La tête contre les murs (The Keepers) started as the pet project of Jean-Pierre Mocky, who wrote the script (from Hervé Bazin’s novel) and cast the actors, including himself in the lead role as a bequiffed, leather-clad, motorcycling rebel who finds himself ‘imprisoned’ in a mental institution by his lawyer father. Although Mocky went on to become a prolific director himself, the respected documentarist and co-founder of the Cinématèque Française Georges Franju was hired to make the film, which was his feature debut.
François Gérane (Mocky) is a young rock’n’roller pitched against straight society, who refuses to find a steady job and drops out of art college because he is not interested in ‘methodical learning’ – a French James Dean for the Johnny Hallyday generation perhaps. To get rid of him, his authoritarian father has him committed to a mental hospital. That institution is far from a ‘Bedlam’, more a slow-paced country retreat, but what one patient calls a ‘cushy number’ is for the kicks-loving motocross rider François ‘a living death’. With François locked up, the film takes on a more languid pace, and in this way is very different from Hollywood films with a similar subject matter. It is without the melodrama of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) or the sensationalism of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). We are denied the gratuitous scenes of the other patients taking turns to show their idiosyncratic ailments that litter such Hollywood fare. The patients or inmates are largely subdued and rarely aggressive, lost in their own worlds unless encouraged to work together holding hands and walking in a circle – a child-like ‘Ring o’ Rosies’ game. But François is falling in love with his visitor Stéphanie (Anouk Aimée) and needs to get out…
As Michel Foucault wrote in Madness and Civilisation (1961), such houses of confinement were developed in the 17th century for those by whom society feels threatened (madness replacing leprosy in the popular imagination, he argues), an attitude still strongly felt in 1959, it seems. Although Dr Valmont (Pierre Brasseur) declares the hospital to have two functions – ‘to cure the insane and protect society’ – the debate is as to which is the more important. These two points of view are represented by Dr Valmont and Dr Emery. François and his friend Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour, brilliant in his award-winning screen debut) have the misfortune of being patients of the former.
The film is shot entirely on location but often seems slightly unreal. Franju typically – and certainly when teamed with cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (Quai des brumes, Lilith) – makes a film full of poetic and atmospheric images. Shots of motorbikes driving down poplar-lined lanes may not propel the narrative forward but certainly look stunning. Fellow patients carry doves for no apparent reason and ride on a mini-railway carrying them to and from their work details. The music by composer Maurice Jarre (the father of Jean-Michel at the beginning of his long film career) adds to this almost-strange atmosphere perfectly. Franju’s lyrical style adds to the film without ever dominating it or making it too whimsical. With the Gothic horror story of his next film, Franju (again with Schüfftan and Jarre) was freed to go much further stylistically to create his masterpiece and perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful film ever made – Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face.
See also Judex by the same director.