Mar 19, 2015
If there was a single film that would usher in the decidedly dark path Belgian cinema would take as reflected in such eclectically wonderfully wicked works as Roland Lethem’s La Fée Sanguinaire (1968) aka The Bloodthirsty Fairy, Thierry Zéno’s Wedding Trough (1975) aka Vase de noces aka The Pig Fucking Movie, Rob Van Eyck’s The Afterman (1985), Dominique Deruddere’s Crazy Love (1987), and more recently Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire (2004) aka The Ordeal, it would have to be De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen (1965) aka The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short aka The Man with the Shaven Head directed by André Delvaux (Un Soir, un Train aka One Night... a Train, Rendez-vous à Bray). Indeed, not only was the film responsible for sending Belgian film on a morbid and melancholic course of no return, but Delvaux’s debut feature is also credited as putting modern Belgian cinema on the international map. Based on the supposedly unfilmable 1947 novel of the same name by Belgian magic realist writer and respected film critic Johan Daisne, the film also established magic realism as a mainstay of Belgian cinema long before Harry Kümel (Malpertuis, De komst van Joachim Stiller aka The Arrival of Joachim Stiller) ever began working in the style. Sort of like a feature-length Ingmar Bergman dream-sequence, albeit more raw, grotesque, and ridden with rot and decay, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short depicts the nightmare life of a physically and mentally middle-aged poindexter professor who begins becoming decidedly deranged as a result of the delusional unrequited love he has for a beauteous blonde student and soon begins having a hard time discerning between reality and hallucination. A tale of obscene obsession that was fittingly shot in cold and lifeless black-and-white and somehow managed to do the seemingly inexplicable by translating the stream-of-conscious structure of its source novel to the silverscreen, Delvaux’s film is one of those rare films that reminds you that David Lynch is not as idiosyncratic of a filmmaker as you thought he was, as well as a work that confirms that Hollywood is no less than half a century behind a little insignificant country like Belgium in terms of articulating certain complex human emotions, presenting perturbing and unsettling philosophical themes, and portraying desire in its most patently pathetic and deranging form as a work about a metaphysical cuckold who is ultimately the last fellow in line to meet his great crush, or so he thinks. Of course, the film follows in a tradition much older than both Hollywood and magical realism, as a work that Tom Milne stated in BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin would appeal to, “admirers of Bosch, Breughel, Ghelderode and the Flemish genius for finding horror and beauty hand-in-hand,” though one must also acknowledge its influence from Symbolism, German Romanticism, and the French New Wave as well. Like a Flemish take on Lolita meets Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), albeit with seemingly infinite more substance and creepy character, as a sort of work of Gothic magical realism that also acts as a kind of aberrant allegory for an innately divided and schizophrenic nation in its uniquely unflattering depiction of an antihero with a schizoid personality, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short is, if nothing else, a perversely poetic masterpiece from the Lowland country of mud and rot.
The very first word fairly introverted protagonist Govert Miereveld (Senne Rouffaer) says at the beginning of The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short is the name of his titillating teenage crush Eufrazia ‘Fran’ Veerman (Beata Tyszkiewicz), but the very last word he says at the end of the film is the name of his neglected wife Corra (Annemarie Van Dijk). Govert is a rather impressive middle-aged man and Belgian Goebbels lookalike with a small and scrawny frame, pale skin, and a badly balding head of dark thin hair. Somehow, in Govert’s mind he has a chance of initiating a hot and heavy romance with a beauteous underage blonde who is one of the most popular girls at her school and who aspires to be a famous singer/actress. Rather curiously, Govert, who is certainly no moron as a certified lawyer with a degree, does not seem the least bit worried about what might happen to his career as a teacher and lawyer or his relationship with his wife and two young daughters were he to begin an affair with Fran, thus indicating the absurdity of his all-consuming obsession. Like many naïve men who mindlessly worship the feminine object of their romantic desire, Govert does not really know anything about Fran aside from the superficial persona that she projects while she is at school. Govert plans to declare his love for Fran at a special graduation event at his school, as it will be the last chance when he will get the opportunity to do so, so he decides to clean himself up a little bit by getting a pseudo-suave haircut right before he heads to the big event. While riding a public bus on the way to the barber, Govert thinks to himself, “Fran, I feel as if I’ve always known you. How can I tell you…what you mean to me. How? I can’t see you until I know how to tell you.” Unfortunately, it seems Govert will never have any clue how to tell her.
