Always Watching, Always Afraid: Le Horla, Guy De Maupassant, Jean-Daniel Pollet

Being a fan of the cinema today occasionally leaves you feeling like a character in a Jacques Rivette film, part of some underground conspiracy that seems at one moment vast, the next small and insignificant, concrete and yet dissoluble at any moment. Film maudits and the work of cult directors (and here I speak of true cult directors, not the privileged likes of Tarantino, Nolan or even Wes Anderson, who count their audiences in the multiple international millions and are deemed ‘cult’ only when it sounds good for mass-marketing purposes) are bought surreptitiously to our eyes through the work of pirates, video website uploaders and home dvd manufacturers, all working in some legal grey area and just about surviving because none of the apparatus of the capitalist cinema system seem to really care about the works they are delivering to us (the moment they do start caring, however unlikely, the whole thing is of course done for). Occasionally specialist DVD companies (Criterion, Eureka etc) will release these works ‘officially’, usually in far higher quality than the copies made available by the noble pirates, but for some of our finest film artists even this luxury and this attention is not paid. Jean-Daniel Pollet, the self-anointed ‘little brother’ of the New Wave, is one of these film-makers, a truly independent director in thought, form and action, much of whose work still is not particularly visible, especially to non-French speaking audiences (French speakers can enjoy a DVD collection of five of his short films and another of his feature-length L’Acrobate), but who can attract packed houses when his legendary archival work is show in public, according to Chris Darke in Film Comment. In recent years, afew of his short films (although none of his features) have begun to appear on internet pirate sites and Youtube, sometimes complete with English (or, in other cases, Italian or German) subtitles apparently created by fans (reminiscent of the versions of Out 1 than began appearing online around the turn of this decade, to return to Rivette). Pollet’s 40 minute 1966 adaptation of Guy De Maupassant’s famed horror story Le Horla is one of these now somewhat-visible creations, sitting in the shadows of youtube for those who wish to discover it, in a somewhat low-quality print but with its qualities, just about, still shining through. We await the famous Mediterranee, favourite of Jean-Luc Godard (with whom Pollet’s work sometimes seems in mutual conversation), but for now we are breathing somewhat rareified air as it is.
I must confess that Maupassant is maybe my favourite author, and that Le Horla is one of his finest works, a compelling, burning short story of the supernatural and a study of a mind in disintegration that hints at greater and more horrifying forces beyond those explicitly featured in our relatively small tale. Throughout Maupassant creates passages of great poetic resonance without compromising the sense of rapid, unstoppable mental decline and building malevolence. At first I thought that Le Horla might be the sort of story that is somewhat irrelevant in our contemporary, late-capitalist world, where the fear of illogical, intangible but all-powerful supernatural or alien forces seems less scary and less relevant than the illogical, intangible but all-powerful market and it’s devastating demands and consequences, those terrifying ‘market forces’. But, on second thoughts, Le Horla somehow seems more contemporary than ever for the very same reason, and this speaks to the general, continued relevancy of Maupassant in our age. Le Horla is, in fact, a story of our times, especially when we consider how many television shows currently exist that are based around ‘true’ recountings of incidents of the paranormal and supernatural, and how many of these shows echo Le Horla in presenting their invisible entities attacking the very lifeforces of our first-hand witnesses, either tormenting them or forcing them to submit to their whims through a form of terrorisation or possession. The very nature of how we see ghosts and other such beings in the public imagination (at the very least in the West) seems to have fundamentally shifted in the last few decades, moving from repeated echoes and visions of the (often traumatic) past, to potential killers, incorporeal beings that possess, drain and discard their prey habitually. Even as a believer in some aspects of the paranormal the continued repetition of such accounts has forced me to become incredulous, for it seems we may simply be substituting either a subconscious or a conscious fear of the invisible markets, economic systems and decisions that dictate our lives, that often possess, drain and discard us, for a more comfortable fear of unknowable paranormal entities that perform very similar roles and functions but are ultimately stoppable or even deniable. In these television tales presented as truth, at least, Catholic based exorcism usually saves the day (Maupassant is rather less reassuring, with his hero coming to believe that the only escape is through suicide), and even if we don’t quite believe that- hey- we can always just discount and deny what’s being retold to us. In reality, of course, we can’t just shut the oujia board to break the hold of that which has power over us, and sometimes the hopeless feeling of a total lack of control and agency is unbearable.
