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Les Abysses

…unfortunately, the film seems to have been intended to be taken more or less seriously as a cry of outrage and derision at the decay of the social order in provincial France…

WATCHING “Les Abysses” (The Depths), which opened at the Fine Arts yesterday, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the lunatics took over the asylum during the making of this film, to use an old gag in the movie world. And I don’t mean simply that the characters appear to be lunatics; I mean the whole thing appears assembled by people who were mad.

If that makes it sound fascinating—at least, as something to see for the oddity of its construction and its abnormalities—I cannot deny there is a certain bizarrerie about it, an appearance and air of maniacal mischief that bring it close to burlesque.

But, unfortunately, the film seems to have been intended to be taken more or less seriously as a cry of outrage and derision at the decay of the social order in provincial France. As such, its lunatic ravings and its frankly anarchistic disarray render it not only unsubstantial as a dramatic essay but also considerably annoying—and quite absurd.

The depths seems to be the condition into which a provincial household is plunged by the strangely permitted presence in it of two violently crazy maids. These looney domestics, apparently sisters, make a mess of the place, spilling food on the floor, smashing dishes and fighting ferociously.

The mistress is unable to control them. When she chides them, they spit in her face and shriek like demented banshees. And when monsieur attempts to sell the place, they rebuke him with wild vituperation and shriek to the prospective buyers that the place is full of termites — which it is.

Towards the end, these two leap like wildcats on the mistress and her daughter, a sad soul who has shown a sexual interest in one of the sisters, and violently murder them, whereupon monsieur has a twinge of conscience and says he may be to blame. It seems he hasn’t paid the crazy creatures in something over three years.

According to advance information, the script by Jean Vauthier was based on a celebrated double-murder that occurred in France in 1933. Solemn endorsements of the picture have been given by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacque Prevert and Jean Genêt, who has also written a play based on the same murder case.

That, of course, is their privilege, but the concentration of evil they say they see represented by the two sisters looks like nothing more than mad-house lunacy or, to be more practical about it, just an excess of histrionic zeal.

Francine Berge and Colette Berge, who plays the sisters (and are sisters, actually), go at their tasks with the intensity of amateurs acting in a charade. They mope and scream and claw at each other as though told to cut loose with all they have by the brazen director, Nico Papatakis, whose first feature film this is.

Indeed, they do so with such devotion that is is often ludicrous, especially in one scene, which is supposed to be funny, when they are serving coffee to the prospective purchasers. Then the excessiveness of the characters become appreciable buffonery.

As monsieur and madame, Paul Bonifas and Colette Regis are aptly frenzied and frustrated, and Pascale de Boysson is limp and soggy as their daughter who has left her spouse.

What it all comes down to is evidence that the servant problem is tough in France. Or it pays to pay your domestics. Mary Poppins would be quite amazed.

New York Times

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