“Rapture” is an utterly spellbinding French/American co-production from the mid-sixties that seems to have fallen through the cracks of film history until its recent re-discovery. Barely reviewed at the time, hardly remembered and never screened since its initial release this powerful neglected masterpiece only resurfaced after its now ailing, octogenarian British-born director John Guillerman contacted film historian Nick Redman with a view to seeing it restored for home release, citing the movie as his favourite out of all the films he’d ever directed in a career better known for its high profile Hollywood blockbuster spectacles from the fifties through to the eighties: movies such as “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959), the classic disaster movie “The Towering Inferno” (1974), the seventies summer spectacle remake of “King Kong” (1976) and the all-star Anthony Shaffer adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel “Death on the Nile” (1978) with Peter Ustinov in the first of his six outings as Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, are the big budget projects for which Guillerman once seemed destined to be remembered. But all that might well be about to change with the release of this beautiful-looking Blu-ray/DVD combo package from Eureka Entertainment …
“Rapture” scarcely seems like a film made by the same hand responsible for such expensive big billers as those just names, conceived as star vehicles for Hollywood’s elite and as well-made as many of them so often were. It’s a relatively cheap, black-and-white arthouse collaboration between French producer Christian Ferry and 20th Century Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck (made just after the period when the latter had given up control of the studio and was instead producing films independently in Europe prior to his return in 1963, during Fox’s tribulations over the production of “Cleopatra”), with a peculiarly heterogeneous cast made up of one veteran American Hollywood star, Mervin Douglas -- who’d played opposite Garbo and Joan Crawford in the 30s and 40s; a Swedish actress noted for her many appearances in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Gunnel Lindblom; and the Young Dean Stockwell -- who looks here like a handsome James Dean surrogate even when dressed in a 50s beatnik’s duffel coat.
The film’s virtues centre on its stunning monochrome cinemascope photography, which makes its French backdrop of the rugged coast of Brittany one of the main star attractions -- all imposing black granite cliff faces, violent, storm-lashed coastal seas, and lowering headlands circled by baying gulls; along with the strange, beguiling, haunted atmosphere this landscape helps to evoke so convincingly. With a mise-en-scène sourced from an offbeat combination of the influence of 19th century English literature and the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s, retrospectively this plays like an utterly original Guillermo del Toro-esque coming-of-age drama couched in the wild, romantic world of the Bronte sisters or Daphne du Maurier, but cinematically drawing on both the touching magical fairy tale-tinged lyricism of Val Lewton’s evocation of childhood trauma in “The Curse of the Cat People”(1944) and Bergman’s study of tortured adolescence and mental illness, solitude and patriarchal miscommunication essayed during his stark 1961 chamber piece “Through a Glass Darkly” … mixed with a dash of Bryan Forbes’ “Whistle Down the Wind”, also from 1961.
The rendering of the film’s subject matter brings together an even more diverse mixture of talents behind the screen than it places in front of it: based on the central premise of English author Phyllis Hastings’ novel ‘Rapture in my Rags’ (with its title inspired by a poem by English author and ghost story specialist Walter de la Mare), Stanley Mann’s screenplay adaptation was drawn from a treatment by Federico Fellini’s chief writing collaborator of the time, Ennio Flaiano (“La Strada” (1954), “Nights of Cabiria” (1957), “La Dolce Vita” (1960)), bringing a dash of Italian-flavoured romanticism to this realist fable in order no doubt to spice up the dourness and biting pessimism of the English variety. Accomplished French composer (Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “L'Immortelle”) and frequent presence on the soundtracks of François Truffaut’s movies Georges Delerue, also brings a beautiful melodic sweep to accompany the film’s striking cinematography, with a main cue that prefigures the elegiac mood captured by Pino Donaggio’s score for “Don’t Look Now”.
