Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Joël Séria, 1971
Starring: Jeanne Goupil, Catherine Wagener

Anne and Lore, two teenage friends attending boarding school in a convent, become bored with life and decide to embrace all that is evil. Anne addresses her diary entries to “Lord Satan,” they steal communion wafers, spy on nuns, and read pornography under the covers together when they’re supposed to be asleep. On summer vacation, Anne’s parents leave her to go to Europe for two months, and their behavior worsens. They torment a mentally disabled man and kill his beloved pet birds, goad a cowherd into nearly raping Lore, and then set his family’s hay bales on fire in response.  They previously stole a number of items from school in order to hold a midnight ceremony, dedicating their lives to Satan.

Things take a more serious turn, when they approach a businessman stranded by the side of a country road on a rainy night. They convince him to come back to Anne’s family chateau, where they strip down to their underwear and tease him. Eventually incensed, he tries to rape Lore and Anne has to beat him over the head with a piece of wood. This time, it seems, they have gone too far…

Based on the murder case of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme – also the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s beautiful Heavenly Creatures – director and writer Joël Séria changed many of the details for this underrated French film, but the spirit of adolescent boredom, obsessive friendship, and murder remains. Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is not, strictly speaking, a horror film, though it will likely appeal to more intellectual horror fans. It’s a disturbing, psychological portrait of adolescent boredom, the banality of wealth, and existential despair.

This is a subtle film and it deserves a chance to work its discomfiting magic. There is very little blood and not any actual sex (though there are a few near rapes), but Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is still more impacting than many other genre films from the period that deliver plenty of both. The explosive, unexpected ending where the girls recite Baudelaire’s ”Les morts des amants” in front of their school is particularly impactful. The conclusion, which I will not fully spoil here, is one of the most memorable in all of '70s cinema. Even if you aren’t a fan of pensive, carefully-paced European art house films, the ending makes this worth seeing even for the most callous and seasoned horror fans.

Though this was her first feature film, Jeanne Goupil (Cookies) is captivating as Anne. With her child-like version of a Bettie Page haircut, sundresses, and slip on shoes, she wouldn’t be out of place in a 2013 or 2014 film, which makes the film seem oddly contemporary. It is somewhat easy to relate to her because of her sense of frustration and boredom. She and Lore seem to be asking, "Isn’t life more than this?" Anne is also an alienating figure because of her innate cruelty: she tortures and kills animals, and relates to no one but Lore. Even Lore is sometimes subject to her destructive behavior and dangerous games.

The blonde, sweet-looking Catherine Wagener is the ideal counterpart for Goupil. Lore is the quiet, presumably kinder second in the diabolical pair. She falls victim to some of Anne’s schemes and is nearly raped; she also cries over some of their exploits. And don’t be alarmed – both of these actresses were of legal age, though it certainly seems that we are contributing to the thinly veiled undercurrent of pedophilia by watching underage teens strut around in their underwear and part their legs suggestively.

While the girls are likable in some sense, I’m not sure how Séria accomplished this. They kill the beloved pet birds of the village idiot, Léon, and giggle while he mourns in anguish. They sexually tease a number of men, though this half-attempt at a seduction is mixed with humiliation and degradation. Several times these games incite different men to try to rape Lore, though she always escapes. They set local haystacks on fire, harass the priest at their school, and cause persistent mischief if not outright mayhem. The girls are cruel and callous (or at least attempt to be); sort of like a female Leopold and Loeb, they do malevolent things just to see if they can get away from them, out of sheer boredom. 

In a way, this reminded me of a Sofia Coppola film gone incredibly wrong (or right, depending on your perspective). It has some of the air of The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, in the sense that it focuses on financially privileged female characters bored to desperation by life. Their actions throughout the film are a series of reactions to that pervasive, stifling boredom. Don’t Deliver Us from Evil, is, of course, a much better film than anything Sofia Coppola has managed to direct, though it is spiritually more related to her work than to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.

Finally, there are some wonderful set pieces in the film. The Satanic ritual, where the girls wear see-through, white dresses and carry candles out on the lake in the middle of the night, is stunning. They dupe the village idiot into wearing priests robes and leading the ceremony that will officially pledge them into the service of Satan. Maximum use is made of the picturesque French countryside and Anne’s crumbling family chateau is a wonderful addition to the visual world of the film.

Available uncut and restored on DVD from the wonderful Mondo Macabro, Don’t Deliver Us from Evil comes highly recommended. It is contemplative and slow at times, but is mesmerizing, unpredictable, and remains a seemingly timeless portrayal of the difficulties of youth and middle class life. 

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