Beyond the Walls
Max Nelson on The Creatures

There was a moment in the 1960s and early '70s during which science fiction caught on among ambitious French filmmakers as a way of reckoning with romantic love. In a cluster of movies from these ten or so years, fantastical premises—time-travel experiments, futuristic dystopias, mind control scenarios—became occasions to stage seduction routines between troubled men and the women they loved, the latter of whose minds the movies rarely dwelt on or studied in detail. In Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), Alain Resnais consigned his central character to a womblike pod that gave him the power to travel back in time to crucial junctures in an unhappy love affair. The centerpiece passage in La Jetée, Chris Marker’s time travel fantasy from seven years earlier, showed that movie’s male protagonist strolling alongside his love interest, with whom he’s briefly aligned in time, through a natural history museum full of preserved animal remains that taunt the couple with visions of permanence and loss.

In some cases, these experiments in science fiction—all made by filmmakers inexpert in the genre—were specifically devoted to stories in which men exerted power over women. In Alphaville (1965), Jean-Luc Godard sent his gruff, bullish detective hero into a dystopian future where human affection was forbidden; in the movie’s last scene, the man coaxes a young woman (Anna Karina) out of her brainwashed state by having her tell him she loves him syllable-by-syllable. Eric Rohmer, maybe the French director of this period least inclined to supernatural fantasy, nonetheless included a fantastical dream sequence in Love in the Afternoon (1972) that epitomized the curious obsession with masculine power that had marked French science fiction for the previous decade. Frédéric, a repressed family man, fantasizes about wearing an amulet that gives him the power to seduce whatever woman he wants—or so he thinks, until one woman turns him down.

More than thirty years after the end of that decade, between 2006 and 2009, Agnès Varda made a pair of installations derived from The Creatures, her 1966 contribution to this eccentric body of French sci-fi filmmaking. Both artworks consisted of house-like structures Varda modeled after the fishing huts on Noirmoutier—the island where she shot the film—and which she built primarily out of strips from a 35mm release print of the film. The second installation’s title (Cabane du cinéma) was a more forgiving variation of the first: Ma cabane d’echec, or “My Shack of Failure.”

Was The Creatures a failure? It did poor business upon its premiere and hardly benefitted from the rise in reputation many of Varda’s other films have since enjoyed. Of her features, it’s one of her least-seen, neglected enough that she could play at treating release prints of it as refuse for building a shack. At its center is a dark fable: a fiction writer named Edgar (Michel Piccoli) comes to live with his mute, pregnant wife Mylène (Catherine Deneuve) in a small island community. Before long he discovers that the town’s reclusive “retired engineer,” who lives in a lighthouse on the island’s shore, has been using a complicated apparatus involving a die, a hovering claw, and a chessboard rigged up to a set of video monitors to control his new neighbors’ minds and coerce them into violating one another’s trust. This man challenges Edgar to compete for control of the island’s residents—a contest which entails drawing cards that represent individual people, moving them with a cast of the die, and staging interactions between them which can then be either wrecked or saved. If Edgar loses, the engineer tells him, his marriage will be targeted next.

Much about The Creatures now does seem off-putting and ill-advised. The atonal soundtrack, by the early electronic musician Pierre Barbaud, intrudes insistently at regular intervals as if to signal that sinister activities are afoot. (Watching The Creatures, I thought several times of Le chant du styrène, Resnais’s delightful, slightly kitschy industrial short about the production of colorful plastics; only later did I realize that Barbaud’s music pervaded that film too.) Even though she was working with two ingenious cinematographers—Willy Kurant and a very young William Lubtchansky, on his first feature—Varda stuck to disarmingly shallow compositions and periodically overlaid the film’s black-and-white photography with garish color tints. (The intrusion of these colors onto the film’s world eventually becomes a major plot point: red tints signal the moments at which the malevolent engineer takes control of his victims’ minds; pink ones, when Edgar rescues them.) Having committed to a widescreen format, she filled the film with interior scenes and tight two-person encounters that left little room for the kind of panoramic detail the frame’s shape favored.