While getting his extra short haircut that he thinks will feel good in “wind and rain,” Govert chats with the rather creepy and effete sounding barber whose face is initially off-screen thus adding all the more to the almost Svengali-like nature of the fellow, but it is eventually revealed that the hair stylist is just as grotesque in his physical appearance as his undeniably unnerving voice suggests. As the barber somewhat ironically states to Govert in a scene the strangely foreshadows the protagonist's break with sanity, “People like you, who use their head, should have it looked after. Piano players do the same with their fingers and cyclists with their calves.” After finishing cutting Govert’s hair, the barber gives the protagonist an almost ‘erotic’ massage while a weird contraption called a ‘vibromassage device’ is strapped to his hands. After the super sensual head massage given by the seemingly malevolent barber who seems like he should be running a gay whorehouse in hell full of AIDS victims, Govert simply states “wonderful” and goes on his merry way. Upon arriving at the school, Govert suffers the real-life nightmare of making an ass of himself by being noticeably late for the event and failing to get onstage with the rest of the teachers and administrators before the festivities begin, thus he is left standing in front of the entire school in plain view like a moron as everyone gets up to sing the institution's anthem. While sitting on the stage with the rest of the teachers and administrators as diplomas are being handed out to graduating students, Govert perversely stares at Fran and states in his own mind in a most hysterical fashion, “Fran…Fran…Look at me, Fran. Please, look at me, now. Now. It’s our last day, Fran. You know it is, you know how much I love you. Fran. Fran.” After the award ceremony, Govert wanders around looking for Fran under the pretense of giving her a book as a gift but he runs into another girl that is dressed like a flapper named Beps (Hilde Uitterlinden) instead who takes the present from the protagonist’s hand without asking and promises to give it to her. While Govert sees Fran sing a Kurt Weill-esque song entitled ‘The Ballad of Real Life’ in the style of the score from Bertolt Brecht’s popular 1928 The Threepenny Opera (notably, director Delvaux considered the music to be such an imperative aspect of the film that he began working with musical composer Frédéric Devreese before he even wrote the screeplay), he never gets the chance to talk to her, so he goes to his classroom to sulk while thinking to himself, “I’ll never see her again. Goodbye. Fran. You were too beautiful for me. I couldn’t reach you. You were too far away for me.” Notably, the lyrics of the song that Fran sings were actually written by auteur Delvaux and feature an eerie esoteric reference to something that will be revealed later in the film via the line, “three Kings suffered shipwreck for me.” The ‘three Kings’ that Fran sings of are a triptych of middle-aged men that have had an imperative impact on her development into a full-grown woman and they include her father, a once highly respected fellow named Judge Brantink (François Bernard) who was presented a ‘hand of justice’ at the award ceremony in ostensible tribute to his contributions to the institution, and protagonist Govert, who has no idea what kind of young woman he is in love with, or so he will eventually learn in a most morbid way. After a happenstance meeting at a hotel towards the end of the film, Fran will ultimately reveal the true meaning of the lyrics behind ‘The Ballad of Real Life’, as well as the sort of sick and sordid impact that the ‘three Kings’ had on her relatively debased womanhood.