But embodying all of these varied qualities and placed squarely at the heart of the film there lies the utterly commanding, emotionally raw central performance of French actress Patricia Gozzi; a former child star (still only fifteen-years-old at the time of the film’s release) whose complete inhabitation of the central role of Agnes -- a waifish teenager on the cusp of adolescence, is both heartrending and entrancing. Agnes knows nothing of the world beyond her isolated rural home, thanks to the crippling emotional hang-ups of her embittered, patrician ex-judge father Frederick Larbaud (a forceful yet increasingly subtle performance by Mervin Douglas) -- who keeps her a virtual prisoner in this semi-threatening paradise where fantasy and reality have become hopelessly mixed up in her mind. The violence and unpredictably of the natural landscape surrounding the Larbaud farmhouse, dominated by raging seas and dangerous volcanic rock faces, mirrors the emotions of a woman-child attempting to deal with the forces of burgeoning adolescence and sexual awakening, without any knowledge of what is happening to her. With an old wartime concrete bunker as her hideaway refuge, she builds her own fairy-tale world out of half-memories of her missing mother using shards of broken mirror, seashells and old dolls. Her father chastises her for acting like a juvenile perpetually lost in the fantasies and games of childhood, but the limited lifestyle he has forced upon her will not allow her to grow up -- and this also seems to be his ultimate intention. At the top of the hill, near the squat slate farmhouse Agnes shares with her father and a young, blonde housekeeper, Karen (Gunnel Lindblom), is a mental asylum, looming there like a 19th century haunted house of the Gothic imagination in which silent women float about in the peaceful grounds like wistful sprites; a place which is constantly hanging over Agnes’s life like a threatening dark shadow that’s waiting to envelop her, too, for her increasingly odd behaviour.
Naturally, the trio live in a state of finely balanced emotional neuroticism and hysteria: Larbaud is forever secreted in his study where he obsessively churns out pamphlets and screeds on the meaning of the law that no-one wants to read, using a hand-cranked home-printing press -- hiding from the memory of the wife he once drove away with his jealousy; Karen meanwhile clandestinely smuggles a succession of men from the nearby village into her rooms at night through her bedroom window, to relieve the monotony of her isolated, lonely existence as Agnes’s keeper. And Agnes herself, suspended in a realm between the world of storybook tales from childhood and the lure of adulthood as represented by Karen’s nocturnal escapades (which can be heard in detail from her room next door), embarks upon a project to build her own faithful friend – a scarecrow constructed from her father’s old wedding suit, which is kept locked up in a trunk in the attic. Blackmailing Karen to help her access the forbidden relic, Agnes is discovered by her angry father while in the act of attempting to steal the suit; but he eventually relents and allows her to indulge herself in her pet project, revealing a kernel of tenderness remains behind the unforgiving, strict façade.
Here the amazing cinematography of Marcel Grignon, a DP not generally remembered for having made many distinguished films but who later worked with Walerian Borowczyk on “The Beast” (1975), plays with expressionistic light and shadow to create the monochrome atmosphere of fairy-tale Gothic which represents Agnes’s dark but playful imagination. An early scene in which she is seen cowering in a backroom parlour during her elder sister Geraldine’s (Sylvia Kay of “Wake in Fright”) crowded wedding reception, reveals an inability to cope with the modern world without anxiety and panic taking over; but when she spurns the intrusive and overzealous sexual advances of one of the guests (a young, gaunt-looking Christopher Sandford), it possibly awakens some form of sexual awareness in her that is soon to be sublimated in playful and creatively artistic endeavours. However, Agnes’s tendency to treat the scarecrow she subsequently builds like it’s a real person takes on a more troubling hue when her vivid imagination persuades her that an injured prisoner who has escaped from a crashed police van and taken refuge from a storm in the Larbauds’ woodshed, after stealing the old wedding suit to keep warm, is in fact her scarecrow suitor come to life!
