjackets -- the sinister edifices of Georges Franju’s documentaries (one of the cracked military relics from Hôtel des Invalides is among the patients) rolled into an exposé out of Kafka and Foucault. The debate is between old and new medical guards, yet Franju complicates the split: The progressive doctor is played by Paul Meurisse with a whiff of villainous oiliness left over from Les Diaboliques, while Brasseur’s reactionary overseer is an unbending pragmatist who sees himself as civilization’s protector and its prisoner. (The difference between sinners and patients, he tells a priest, is that Hell comes only later to sinners.) Charles Aznavour recounting his dreams of sailing into freedom (a stalled boat in the beginning serves as teen hangout, complete with a jukebox), Anouk Aimée in her trenchcoats emerging out of the darkness, the burning meadows Mocky dashes through in his escape -- valuable visions of tenebrous imprisonment, filmed by Eugen Schüfftan in what could be called clinical noir. "Un film inspiré" (JLG), the kind in which Edith Scob materializes like Saint Dymphna in the church choir to present the same porcelain face that Franju would crumble the following year. Music by Maurice Jarre. With Jean Galland, Jean Ozenne, Thomy Bourdelle, Rudy Lenoir, Roger Legris, and Henri San Juan. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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