It’s possible that this shift in the perception of the supernatural comes from historical changes. Roger Clarke suggests, in his A Natural History of Ghosts, that ghosts in the past represented a form of “ancestor worship” for the upper classes, a way of communicating with a family’s past and overbearing legacy. And for the feudal peasant perhaps, the master (and his wealth) was often visible, the effects of his lineage on the peasant’s own and his village possibly retold and thus often known, and the decrees and communications handed down reached him almost directly.  Now, however, we have a knowledge, or at least a grasp, only of the existence of plans beyond our knowing and our hearing that are drawn up by people we can’t recognise in dark rooms behind closed doors, effectively occurring in a realm which touches us but we cannot touch or enter into fully. Perhaps our fears and fantasies have been reshaped as a result.
All this rambling is to suggest that Maupassant’s story feels scary to us still for we understand its meaning, its overwhelming horror at the idea of something invisible taking control of our thoughts and actions and potentially eradicating us, the projection of our fears and the action of the tale itself creating an incredibly snug fit. Maupassant, writing in the 1800s and witnessing the buildings of the Industrial Capitalist era, may have been as much prophet of where that era and its systems would lead in regards to our mentality as he was a horror fantasist. And indeed, in a general sense, what often strikes me reading Maupassant now is how modern much of his writing still feels, how little elements of our reality, our relationships, our thoughts and our feelings in regards to ourselves and others, have truly moved on. The suggestion that the past is a foreign country, essentially unknowable and somewhat incomprehensible, is most likely incredibly faulty. In fiction, Maupassant had reflected and exposed our nightmares long before the mass-culture had arrived at a similar point and, without any awareness of the subconscious origins of those same nightmares, tried to present them as truth.

But what of Pollet and his adaptation you are most likely thinking to yourself?  Well, if we continue to expand upon what we were discussing above, we could discuss how Pollet changes the class implications of Maupassant’s story, in which the lead character is clearly bourgeois and has servants who understand less than him about the tormenting forces and whom ultimately perish as their master tries to make his escape (what further parallels we could draw from this to our own tormenting system and our fears of it!), but Pollet’s hero is entirely solitary, his class background a little less expanded upon (he is possibly an author) and the servants are completely absent.
Pollet main interest in creating the film, he admitted, was not the story itself but the overcoming the potential difficulties of adapting the story, which was told by Maupassant almost entirely through elliptical diary entries, rooted as much in the mind and it’s wanderings than in any physical, displayable action. Pollet’s solution? To film the protagonist in almost continuous self-narration and recounting (talking into a tape recorder, the then-modern replacement for the Victorian bourgeois diary that persists still, especially if you consider the popularity of the podcast), and to have us circle him, watch over his shoulder, lurk above his head, all as the hero accuses his invisible tormentor of doing. The only characters are the prey himself and us, i.e. the invisible monster, always seeing, always recording, always plotting. We stalk poor Laurent Terzieff down a country lane, almost hanging on his back until he whips around, looks in vain for the eyes scanning his movement. We force him to paint important objects in bold shades of yellow and blue because we enjoy seeing these deep colours on the screen, and we understand their thematic implications on some subconscious level (the monster, the next stage of man, emerging from his bright yellow egg, and his destruction attempted by a grenade daubed in the same shade). And, in the end, is the suicide of the hero in vain? After all, we continue to float around his vacated rowboat on multiple occasions once he has seemingly dived to his watery demise. Along the way we’ve learnt something of man, his madness and his weakness from our lead- the invisible stalking was not in vain. Poor man, you can’t escape us. Through Pollet we have found room for new metaphors, new signification in this short tale. Le Horla becomes about the the cinema, the camera, our role as voyeuristic audience and its effect on the actions we undertake, and the minds we inhabit, in a way that is reminiscent of the films of Rivette and Godard made around the same period. Here we see how, perhaps, we measure our own lives and behaviours against the observation and thinking of some invisible auditorium of people, constantly viewing, constantly judging, waiting to supersede us, waiting to make us lesser in some way. We are stalked too, but by the awareness and memory of our own observation, by the fact we recognise ourselves as part of a society based around never-ending observation, which has the camera as its primary mechanical tool.
