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The Forgotten: It Was So Nice Inside His Head

David Cairns
I admit that I initially grabbed a copy of Clérambard (1969) out of a not-wholly pure interest in actress Dany Carrel, an interesting presence in French movies of the fifties and sixties (she retired in the eighties), distinguished by her Franco-Vietnamese exoticism, which was never openly acknowledged in the roles she played, and by her tendency to pop out of whatever dress she was put in. Her breasts aren't large, but they're seemingly omnipresent, like two small, pert Gerard Depardieus.
Clérambard was possibly the first film in which I've seen Carrel do some proper acting, and demonstrate rather impressive ebullience and comic timing, even if her character is a male fantasy of a small town prostitute (Borges once observed of Eva Peron that her lot was particularly unpleasant being from a small town, where the shame of her profession [prostitute, not dictator's wife] would be known to all). She plays second banana to star Philippe Noiret, then primarily a comic star, who plays second banana to the film's soundtrack, which dominates the whole film ruthlessly.
In brief, Noiret is the count Hector de Clérambard, an impoverished but indefatigable domestic tyrant who refuses to sell his heavily-mortgaged ancestral castle, and subsists by slave-driving his son, wife, and mother-in-law to manufacture woollen garments, and puts meat on the table by assassinating the neighborhood dogs and cats. He's just about the most unpleasant comic creation ever presented on a screen, and might appear more at home on a microscope slide.
But! Enter the plot twist, as Saint Francis —yes, the St. Francis—appears to Clérambard and advises him to change his ways, dispensing a paperback copy of his biography as a primer. This phantasmal visitor, accompanied by the spontaneous resurrection of a labrador Clérambard had just throttled, causes a Damascene conversion in the fiery count, who now devotes his life to poverty, prayer, and kindness to all God's creatures. His family, who previously variously loved (his wife), feared (his son), and loathed (the mother-in-law, wisest of all) this vicious bully, now consider him insane, and steps are taken to ensure he's locked away before he can sell the castle for a song, marry his son to the town whore, and set off in a gypsy caravan to live a life of supplication and contemplation.
Various connections can be made—to the grotesquerie of Ubu Roi in the opening scenes, to Vyvian Stanshall's Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which I must tell you about sometime soon, to The Ruling Class, where a similarly deranged nobleman provokes perverse reactions in his family and associates. The director is Yves Robert, who serves up a hideous title sequence with the images inlaid in a Prussian blue border, and overlights all his interiors rather badly. But he's adept at staging his scenes and the performances are ripe and enthusiastic without getting too much into your face. Robert is mostly known outside of France, if he's known at all, for the original French comedies remade as The Man with One Red Shoe (starring Tom Hanks, not too bad) and The Woman in Red (starring and directed by Gene Wilder, mostly quite bad, in an eighties-tastic way). Clérambard hasn't had a US remake because (1) it's very strange and (2) the novel by Marcel Ayme isn't well-known outside France. It's very interesting material that could probably benefit from a Bunuel or at least a Malle. What it gets is a Robert, which is OK.
As the story winds into Act II, Clérambard is still, at first, anyway, the same awful bastard he was before his conversion. It's just that now his violent temper and intolerant attitude is channelled into a different philosophical funnel. He's kind to animals but vicious to his family. He only acquires something resembling saintliness when his "miracle" is revealed as a mixture of hoax and happenstance—a resentful farmer impersonating St. Francis as a gag, and a lookalike dog (a doggieganger, if you will) mistaken for the garotted retriever. Now Clerambard decides to continue his course to true Christian goodness without the miracle as proof he's right. A new humility emerges. Now his family are more than ever convinced he's cracked.
Anyway, this isn't so much Yves Robert's film as the composer's. Romanian genius Vladimir Cosma has evidently decided that this movie will be his. The hell with Robert, the hell with Noiret, the hell with the plot. His music is triumphal and domineering, like Clérambard, and happy, like La Langouste, the town hooker, but really comes from nowhere and relates to not that much in the film—it adds something new, like the title of a surrealist painting. Only at the end, when the theme tune (which I'm still humming, damnit) acquires lyrics ("It was so nice inside his head!"), does it intersect with the movie itself, while simultaneously suggesting a kind of sequel, taking off from the wildly silly and curiously epic climax. It's the great feelgood movie of 1969. And it has people eating cat.
Kosma is still composing today. Everybody else is decomposing. Except La Langouste—Dany Carrel is retired and seemingly reclusive, not deigning to appear in the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's L'enfer, despite the fact that the luminous footage from that abortive psychodrama abounds with glimpses of her ineffable sauciness. It is to be hoped that she will at some future point pop out once again from her hiding place and tell us what's on her mind.
"Does this mean it'll be free?" ask her customers, now that La Langouste has converted to Clerambard's faith.
"Yes, the Good Lord shall provide."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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