Flash forward a couple years later and Govert still has not gotten over the fact that he did not get to profess his love to Fran, or as he somberly narrates himself, “The night that closed around me then, lasted for years.” Indeed, the event had such a deleterious effect on his discernibly damaged psyche that he had to give up his dual profession as a lawyer-cum-teacher because he could no longer handle the stress of the work, so he moved his family to a new town and started working in the lowly position of a court clerk, though he claims regarding his new job, “I don’t feel degraded.” Through his job, Govert befriends an extremely extroverted medical examiner named Professor Mato (Hector Camerlynck) who manages to coerce the protagonist into traveling to the Dutch border with him and his assistant (Paul S'Jongers) to perform an autopsy on a badly decomposed corpse that may or may not be the corpse of a bank teller that mysteriously disappeared six months earlier. Needless to say, Govert becomes quite perturbed when Professor Mato and his assistant play with their autopsy tools and the protagonist suffers the delusion that an electric bone-cutting saw resembles the ‘vibromassage device’ that he liked so much at the barber. Ultimately, Govert is forced to endure the ultimately traumatic experience of watching Mato and his buddy performing an outdoors autopsy on a freshly unearthed rotting corpse that is still inside the casket in a fairly surreal and foreboding scene that more than hints that the protagonist's fragile sanity has become compromised. If Govert had been like a normal man and had had enough testicular fortitude, he could have merely declined to watch the autopsy, but he ultimately watches it in all its grueling detail because he is afraid to be rude to Mato and his comrade. Of course, if Mato had any idea of how big a lunatic Govert really is, he would not have invited him in the first place. Needless to say, seeing a rotting corpse sliced, diced, and surgically butchered is the last straw for Govert, who comes to unwittingly ‘embrace’ his slow-burning break with sanity.
While Govert attempts to wear a mask of sanity while in the company of his comrades and even goes so far as to tell Mato that he was not the least bit phased by seeing him defiling a vulgarly smelling deteriorating corpse, he ultimately learns he cannot escape from his inner pandemonium when he is unexpectedly forced to confront a particularly pulchritudinous ghost from his past. Indeed, while Govert obviously quit his job and moved to another town in the hope of erasing Fran from his mind once and for all, it only resulted in him becoming all the more possessed by her almost ghostly memory, not to mention the fact that it has caused his rather fragile mind to slowly but surely collapse under the weight of lovelorn repression and schizophrenic obsession. By mere happenstance, Govert bumps into Fran while staying at a local luxury hotel and is intrigued to learn from Mato that she is now a superstar singer/actress of sorts. While Govert goes out and buys a pair of fancy new dress shoes for Fran, he gets ‘cold feet’ about giving them to her and decides to drop them in a dam literally a minute or two after purchasing them. When Govert arrives at Fran’s room after wasting a bunch of time attempting to get the gall to face her, he immediately professes his longstanding and seemingly perennial undying love for her as the two drink wine, stating things like “I hope that I may tell you everything, that I have always loved you” and “To me you’re beauty incarnate.” Rather senselessly, Govert also says some rather unflattering things about himself, including that his daughters, “… still don’t understand what a failure their father is.” Somewhat unbelievably, Fran confesses to Govert that she was also in love with him, but berates him for never getting the balls to profess his love to her, stating, “I loved you and expected everything from you. Happiness within our reach, perfect, too perfect.” Of course, Govert is not the least bit happy when Fran reveals to him that there were other men she also loved who eventually debased her in a most morally and emotionally irreparable way.