None of the film’s large cast of townspeople—including a sexually repressed hotel manager (Eva Dahlbeck), her more liberated sister (Marie-France Mignal) and their father (Alain Roy), a nasty old man whose history of monstrous behavior the film only slowly reveals—take on the kind of intense presence Varda had previously given, say, the young singer at the center of her earlier feature Cléo from 5 to 7. Edgar and Mylène are just as oddly emptied-out, their outlines traced but their minds and pasts left vague and undefined. We gather as much about them as we ever do from the first scene, which shows Edgar driving the two of them down a winding shoreline road. She pleads with him meekly to slow down; he takes caddish pleasure in her worry but ignores her request. Only several scenes later do we learn that we were watching the moments leading up to the car accident that left her mute. (That the accident affected her voice but nothing else about her appearance, while leaving him with only a long, picturesque forehead scar, is one of several improbabilities in the movie’s fairy-tale-like setup about which we’re asked to suspend disbelief.)

In some respects, Edgar and Mylène could be seen as another iteration of the couple from Varda’s previous feature, Le bonheur, which centered on a narcissistic husband betraying his utterly dependent wife. But The Creatures is goofier and less consistently bleak. It takes up odd, slapstick tangents—a young girl, under the engineer’s influence, trashes the family convenience store; a pair of bungling thieves try to con Edgar into buying overpriced bed sheets—and periodically offers up some absurdity that playfully rebukes us for taking it too seriously. Two scenes unlinked to anything else in the film show Edgar chatting with, respectively, a talking rabbit and cow.

What did Varda have in mind here? For Roger Greenspun of the Times, one of several prominent critics who wrote off the movie upon release, The Creatures was neither “science fiction” nor “allegory” but an excuse to show off a style, “sometimes handsome, sometimes fancy.” Varda herself once justified the movie’s cluttered, all-over sensibility by saying that in it she “tried to show that inspiration is a disorderly thing,” something that couldn’t be depicted neatly. “If you want to do it justice,” she went on, “you have to take account of disorder, because it’s from disorder that thought, simplicity and synthesis come.”

My own impression is that The Creatures makes sense primarily as a kind of bitter, exaggerated parody. In its vision of male-female relations, it comes off as a grotesque embellishment of the French science-fiction movies it followed and a warning to the ones it preceded. Here the character most similar to Anna Karina’s in Alphaville is not only brainwashed and docile but literally mute, doting over the husband on account of whom she lost her voice. Here male characters don’t merely bend time and meet, lose, and re-encounter women; they hole up in an abandoned lighthouse and move small women around on a chessboard.

In Varda’s vision, affairs between men and women aren’t merely doomed (as is the romance in La Jetée) or forbidden (as is the word “love” in Alphaville) but cruelly imbalanced. By the end of the movie, the scheming man in the lighthouse who turns his subjects against the women in their lives has become a kind of emblem for the power exercised by all the movie’s male characters: the lecherous, predatory hotel owner; the married man with whom Dahlbeck’s character has a misguided affair; and Edgar himself. When Mylène gives birth to a boy, the sight of the infant’s naked, crying body fills the movie’s last shot like a nasty joke.

By the time she shot The Creatures, Varda had already made a kind of horror movie about the potential indignities of marriage and family (Le bonheur). As early as her 1958 short L’opera mouffe, which was screened in the U.S. under the title Diary of a Pregnant Woman, she had been intrigued by the fears and anxieties surrounding pregnancy. In the mid-1970s, when she herself had a young child, she challenged herself to make a documentary while tethered to her apartment by a cord no longer than her city block. (The result was Daguerréotypes, a portrait of some of her shop-owning neighbors.) Domestic life tends to come off in Varda’s movies as a dystopia—a situation in which women end up trapped in a sort of time warp or subject to a kind of mind control. The Creatures is ungainly and off-putting in part because it takes this line of thought to a particularly imaginative, extreme stage. Varda might well have considered it a failure. But one can also imagine that, when she made Ma cabane d’echec, she took a mischievous pleasure in returning to a film with such a low estimate of domestic happiness and using it to build a house.