That man is in reality a young sailor called Joseph (Dean Stockwell), who, inadvertently responsible for a Gendarme sustaining a critical injury to the head during his escape bid, is now being hunted by the French authorities. However, all three lonely occupants of the farmhouse become equally dependent on this visiting interloper, who himself is as much in need of support as they, needing something from each of them in return for his time and attention as they nurse him back to health then conspire to help him elude the law. Frederick wants a sympathetic ear and someone with whom he can discuss his detailed theories of punishment and rehabilitation; Karen wants a sexual partner who’s a bit more permanent than the one-night stands she’s had to make do with previously; and Agnes desperately needs her scarecrow-come-to-life to remain as her constant companion. A victim of circumstance, gentle Joseph genuinely attempts to placate the desires of all three in return for his sanctuary; but he is also drawn to the lure of the money kept locked in Frederick’s study desk-drawer. When his relationship with Karen is discovered by Agnes it unlocks a primal homicidal aggression in the adolescent that brings the sexual longing behind her fantasy revelries about living scarecrows fully into the open – causing an irrevocable change in the relationships in the house but also allowing the first hint of the possibility of a real adult relationship eventually being lived by Agnes.
The film manages to fully inhabit the wild, fantastical viewpoint of its young protagonist through a total representation of her seeming total synergy with a landscape that is at once sublimely beautiful and relentlessly primal; her desire and untamed passion live and breathe in the vertiginous granite rocks, wheeling seagulls and crashing waves. But not only does Guillermin frame some stunning scope shots in this awe-inspiring setting but Grignon’s camera itself is continuously used inventively to become the full embodiment of Agnes’s experience, spiralling in overhead shots when she contemplates the freedom of the seabirds airborne above her head, or portraying her claustrophobia and disorientation when she and Joseph later briefly attempt to make a life for themselves in Paris -- Agnes’s first encounter with city life – through a succession of slanting angles and handheld zooms which produce an anxious, nightmare image of industrialised urban life that’s almost as daunting as that which was envisioned by David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”. The camerawork and lighting throughout “Rapture” is some of the best ever captured for 1960s cinema -- making it all the more criminal that the film has gone unheralded for so long.
In animating the strange hinterland Agnes’s mentality occupies, caught between childhood and adulthood, the Gothic world of the imagination (with its shards of looking-glass that unlock repressed memories, and broken plastic dolls patched up with seashells from the shore) and the rugged natural geology and sparseness of the surrounding landscape formations, we’re made to feel totally bound up in acceptance of her unique viewpoint while also never being at all alienated from the equally sympathetically represented positions taken by the other characters, each one caught in their individual web of loneliness as the result of hidden traumas and misunderstandings which only emerge gradually through Joseph’s interactions with the trio. There’s only one aspect of the film that might prove troubling to a modern audience: namely the fact that Agnes is a fifteen-year-old girl and Joseph in his early-thirties, yet there is no shying away from the fact that their relationship turns into one that involves consensual sex. It does soon become clear that their union is ultimately doomed by the eventual intrusion of a reality which is set to catch up with them, but there is nothing of the moralising tone that one feels a film dealing with this subject matter would be obliged to include if it were made today given the current climate. Instead both Agnes and Joseph have been equally damaged in different ways by life, and, for a short time, they find a kind of release in the exploration of their sexual identities. The relationship that develops between them is portrayed as being led by neither one nor the other but emerges naturally as Joseph becomes fascinated by the world full of symbols and private meaning Agnes has created for herself in her cliff-top domain, and as Agnes in turn is drawn out of her fantasy world just enough to be able to acknowledge Joseph as a real person rather than just the scarecrow she once brought to life in the front yard. Yet the screenplay departs radically from the novel for a final act that is both tragic and much more ambiguous in its conclusions than the melodramatic events of the original book would have allowed for.
One fortunate by-product of the fact that “Rapture” had such a short theatrical life on its initial run, and has remained virtually unseen for nearly fifty years since, is that the elements used for the HD transfer here have remained absolutely pristine, producing an image for this Blu-ray/DVD combination pack that is as immaculate and as detailed as one could hope for in a movie of such exalting visual intensity and photographic beauty. Eureka have gone the extra mile and brought in film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo to provide an audio commentary that explores the film’s themes and influences, the background to its making and the context of its recent rediscovery; and there’s also a nice booklet included with an detailed essay on the film by Mike Sutton, which is accompanied by vintage stills, poster and lobby card images, etc.
“Rapture” is an extraordinary discovery: a ravishing, truly memorable, evocative piece of film drama. It cannot be emphasised too much how anyone who has even the slightest interest in the cinema of the 1960s simply must make sure they get to see it. A very highly recommended release indeed.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!