Monday, April 22, 2013

April Apocalypse part IV: Francoblivion

When you think of a post-apocalyptic film, the setting that usually comes to mind is typically urban in nature, like the vacated freeways of Los Angeles in The Omega Man, or the deserted streets of London in 28 Days Later. If it's a non-metropolitan locale you imagine, it's probably the barren Australian outback of Mad Max 2 or the Italian rock quarry landscape of Warriors of the Wasteland. One of the last things you would think of would be a medieval castle in rural France. However, that is exactly the location of the 1981 Christian de Chalonge film Malevil. The movie takes its name from the fictional castle and surrounding community of farms in a modern day, agrarian section of France. Based on the novel by Robert Merle, who is most known for Day of the Dolphin and Weekend at Dunkirk, the movie paints a vivid picture of a small, family-like community enduring, and subsequently recovering from, a nuclear attack. Unlike many pessimistic post-apocalyptic films of the time, such as Threads or Testament, the French production presents a less nihilistic view of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. The film begins with beautiful establishing shots of the countryside which contrast mightily to the ash-strewn aftermath imagery of the subsequent apocalypse. Along with the way, we meet the some of the denizens of Malevil.

Lead character, Emmanuel Comte (Michel Serrault), is the mayor as well as a local farmer, winemaker and the castle's owner. After running errands, which include helping his elderly housekeeper La Menou (Émilie Lihou) to force-bathe her lovable, mentally challenged, adult son, Momo (Jacques Villeret), Comte holds a council meeting among his friends and neighbors in the castle's wine cellar to iron out some local improvements. Attending the meeting are Bouvreuil (Jean Leuvrais) the persnickety town chemist, Colin (Jacques Dutronc) the electrician, and Peyssou (Robert Dhéry) a neighboring farmer. Just after the meeting ends and everyone takes a wine tasting break, a bright flash of light is seen through the crack of the cellar door followed by a sudden rise in temperature. This section of the film is excellent as there is no dialogue inserted to state the obvious. The film explains everything through the characters' mute behavior, bursting wine casks and subsequent outdoor visuals which are particularly effective in establishing the destruction.

Despite the devastation, other survivors are found in and around Malevil like the veterinarian (Hanns Zischler) who was in a protected downstairs animal corral when the explosion struck and young Evelyne (Pénélope Palmer) who was in a nearby cave. When still other groups are subsequently discovered, complications and conflicts ensue. What's interesting and refreshing was there were no long philosophical debates that sprang out of the conflicts. The characters pretty much did what was practical rather than ideologically or morally sound. There weren't any high-falluting speeches about the brotherhood of man or struggles of conscience and so on. This sense of practicality logically fit right in with the rural environment, the main character's nature and the overall theme of the story. It's a bit of a simplistic and well-worn theme of simple country folk being wiser than their urban counterparts, but it's effective in Malevil at least until the end when the point gets needlessly hammered home. The minimalist approach used by Christian de Chalonge, who also co-wrote the film, works well throughout  with images and behavior given precedent over dialogue at the small cost of some overt exposition and character development. In one scene, while out looking for a mare, Colin and Emmanuel come across a figure aiming a rifle at them. Colin instinctively shoots the person only to realize it's a charred corpse. Colin calmly takes the rifle off the dead man and they continue their search for the horse. The entire seen is played out silently, with the exception of Colin's gunshot, and needed no additional explanation or enhancements. The music is similarly subdued when present but it's just outright absent most of the time. I counted only four instances of very brief musical interludes in the entire film with two of those coming from radios or loudspeakers within the story. This absence gave the film a curious aloofness and haunted quality which I found very effective in setting the tone. The imagery spoke for itself and needed no further comment or underscoring from characters or music.

Novel vs Film

Overall, I found the writing and the tone of the film much more honest and believable than Merle's novel. I also found it much more efficient, direct, surely paced and thematically relevant. Christian de Chalonge deserves much credit in going a different direction by getting rid of all the book's interpersonal chafe and keeping the edible bits. The book, in contrast to the film, is nothing but character development focusing especially on male/female sexual politics within Malevil. Many times in the novel the Comte character beds one of the few available women and advocates polyandry to his fellow survivors. I found this utterly distracting, irrelevant and more than a little misogynistic. Apparently, so did the screenwriters as they got rid of three of the book's prominent female characters, along with their subplots, and dropped Comte's sexual escapades entirely from the film. It made for much more efficient storytelling skipping the male fantasy and female soap opera-type melodrama. There is just the slightest hint of female machinations in the film, from the rescued character of Cathy, but it is completely understated and understandable as she is trying to save her female friends and it fits neatly into the plot without being sleazy. Also, I was pleased with the film's treatment of the Evelyne character who went from a dull, lovestruck, underage nymph in the novel, to a vital, confident, kick-ass young women in the movie. There are only two areas where I'd give the book the advantage over the film. One is in the character of Fulbert who is played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignant. Fulbert is a much more malignantly evil character in the novel whereas Trintignant just looks tired and unthreatening in the movie. I can't blame the filmmakers for casting him as he's legendary but he just didn't bring the thunder in this instance. Second, although the book's ending just kind of fizzles out, the movie tacks on an unneeded denouement which really feels forced and unnecessarily preachy thematically speaking. There was a very good natural ending at the hour forty-five minute mark, but the filmmakers had to throw in some heavy-handed irony that just felt very out of place given the subtlety of the rest of the film. Despite this, I think it's still a strong, artistically sound effort and worth tracking down for fans of P/A movies.

Final Scores 
Film: 7.50/10
Novel: 5.75/10


  1. Did the ggtmc review this one way back when? I remember seeking it out, but I could never find a copy to rent. Sounds up my alley.

    1. Yes they did and they both liked it. I've got an extra copy from CdB if'n you need one Emily, however, the fan subs on it are atrocious. There's another quasi-official version out there, but I've yet to view it.