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Monday, 10 November 2008

Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1968)

Here's something of an oddity in various respects. It's a horror anthology based on Edgar Allan Poe stories but they're not the usual ones: Metzergenstein, William Wilson and Toby Dammit. It's European, but not a Hammer or Amicus film, being made by French company Les Films Marceau. The three segments are directed by different directors rather than just one, and they're hardly names generally associated with the horror genre at all: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. The stars are multi-national, but include English speaking actors dubbed into French.

The first story is Vadim's: made the same year as Barbarella, featuring the same actress, his wife Jane Fonda and using what appears to be the same costumers. The story is undated and set in a fictional Europe that would fit in the middle ages if not for the wild and flamboyant costumes. Fonda is Frederique, the Countess of Metzengerstein, and she's well described early on as a 'pretty Caligula'. Decadence is very much the order of the day and she indulges in whatever she can get her hands on, and given that she's the absolute ruler of the region, that means anything and everything.

The only person who doesn't jump at her word is her neighbour, cousin and sworn enemy: the Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played bizarrely by Fonda's brother Peter. Their families had feuded for years but they had never met until by accident the Countess steps into one of his traps and quickly falling in love. However he spurns her advances and in petulant response she has the stable containing his beloved horse Prince burned to the ground. What she hadn't counted on is that the Baron would rush headlong into the inferno in an attempt to save Prince, only to die in the attempt, leaving her with a hollow and bizarrely life changing victory.

Quite what Vadim was aiming at here I really don't know. What it comes across as is an attempt to make his wife look as gorgeous on screen as possible, which is hardly surprising given that he made a habit of this with all his many gorgeous wives. She does look good but the mysterious black horse that becomes her constant companion after the stable incident looks even better. There's certainly a supernatural flavour to the piece but is no focus or resolution and just fades out. Very disappointing.

William Wilson is Louis Malle's contribution to the film, and it's better than Vadim's, even though it begins with a long string of jagged edits. A man rushes into a Catholic church to emphatically confess that he had killed a man, not even knowing how because he isn't a Catholic. He's the William Wilson of the title, played by Alain Delon, and he's a sadistic little brat even as a child in military school, dangling a fellow student into a vat of live rats for fun. He seems to exercise complete control over the other students, but then a nemesis arrives: another boy with the same presence to him and with exactly the same name: William Wilson.

His progression through life follows the same pattern. Wherever he goes, from military school to medical school to the army, he runs the show, setting up elaborate tableaux to exercise his sadistic lusts in front of his fellows and winning through without much effort. That's until the other William Wilson shows up, of course, which he does unceasingly, always apparently out of nowhere and always at just the wrong moment. The final straw comes when he's beaten Brigitte Bardot at cards and is slaking his lust on her with a cane, only for nemesis Wilson to arrive and expose him as a cheat. He takes the matters into his own hands and the results are hardly a surprise to us but are arrived at nicely.

I'd read that only the final segment, Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit was worth watching, but there's much to enjoy in William Wilson too. Toby Dammit though is unquestionably the piece de resistance here but it's not the only thing worth of mention. William Wilson may be a little too long but it holds the interest and Delon and Bardot produce decent work. Louis Malle was always an inconsistent director, with his films ranging from pointlessness to genius, but this is not one of the worst pictures in his filmography.

On the other hand, Fellini is fast becoming one of my favourites and while there are always going to be successes and failures, I haven't seen anything he's done that is less than magnetic viewing. He is an unparalleled visual stylist and purveyor of the surreal, the decadent and the outre and he's on top form on those fronts here from moment one when English actor Toby Dammit, played by English actor Terence Stamp arrives at the airport in Rome to make the first Catholic western.

There really isn't a plot to this segment, at least not in the traditional sense. From what I can work out, Dammit is a self destructive prototype for the punk era, flouting convention and either raging against the world or trying to escape from it. After admitting in a claustrophobic TV interview that he doesn't believe in God, he points out that he does believe in the devil, not in the traditional Catholic form but as a freaky little girl in white who plagues the periphery of his vision. She's played by Marina Yaru, in her only film appearance, and she's highly memorable.

God is watching Toby's headlong plunge into self destruction, through debauched living, and in a moment of privacy at a surreal Italian Oscars ceremony, gives him an opportunity for salvation, promising to be with him always. When he rejects this offer outright his plunge becomes inexorable and we follow him in a madcap rush through mostly deserted Italian streets in a brand new Ferrari to his doom. Very white and alternately angelic and psychotic, but always magnetic, Stamp's performance could easily be a major influence on Heath Ledger's Joker. I'll find that out soon enough with The Dark Knight coming to second run theatres.

Stamp is astoundingly good here, which is possibly why everyone seems to put down Fonda and Delon and the other actors in earlier segments. Whether they're good or not ceases to really be the issue: none are in the same class as Stamp this time out. Fellini knows precisely how to use him too and this forty minute segment is a wild ride that feels like it's over in five minutes, unfolding with the insane chronology of dreamtime. When Fellini turns it on, it's impossible not to watch in passive astonishment what he conjures up on the screen for us, and he turns it on here turning this into a overwhelming dervish dance.

There are few sets, all used memorably with a fluid camera. Each has its own colour and tone, the tone and surreality progressively darkening and becoming more psychotic as they run on. The arrival in the airport sets the calibre high with impeccable choreoraphy providing rapid fire switching of focus. What seems like hundreds of extras appear to get about two seconds of camera time each, which is enough for them to stamp something unique onto the screen, no pun intended. Then we switch to the road and a scene full of surreal reflections that reminds of the arrival in Rome in Roma as the filmmakers wax lyrical and a passing gypsy woman refuses to read his palm. The TV interview has Toby the seated centre of attention as everything else moves constantly around him in a dance of technology. The Italian Oscars ceremony, set in some sort of historic ruin, is where things get truly bizarre and Toby flutters on the brink, only to escape in his new Ferrari on a high speed search for destruction. What a rush!

It's amazing cinema, no doubt, but something to see more than just once. So much happens in so short a time that I'm sure I missed plenty, but I saw enough to stun me and it's hard to focus on one thing to highlight. The choreography is amazing, but so is the use of light, reflection, sound, mist, pace and apparently everything else. Highlights for me were the use of light in a Roman square, the lowering of a street lamp turning the stone square into the stage for a supernatural spotlight; the vital roar of the Ferrari and the pauses between its scream as Toby turns or temporarily stops; the otherwordly mist that he rushes through; the use of an escalator as stage prop in the airport; the women at the Oscars ceremony, iconic yet unrecognisable. So much to praise, so little time. I need to see this again.

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