vt The Deadly Trap; vt Death Scream
France, Italy / 96 minutes / color / Corona, Pomereu, Oceania Dir: René Clément Pr: Robert Dorfmann, Bertrand Javal Scr: Sydney Buchman, Eleanor Perry Story: The Children Are Gone (1965) by Arthur Cavanaugh Cine: Andreas Winding Cast: Faye Dunaway, Frank Langella, Barbara Parkins, Karen Blanguernon, Raymond Gérôme, Maurice Ronet, Michèle Lourie, Patrick Vincent, Gérard Buhr.
Two Americans, Jill Halard (Dunaway) and her scientist husband Philippe (Langella), live in their Paris apartment with their children Cathy (Lourie) and Patrick (Vincent). There’s a sense that Philippe has fled a project or situation that he disliked in the US, because he’s now copyediting science books for a French publisher. At the start of the movie he’s contacted by a spokesman (Ronet) for “The Organization” with an offer to go back to his old work to carry out, in noirish parlance, One Last Job. When Philippe hotly refuses, the persuasions turns to veiled threats against his family, which threats he treats as just so much rhetoric.
But then things do indeed start going alarmingly awry with the Halards’ world. While Philippe is off at a conference in Toulouse, Jill and the kids are out in the family car when it’s forced into a collision by a massive truck and the three of them are lucky to escape with their lives—with no more than minor injuries, in fact.
For some while Jill’s mental state has been visibly unstable, depression combining with recurrent memory loss to produce what seems at first glance a case of early-onset dementia. Although they’re still young, she and Philippe haven’t had sex in years, and sleep in separate beds. Some of her behavior wouldn’t be of any especial note if taken in isolation—at the start of the movie we see her aboard a barge with Patrick, having climbed onto it on impulse and then dreamily having forgotten about the passage of time until long after she was due home, where Philippe is for obvious reasons becoming frantic—but, taken in combination with her other peculiarities and her pattern of forgetfulness, they add up to a disturbing picture. On another occasion she (apparently) phones up Philippe’s boss and tells him Philippe is resigning because he dislikes the work and thinks the pay is lousy.
Best neighbor and best friend Cynthia (Barbara Parkins).
It’s Jill’s psychiatrist, Dr. Nolac (Buhr), who observes that many of these instances of forgetfulness seem to happen when Jill and the kids are with Jill’s best friend Cynthia (Parkins), who lives in the apartment immediately downstairs from the Halards. Jill brushes this off as an irrelevant trivium, a mere coincidence—after all, she and the kids are around Cynthia much of the time, so what Nolac’s pointing out is hardly surprising—but later we come to realize the validity of the observation: Jill has only Cynthia’s word for it that many of the events she’s “forgotten” ever actually happened.
The sinister nanny Miss Hansen (Karen Blanguernon).
By then, though, the kids have, in a marvelously creepy sequence, been snatched by the mysterious Mlle. Hansen (Blanguernon), who they trust because she babysat for them once. A police search led by le Commissaire Chemeille (Gérôme) gets nowhere, not least because he suspects that Jill—the madwoman!—may be the one responsible for the disappearance. Philippe has analogous doubts, thinking that perhaps Jill merely let the kids wander off during one of her loopier moments.
One day, separated from their mother, the kids follow Patrick’s bouncing hoop down into the depths of the city.
In an implausible plot development (the movie has plenty of these), Jill lurches from being Chemeille’s Suspect #1 to become his Watson. It’s she who forces out of Cynthia the admission that the kids’ abduction is part of The Organization’s plot to compel Philippe to obey orders, that Cynthia has long been in league with The Organization, and that the kids are stashed in la maison sous les arbres—the house under the trees. But are they still alive?
Jill (Faye Dunaway) and Philippe (Frank Langella) frantically start the search for the kids.
The movie is stacked as full of Hitchcockian tropes as anything by Brian De Palma, if not fuller, and this led to director Clément becoming one of several directors to be labeled “The French Hitchcock.” There’s the meme of the impotence of the individual in the face of the indifference of the crowd, as when Jill desperately seeks the kids after they’ve been snatched: the Parisians with whom she pleads think she’s crazy or simply aren’t interested. We’re often treated to odd distorted reflections of Jill’s face in mirrors, as if we’re being offered windows to her tormented soul, or something. And so on. (The opening scenes of Jill aboard the barge as it makes its way along a waterway that I assume is the Seine are reminiscent to the modern viewer of a movie by a different director, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now , although Don’t Look Now was in fact the later of the two.)
Commissaire Chemeille (Raymond Gérôme) leads the hunt.
Yet Clément was no Henri-Georges Clouzot or Claude Chabrol, two others of the “French Hitchcock” directors. While Hitchcock often focused more on the staging of superb individual sequences than on the integrity of his plots, he never did so to the extent that his plots became incomprehensible and unresolved. In this sense, La Maison sous les Arbres is more like a giallo than a Hitchcock movie—or perhaps, to be more charitable, like Roman Polanski’s FRANTIC (1988), where motivations and actions are left similarly murky in the service of creating atmospheric paranoia.
There’s some clever use of reflections to express the mental fragility of Jill (Faye Dunaway).
The movie was screened at but not entered into competition at Cannes. Its current obscurity is surprising in light of its cast. The principals make the best they can of the screenplay, with Dunaway and Langella splendidly portraying the couple who’re trying to deal with her nervous breakdown by not dealing with it—he by just hoping it’ll go away, she by largely refusing to acknowledge there’s a problem at all. Among the supporting cast Lourie is outstanding as the older child, Cathy, who’s old enough—only just—to know there’s something seriously wrong yet not old enough to have the first idea what to do about it. It’s a great performance from a child actress who seems to have made no other movies.
On Amazon.com: La Maison Sous Les Arbres (NTSC, Import)