And Pollet seems to have created the perfect style for displaying cinematically a mind in distress and disintegration (perhaps recognisable because all our minds are such nowadays). The linearity and normalcy that handicaps so many efforts- a film made like any other film, except the subject in this case is a collapsing mind- is thrown out the window in favour of something more fragmented, more aggressive in its cutting and cross-cutting and sudden repetitions, more unpredictable in its pacing, swinging between a dreamy languidness and an urgent, propulsive sprint, more unmoored in its connections of time, space and location. By the conclusion of the film, the whole seems to have become a throbbing, shifting mass, the camera gliding over and around it at will. In a sense, the action becomes like the ruins in Bassae or the Nazi gun turrent explored briefly in this film, Pollet letting his camera float in and out of it’s crevices and passageways, slide around it’s edges and curves, the effect both curiously serene and intensely exploratory, almost hallucinatory in its evocations of histories and forces that are a part of our world but somewhat out of our reach, almost as if part of some other consciousness.
And through it all, through the film’s ruptures and reassemblings, what do we also have? The camera exploring every inch of that empty yellow rowboat and the patch of sea upon which it sits, poking, prodding at us with that feeling of a certain vague overhanging doom, an end point that haunts us as the man disappears and is replaced by the mechanical, his voice whirring away on the abandoned tape recorder, his thoughts given to the sea and to the sky and to us, always watching and always listening, but shapeless, formless, almost belonging to no-one now.  This focus on the tape recorder speaks of Pollet’s obsession with objects and structures, but also his fear of them, his ability to position them in poetic and philosophical contexts, to examine where the work of human hands ends and the absence of humanity in the object or structure begins. Can we say this of Wes Anderson? He obsesses over objects and structures too, but they mean little outside of a mostly shallow appeal to his aesthetic sense, which is based on a boringly nostalgic, hermetic world view.  No, Pollet is something else, someone whose vision penetrates the physical constructions that surround us, who can recast them so as to show their true nature. In the process these constructions may seem as alien to us as the invisible tormentor in Le Horla. But perhaps they should, perhaps we take too much of buildings, ruins, consumer products and scraps of technology for granted, perhaps we make them seem too natural and forget their hollow, artificial, inhuman nature.
Either way, Le Horla is an invigorating experience, a short transmission from the true alternative cinema, a shattering of the constraints of the traditions of time, space, chronology, representation and literary adaptation on the screen. It may be possible to put Pollet in that lineage proposed by Serge Daney that stood in opposition to suggestions of Les Enfants Du Paradis as the defining, definitive example of French cinema. It’s a lineage that includes the likes of Feuillade, Vigo, Franju, Rivette… directors who seemed to take reality and either remould it or turn it inside out, in the process telling us more about ourselves and our world because it manages to expose the mystery, the incomprehensibility, the paranoia, the fear and even the beauty that lies at the centre of it in ways that resonate both physically (parts of L’Atalante can give you goosebumps, surely?) and psychologically. When Laurent Terzieff tries to find himself in the mirror in Le Horla, are we so far from Bulle Ogier glancing into that endless parade of reflected mirror images in Out 1, or from the moments of shock when one of Les Vampires uses their giant hooks and lassos to snatch an unsuspecting person from their third storey apartment window? The common place, the everyday, the concrete, suddenly seems rife with infinite  tricks and terrors that can appear from nowhere, or which lurk in the ever-present shadows, ready to snatch the seemingly sane superior citizen from his complacency, his sense that he knows and understands all- or at least enough. We should never forget this. We should never forget that there are genuine, mostly economic forces and systems that are waiting to make us their prey, and that some of us are in more constant contact with them than others. And even when we can’t forget, when we find it impossible to forget that knowledge as we are so shaped by it, thank God there are directors like Pollet and authors like Maupassant to give voice to our fears, to respond to them and to play them back to us in endless variations and reveal something in the first place. This way, perhaps, some form of true understanding lies.

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