While the one-on-one confessional begins to get rather intimate to the point where Govert is lying side-by-side with his dreamlover in bed, Fran ultimately demystifies the perturbed protagonist’s romantic view of her by revealing to him that she is a lecherous lady who ruined no less than three older men’s lives. Of course, it takes two to tango and the men Fran mentions were also equally responsible for destroying her life, even if she is now a famous actress. Too prove what she is saying, Fran pulls out three keepsakes that represent each one of her victims/victimizers, including a luger handgun given to her by her disgraced father, the ‘hand of justice’ statue that was awarded to Judge Brantink (François Bernard) who was forced to resign his position at the school after getting caught having an affair with her, and the book that Govert bought for her as a graduation present but did not actually have the opportunity to give to her. After learning that the rotten corpse Professor Mato and his partner performed an autopsy on was actually that of Fran’s father who dubiously disappeared one day but whose corpse was never recovered, Govert becomes visibly distraught and begins frantically pacing back and forth in the hotel room like a mad man on the verge of a massive panic attack. As she describes in a most morose manner, Fran’s father gave her the gun because he wanted her to kill herself but she did not have the nerve, so she asks Govert to do it, pleading like a sort of pernicious little princess, “Govert, you wanted it to reach right up into heaven, didn’t you? This meeting can turn into something wonderful if you will see me off. Yes, that is the meaning of you coming to me so late.” Of course, Govert abides in what is easily one of the most bizarrely oneiric ‘murder scenes’ in cinema history. Shortly after the protagonist pulls the trigger, Professor Mato and his mate walk in the room and Govert runs up to them and pleads while on his knees in a most meek yet hyper hysterical fashion, “Don’t cut her up. Don’t cut her up. No autopsy.” Ultimately, Govert, who now calls himself ‘Godfried’ (or as he says himself, ‘God Fried’) ends up in a mental institution where he lives a fairly peaceful and productive life as a gardener, especially after coming to realize that he probably did not kill Fran after all. In one of his very last lines of dialogue, Govert reveals he is an unequivocal schizophrenic with a split-personality when he confesses to himself, “The world always seems so vague. I see the truth, in duplicate, in triplicate. But that vagueness, that’s what I believe in.”
Interestingly, source writer Johan Daisne once stated regarding his source novel The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short that, “It’s not a novel about a madman. This man is not deranged. He’s neurotic, an oversensitive person, who feels what we all feel, but more intensely. He suffers as a result, he becomes a perfectionist, and because of that perfectionism he feels too second-rate for everything he has to do.” While Daisne denies that antihero Govert is crazy, the novel itself seems like it was written by a raving madman as it is over 200 pages yet does not feature any paragraphs or chapters, but is instead structured in a manner that is like one long stream-of-consciousness rant. Indubitably, the genius of André Delvaux’s cinematic adaptation and the way that it traps the viewer into entering the mind of a madman is that the protagonist initially seems like a harmless pathetic pencil-pushing wimp that deserves the audience's pity and not a completely unhinged nut of the potentially homicidal sort, thus enabling the viewer to empathize with him and ultimately experience his progressive mental degeneration, which is certainly a quality that few, if any, other films can boast, at least to any notable degree. While the film was mostly trashed by Belgians film critics upon its initial release, it ultimately earned much well deserved international success as a work that was praised by Jean-Luc Godard and even won the British Film Institute award for the ‘most original and imaginative film,’ thereupon putting both Belgian cinema and director Delvaux on the map in the cinema world, though the filmmaker would never again have another work that was just as successful, even if he did direct a couple more masterpieces in and outside of Belgium (indeed, Delvaux would later go on to direct a couple films in France). In its change in style at about the midway point from a sort of quasi-neorealism to magic realism, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short somehow manages to take an approach to mental illness that is, somewhat paradoxically, both seemingly rather realistic and completely mystifying. Indeed, aside from possibly Ingmar Bergman’s classic Såsom i en spegel (1961) aka Through a Glass Darkly, Delvaux’s debut is easily the most mature, hypnotic, and artful film I have ever seen on the subject of a person succumbing to schizophrenia. Naturally, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short also makes Ron Howard’s four-time Academy Award winning blockbuster A Beautiful Mind (2001) and other related overrated Hollywood works revolving around the subject of schizophrenia seem like aesthetically autistic and arrogantly asinine exercises in schizoid fetishism and social retard romanticism. Indeed, post-WWII Belgium may not be good for much, but the country is most certainly responsible for producing some of the darkest and most disturbing cinematic works around, which is probably normal for a culturally schizophrenic country with two different main cultures that speak two different languages.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 1:16 AM
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