Nikos Papatakis is a controversial director that has been known more for his role as a financer and co-producer of Jean Genet first and solely film Un chant d’amour, and John Cassavetes’ Shadows.
Always fighting for the freedom of oppressed people, Papatakis was part of a group of French intellectuals that included Sartre, Prevert, Genet and Breton.
There’s a lot of stories to tell about his life: married to actress Anouk Aimée first and Olga Karlatos later; he ran a Cabaret in Paris in which he helped to launch the careers of Juliette Greco and Marcel Marceau (Tous les désespoirs sont permis, Fayard publishing 2003, his autobiographical novel).
Always involved in politics as an activist; he was pro Algeria liberation, and he also fought for the Greek cause, against the Colonels’ regime.
His movies reflects this involvement of course, and they are always like a political manifesto and statement.
Living in a decadent estate in the country, Michele and Marie-Louise are sisters, working as housemaids for an elder couple on the verge of bankruptcy.
They have not been paid for three years, and their employers have left them alone for a while to take care of the huge mansion. Suddenly the two come back before the expected date, with their daughter. Mr Lapeyre is the father of the woman, while Mrs Lapeyre is his second wife. The girl has refused to marry, for unknown reasons, creating disconcert in her parents, that want to get rid of the decaying estate once and for all; while her supposed to be future husband is going to come soon bringing along some potential acquirers.
But Michele and Marie-Louise have already started their own plan to sabotage the sale. They have nothing, they have not been paid and there’s no place in which they could go, except the very same in which they grew up. The young woman has given them the use and the ownership of part of the estate, as a compensation for their fidelity; but the Lapeyre are conspiring to annul the donation.
While the time pass, the situation gets from bad to worse, with the two, acting like wild cats and showing no respect for the Lapeyre family, the same respect they were denied for such a long time.
The relationship between the two sisters is not clear, and is full of sexual innuendos; so is the affection of the young Lapeyre, that leads her to a love declaration to Michelle, claiming she has always been very fond of both of them, and her love to be the solely reason of the broken promise of marriage.
Once she is refused by Michelle, she’ll turn back to her boyfriend again, that in the meantime has arrived with the potential buyers.
In an escalation of hysteria and weird acts Michelle and Marie-Louise will go beyond a point of no return killing Mrs Lapeyre and the daughter.
Inspired by the famous case of the Papin sisters, that shocked France in the late 30’s; the movie is also stimulated by Jean Genet’s famous play Les Bonnes.
The case of the two sisters has always been cited in French left wing intellectual circles as a perfect example of the working class struggle. Papatakis makes it clear, the motivation of the sisters, that will lead them to murder, it’s their life condition; the humiliations they had to suffer, exploited in every way by their employers, that are ready to get rid of them, once they don’t need them anymore. It’s the typical situation of the workers everywhere, specially in the early decades of last century, when Communist party and intellectuals were trying to emancipate the workforces, inciting them to fight for their rights.
There are no good characters here helping the poor, even the young daughter has a second purpose. She cannot reveal her parents the lesbian love for Michelle, and she’s scared of her own feelings, approaching the girl in the wrong way, with presents and promises. It’s another manner to exploit someone else, pretend to love, while in this case the sentiment is only a selfish way to be satisfied, since it’s not mutual. Michelle has feelings only for her sister, even if we don’t know until which point their relationship has grown outside the common one between two sisters. As Marx would say, the two sisters have became murderers, because mankind is made by the context he lives in.
Shot in a beautiful black and white, Papatakis’ direction is not invasive of the story. It’s functional and stagey, while showing here and there nice camera movements and a nice editing of close ups of objects that reflects the decaying state of the property and the minds of the two sisters as well.
The movie is truly effective, a sense of hysteria is created by the continuous screams and the discomforting cacophonic score. It gets under the skin of the viewer, crawling slowly, leaving him perplexed and with a strong feel of uneasiness. The last shot of the film, in which the survivors of the massacre are staring at the camera silently, is daring from a technical point of view and menacing as a storytelling trick.
Screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963, sponsored by Andrè Malraux (it was initially banned), the film divided the audience, and some complained about the political approach and the use of violence.
Part of the Gaumont a la demande program, the film is now available on a digital media.
While not restored nor in the video, neither in the audio, the film has been digitally re-mastered from a poor print source. Scratches and specks are evident specially in the reels’ change, with two or three evident jumps during the film. Hiss and pops affects an otherwise strong rendering of the mono audio.
Gallic major company Gaumont decided to open its vaults like Warner and Columbia, but their choice is a winner. While they didn’t put any effort in restoration, their DVDs are not burned in house but properly pressed ones, in this case the use of a DVD 9, for an 88 min. long film comes as a pleasant surprise; an encoding at an higher bit rate has been possible because of this. The DVD is housed in a mini Amaray case, with a nice, classy presentation, that makes the whole series an instant collectible. French audio track only is available, but another winning choice from Gamount is the use of French subtitles, that could be useful for those not so familiar with the language. The cover states a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the movie is actually 1.66:1.
Olga Karlatos stars as Galai, an actress involved with her director, Hamdias, as artistically as sentimentally. The two are shooting a movie about torture; in the specific the tortures inflicted to women fighting the French army in Algeria’s war for freedom. Galai and Hamdias are also members of a terrorist group that doesn’t share anymore their vision and purpose.
Galai, left alone by Hamdias, is daily listening at the tapes he left with the instructions to carry on working on her role.
Hamdias claims that she must completely identified herself with the victims of torture, even with painful self inflicted wounds, like cigarettes’ burns and electrocutions. The woman undertakes the task, as she goes around hiding from the secret services and looking for new investors to complete the film.
