Much has been made of the short edits in PSYCHO’s shower sequence and the emotional impact it had upon the audience. Not enough has been said about the axe murder in MÉNILMONTANT, a film made thirty four years earlier. The machine gun fast montage, composed of many shots no more than a second long, is just as alarming as Hitchcock’s. And while the shock of Hitchcock’s murder came, in part, because of its unexpected dispatch of the main character, the murder in MÉNILMONTANT is no less shocking for occurring immediately as the film opens, with no narrative exposition.
Widely considered a melodrama or tragedy, I consider MÈNILMONTANT one of the most frightening, emotionally stirring horror films ever made. Though (not widely enough) regarded as a cinematic masterpiece, you’ll never see it on a list of “best horror films ever,” but I’d consider it a classic of the genre. It should be obvious to any film lover that movies not usually considered “horror” can be just as horrifying. Furthermore, they may contain all the elements needed to satisfy genre fans, like me, who crave the stylistic tropes and narrative cliches of the “horror” genre. Personally, I’d rather watch MÉNILMONTANT a hundred times (its short length would make that easy) than to sit through Tod Browning’s overrated, dull, poorly-paced DRACULA even one more time (I tried it with the Phillip Glass soundtrack and I still feel nothing). In many ways, in a time when expressionistic (but no less gothic) horror ruled, MÉNILMONTANT could be considered a precursor to the naturalistic horror films of the 60s and 70s, films like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, that challenged the preponderance of gothic tropes in popular horror films and, like melodramas before them, focused on “real” threats: murderous people, destructive beliefs, oppressive institutions, and all the bubbling, threatening horrors that our disintegrating culture seeks to repress.
Like many of those great horror films of the seventies, MÉNILMONTANT addresses these kinds of issues directly without coy metaphors. Its explicitness might even be shocking for people who think of “old” films as addressing sexuality or violence only through metaphor or tastefully “off the screen.” MÉNILMONTANT has no need for pussyfooting around. Its vampire is a man, but no less destructive. His “bite” isn’t metaphorical. He destroys, at least in part, through sex. The sex is depicted onscreen (with nudity), and its consequences are real and brutal. In fact, you are more likely to feel the horror and agony of the protagonist’s victimization in MÉNILMONTANT than you are while watching any contemporary Hollywood equivalent. This has nothing to do with prudence or “leaving things to the imagination” and everything to do with the expressive skills of the filmmaker.
Like the best of 70s horror, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE being the prime example, MÉNILMONTANT uses every expressionistic, experimental cinematic tool in the book to lend its naturalistic horror the emotional power of a punch in the gut. Inspired by everyone from Eisenstein to the Surrealists (his contemporaries), director Dimitri Kirsanoff’s masterpiece is, in my opinion, one of the rare films that perfectly combines experimental form and relatable content in a manner that elevates both. I am not the only one with this opinion. Renowned film critic Pauline Kael, perhaps the most influential film critic of all time, cited MÉNILMONTANT as her personal favorite…of all films. I don’t always agree with Kael’s assessments (no one does), but I can certainly agree with her high esteem for MÉNILMONTANT.
Filmed silently and without titles (rare for the time), MÉNILMONTANT is one of the closest things I’ve seen to “pure cinema.” I don’t mean this in the sense of “formalism” or a cinema reduced to manipulative techniques (like Hitchcock’s famous dream of being able to push a button to trigger prescribed audience reactions.) I am defining “pure cinema” as the marriage of narrative and image so that each image has powerful, specific emotional and narrative purpose. No image is wasted. It is the epitome of what contemporary filmmakers seek with their obsessive storyboarding of movies (apart from saving money). Unfortunately, this practice (inspired by Hitchcock’s necrophilious desires and Lucas/Spielberg’s equally robotic example) has drained much contemporary film of all the power and poetry that makes MÉNILMONTANT a masterpiece. One could consider this eighty-eight year old movie an anecdote for the disease that has currently afflicted our visual landscape: the disease of affectless image.
If you’re not “used to” watching silent films, let alone “art films” from the 1920s, I urge you to nonetheless give this one a chance. It truly is as accessible as any contemporary movie once it gets its grip upon you, the acting is some of the best you will see (not overly theatrical as you might expect), and it is only a half hour long. Here, I’ll even include my own (spoiler free) rewrite of the IMDB summary should you need a plot description to seduce you into watching:
“A couple is brutally murdered in the working-class district of Paris. Later on, the narrative follows the oppressed lives of their two emotionally interdependent daughters as they are divided and devastated by the seduction of a handsome stranger. When eventually reunited, the two sisters attempt to directly address their oppressive conditions in a manner that is shocking, liberating, and tragic.”
That should be sufficient. If it doesn’t entirely sound like horror, you would be wrong. It’s most definitely horror, though it is also so much more…