❉ Missing the days when network TV would fill their graveyard slot with obscure cult movie tone poems? Cinema at 3 AM is for you.
Trouble sleeping? Find yourself wondering around in the dark during the wee hours? Missing the days when network TV would fill their graveyard slot with obscure cult movie tone poems? Our new regular feature, Cinema at 3 AM is for you. Let’s kick off by exploring the streets of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s rarely seen ‘Litan’.
Nora (Maria-José Nat) awakens from a nightmare in the strange, perpetually mist-shrouded town of Litan, an Eldrich location squeezed amidst the walls of a labyrinthine canyon. Afraid for her lover, geologist Jock (director Jean-Pierre Mocky), after seeing his apparent death in her dream, she goes in search of him and almost immediately, strange things start to take place. After attempting to reach him on the telephone, her call is answered only by a disembodied voice who tells her that he will meet her in the graveyard.
She journeys to the Black Rocks, hitching a lift from a red coated, silver masked band after a horrific accident puts the bus–driven by a man completely unaware of his surroundings–out of action. Once reunited with Jock, the couple become embroiled in a bizarre adventure involving sinister experiments, freak accidents, boy scouts, incompetent police officers, zombies, and luminescent body snatching subterranean worms that may or may not be the souls of the dead, all the while trying to avoid the increasingly hostile citizens of Litan itself.
The film’s anaemic, mist shrouded settings recall that sense of being lost in a familiar place that suffused the early sequences of Malpertuis (1971) and the dread that you might already be dead from Hourglass Sanatorium (1973). It’s The Wicker Man (1973) meets Jean Rollin’s Raisons de Mort (1982) as if re-imagined by the likes of Jonathan Glazer or Peter Strickland (sort of); a body snatching alien invasion movie (sort of) taking place during a Gaelic Day of the Dead festival (sort of) that apes Hitchcock’s innocent-on-the-run formula (sort of). Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Mocky’s earlier film The Big Scare (1968) was an adaptation of Malpertuis author Jean Ray’s The City of Unspeakable Fear.
But really, attempting to compare Litan to any other film is simply not doing it justice. Anyone who’s ever tried to translate the dread of a nightmare into a verbal description will see what I’m driving at; words can’t quite capture Mocky’s film. Litan is firmly wedged in a place where only fevered dream logic applies, and although Nora and Jock are visitors, we never see them physically arrive; Nora seems to just drop into the town as a result of waking up; she knows where she is and everyone knows her, but she is introduced escaping one nightmare only to find herself in another. The town’s denizens wear rubber carnival masks that make them all look like serial killers wearing their latest victims’ faces. The hospital is the sort of place where hideous experiments are performed just out of reach of detection. The police take a Hitchcockian interest in those who attempt to report crimes whilst ignoring the possibility that something really dreadful is going on right under their noses.
At one point, fleeing on foot from the cops, Nora and Jock try to lose their pursuers in a tannery and cause a momentary distraction that leads to the sort of industrial accident you witness in an anxiety dream when your subconscious is being particularly sadistic (“He’s dissolved! He fell into that tank and dissolved!”). All this is accompanied by the dirge of the red coated, blank masked brass band (along with Nino Ferrer’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service meets Suspiria score), and watched over by a skull faced figure that looks like Dr Phibes without the charm. At no time is there a sense that any of this has any rhyme or reason to it; at least when watching a David Lynch movie there’s that bothersome sense that somewhere at the back of our heads, everything makes sense in an unnameable sort of way and that eventually, one can settle upon an interpretation to fit all the facts. Here, it’s just balls-to-the-wall, everyone’s-out-to-get-you anxiety horror, with Nora and Jock’s actions only helping to precipitate the tragedies Nora foresaw in her dream. It’s even hinted, very, very vaguely, that the entire film might be the dream of a soul trapped in a post-mortem void.
Weirdly, none of this ever comes across as vacuous or pretentious. One resurrected character’s description of what is after death–and what he actually is–comes across as so left field that it’s actually quite marvellous, yet, like so many films fantastique, especially from this period, Litan is shamelessly pulpy; a moving comic book that doesn’t care (or need) to make sense. It’s pop surrealism, and Mocky’s working style reflects that. He was able to churn out modestly budgeted, high quality films at a remarkable pace. Just as pulp authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre were able to bang out one Fantomas novel per month, Mocky has been known to take as little as 12 days to shoot a full-length feature, whilst collecting plenty of awards to boot.
This method of “don’t stop to think about it” working can, in competent hands, result in some pretty startling results, regardless of medium. It delivers a stream of consciousness narrative flow that doesn’t need to be hindered by logic because it’s so full of incident. Mocky is wise enough to deliver his mission statement upfront, opening the film with Nora’s dream which consist of flashes of events yet to come, and revealing the first of these events early on, so that after only a few minutes, we’re clued up enough to not have the expectation of rational explanations. Besides, the film never feels like it’s leading towards a big reveal, since what information we are given is drip fed, and ultimately, it does end on a note that seems fitting.
Filled with random, nonsensical plot points that never seem out of place, and strange, unsettling imagery, Litan is not a film that’ll put you to sleep in a hurry, but if you find yourself suffering from insomnia on a long, wintery night, it will certainly transport you to the land of dreams.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022