“A magnificent and strange film in which reason descends into madness, paradise into the depths of hell, and where love is painted with the colours of hate. […] Only the violence of the crime committed by the two heroines allows us to measure the atrocity of the invisible crime of which they themselves were victims”. So wrote Simone de Beauvoir of Les Abysses, a sulphurous film which marked the directorial debut of the unclassifiable Nico Papatakis (1918-2010). Of Greek and Ethiopian origin, in 1939 he settled in Paris where he frequented Sartre, Breton, Prévert and Jean Genet. He produced the latter’s only film, Un chant d’amour (1950), and also depicted him many years later in Les Équilibristes (1992). For his play Les Bonnes, Genet was inspired by a brutal news item, which had also caught the attention of Lacan and the surrealists: the case of the Papin sisters, two young maids who had slaughtered their mistress and her daughter in Mans in 1933. But when Papatakis decided to make a film of it, Genet refused his permission. So the director employed Jean Vauthier and reworked the events; in the film the two sisters work for a family of winemakers in the Bordeaux countryside whose business is failing and who have therefore decided to sell the property and sack their servants. Adopting “the surrealist idea that hysteria is not a pathology but a supreme form of expression” (René Prédal), the words and gestures of the two sisters (here played by the extraordinary Francine and Colette Bergé) are violently distorted, creating an oneiric and hallucinatory tone more typical of the theatre of the absurd. The circular camera movements accompany the increasing hate and violence to producing a visionary depiction of the event, eschewing consolatory Manicheanism in favour of the kind of provocative extremism that can also be seen in other films by Papatakis.
Boycotted by the selection committee of the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, Les Abysses gained the support of the Minister of Culture André Malraux, but generated a furious polemic and was defended by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Breton, and Genet himself.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Jean Vauthier. F.: Jean-Michel Boussaguet. M.: Denise de Casabianca, Pascale Laverrière, Edwige Bernard. Mus.: Pierre Barbaud. Int.: Francine Bergé (Michèle), Colette Bergé (Marie-Louise), Pascale de Boysson (Elisabeth Lapeyre), Colette Régis (Gertrude Lapeyre), Paul Bonifas (André Lapeyre), Jean-Louis Le Goff (Philippe), Lise Daubigny (Madeleine). Prod.: Lenox Films. DCP. D.: 92’. Bn.
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