She’ll be forced to experience awful humiliations from her opponents as well from her supporters.
She does everything for the cause, but mostly for the love of her man, to protect him from a possible assassination planned by the government and green lighted also from their very own faction.
While showing part of the film to possible financiers, high class left oriented, she’ll be accused of pornography and betrayal and savagely struck; the project is doomed and Galai and Hamdias are both hopeless; soon the latter will meet his tragic fate.
Showed at first Paris Film Festival in 1975, the film was highly criticized and ravaged by both critic and audience for the use of explicit, graphic violence.
Trying to produce something against the employ of torture, Papatakis obtained the opposite result. It’s common in Cinema history, specially when such outrageous scenes are used like in this case; many directors have been misunderstood, like Jacopetti, Deodato, Pasolini, Peckinpah. At first could seem foolish to set aside such different artists and personalities, but all of them, were trying to make their point using violence as a media to tell a message. We are not going to enter here in a debate if their significance was right or wrong, or who was the best. The thing they have in common is that all of them succeeded to cause a stir because of their approach and the use of strong images. Something that seems almost ridiculous nowadays, when Real TV or Broadcast News show war live, executions, killings of innocent people and mass murders.
History is going to tell us which one was honest and who acted with good will; and sometimes will be restored the value of the ones accused to exploit violence only for a commercial purpose (like in the Cannibal Holocaust case, that in spite of its grotesque title and gruesome scenes, still remains an ante litteram j’accuse of what modern media journalism would became later).
Misunderstood and deluded, Papatakis almost retired from filmmaking for more than ten years.
It is obvious that to accuse Papatakis to be dishonest, is a blind assertion; if it was only for his constant battle against regimes of any kind.
If the movie fails in some cases it is not, because the torture scenes are gratuitous or made in a way to cause uproars to be exploited for commercial purposes; it’s his heavy political message and a style, that didn’t age well and that maybe was already surpassed at the time of the movie initial release. It’s the style of political dramas and manifestos of the 60’s coming straight from the 68 movement and class struggle; Francesco Maselli’s Lettera aperta ad un giornale della sera, or Godard’s works being some of the best examples. The movie it’s much more interesting when it digs in the mind of Galai, suspended between fiction and reality, confused by the events and led only by the single real thing that count for her: love.
Unconditioned love is an extreme mean of torture, maybe even more painful than the factual one; and is also the solely device to defeat greed, and class differences. She will proclaim at one point during a dinner “I love him, don’t you understand?”; and the astonished left wing audience will not be able to understand, and their reaction to the violence they were exposed (a scene of the movie Hamdias is shooting in which Galai is raped from some French soldiers with a bottle during an interrogation) it will be violence as well. Brutality is the only response people has when can’t understand situations or other individuals of different culture and heritage.
Cruelty can be defeated with tolerance and comprehension, if it doesn’t work the only mean will be terroristic actions. Papatakis makes a crystalline clear statement here: the actions of a terroristic movement are justified by the events and by a right fight for freedom. Another point of discomfort for the audience of the mid 70’s dealing with daily exposure to terroristic attacks all around the world.
Another interesting aspect of the film, it’s his political attack to everybody; its essential anarchist point of view. Papatakis political credo can be summarized as in the following. The right wing government is a regime using military to oppress people and to cover secret operations, spying on citizens to control their actions. The left wing opponents are nothing less even worse, secretly dealing with the others, secluded in their high class lounge, snob and convinced that they are the unique depositary of culture or what is right for the masses; they lost contact with the very same those; they can’t understand their needs anymore. Activists are fighting a war, but they are divided, they have different ambitions and can be corrupted by money or success in case they should achieve it. Artists sold their soul to business.
Galai has been asked to perform in a movie, only during the test, she’ll realize that it’s a pornographic venture masked as art. She will have to undress in front of a Bunuel’s movie poster, and while expert viewers will immediately recognize La phantome de la liberté; Galai will suffer the humiliation to be verbally assaulted by the producer, that consider like garbage Hamdias’ art and movies.
Love and fight seems to be for Papatakis the only ways to change society; but even those can probably lead to tragic end.
Bunuel is a source of inspiration for Papatakis, since the dinner and screening Galai attends later, very much reminds us of the dinners of Le charme decrete de la bourgeoise or the above mentioned title, even if Papatakis’ lacks the light grimace of Bunuel’s touch.
The movie had a difficult life and has been little seen, due to its explicit content and the mentioned shocking images. It was released in Italy under the title Tortura (Torture) in 1979, but vanished until now. According to some sources, the same occurred in France where the movie was released only in 2005. The DVD edition carries the logo Cult 70 and has been released by Mosaico Media. The image is 1.85:1, 4:3, and the master while a digital one, has been made from a beat up, worn out 35mm positive print, full of jumps, scratches, dirts and specks of any sort and kind. The only language is Italian and the extras are a meagre poster gallery. The edition has been limited to 999 units, each of one is individually numbered. While being probably a little more than a bootleg, it’s the only way to watch at the movie for the time being, since a DVD is not available even in France, where official distributor Shellac has a video on demand option on their site that should have a better source material in its original language. I’ve mailed Shellac with some questions and I’m waiting for an answer; an update of this post with further information will be available soon.
Nikos Papatakis passed way December 2010. He was a less prominent figure in French cinema than other more celebrated directors and artists.
Trying to defeat the establishment, he immersed in the depths of the human soul, where sunk are desires and instincts that can be exploited in the wrong way by the richer over the poorer. He always fought for his ideals, and his movies will remain as provocative and shocking as they were many years ago.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace