Head Against the Walls (1959)

“You said society was a game—you had to know the rules.” 

In Georges Franju’s film Head Against the Walls (La Tete Contre Les Murs) 25-year old Francois (Jean-Pierre Mocky) the son of a prominent, affluent French lawyer (Jean Galland) finds out the hard way just what happens when he tries to fight the system. A moto-cross rider, unemployed, and with the tendency to get into trouble, Francois breaks into his father’s study and deliberately burns some important documents. When confronted, Francois scoffs at the notion that his father will call the police. He reasons that his father won’t want the scandal. And he’s correct about that, but he underestimates his father’s power and range of influence, and promptly finds himself locked up in an insane asylum.

The asylum is run by Dr. Varmont (Pierre Brasseur)—a man who’s just as much a prisoner as his patients. Addicted to old methods, he refuses to deviate from his desire for correction, and in his mind, he’s protecting society from “contamination” by keeping the patients contained apart from society. Stripped of any rights, Francois has no way to fight his committal. His stay in the mental asylum seems indefinite. There’s no concrete course of treatment, and no legal recourse.

The asylum is a nightmarish place. When Francois first arrives, he appears to be in a zombie-like state, and while this hints at sedation given to transport him there, it also underscores the surrealistic feel of the asylum. It’s an institution that supposedly houses the insane, but there’s an insane quality to the way it’s run. In the dining room, Francois is introduced to various inmates: a shell shocked war hero, a sham blind man, and a man tied up in a strait jacket who’s subjected to force-feeding.

Francois’ initial evaluation by Dr. Varmont is not promising. A torch is shone Francois’ eyes, and he’s asked if he has venereal disease. Varmont labels Francois as a person with “character and behaviour troubles.” These rapid conclusions about his patient’s character arise partly from Francois’ lack of employment. While Francois hints at moments from his past that might hold clue to his hostility to his father, Varmont ignores an opportunity to learn more. It’s obvious that Varmont isn’t really that interested in what caused Francois to become an “incendiary,” and of course, that also leads us to doubt Varmont’s sincere desire for a “cure.” Varmont assures Francois that the asylum is a nice place, a sort of holiday camp, which will provide a calm, restful environment. Meanwhile a fight breaks out on the grounds as one patient attacks another with a saw and slashes his face open. A third patient watches the incident from behind some bushes, and some rather heavy-breathing indicates sexual arousal—perhaps even masturbation—although the film just hints at this and doesn’t explore it further.

Over time, Francois makes friends with an epileptic named Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour) who plans an escape. To Heurtevent, there are two options: transfer to the humane care of Dr Emery (Paul Meurisse) or escape to the outside world. High brick walls and barbed wire surround the asylum, and one particularly cruel “treat” for the patients is to allow them to ride around the compound on a miniature train which circumvents the boundaries of the asylum. Does Dr. Varmont truly believe that patients cherish this child-like activity? Does Varmont really imagine that this circular non-stop ride on a kiddie train is a facsimile of freedom?

Stephanie (Anouk Aimee), a young Parisian woman Francois met the day before his incarceration comes to visit Francois. She fails to grasp the cruel net thrown over Francois. She thinks it’s just a matter of Francois making up with his father, and a later interview that takes place between Francois and his father illustrates just how deep the breach is between father and son. Francois sees that his father as an immoral man, and he recalls a time his father fought to have a man hanged, but then came home and showed how the man could have been set free. There are also hints of some dark, long-buried secrets regarding the death of Francois’ mother.Francois does manage to escape with Heurtevent, but their bid for freedom is short lived. After they are returned to the asylum, Heurtevent, unable to escape, unable to transfer to Dr Emery’s humane care, takes the third option and commits suicide. Francois escapes a second time, and while a network of friends establishes an underground life, instead Francois seeks Stephanie and is captured and returned to the asylum once again.

Francois is depicted as an unsuccessful rebel who struggles against his father’s authority, and then is flung into an institution in which Dr Varmont, a godlike figure, is the ultimate authority. The asylum is run in conjunction with yet another institution—the church, and there are several scenes of patients rounded up for various religious services. Francois, as an anti-authoritarian figure fails to subvert his father’s control over his life initially because he returns to conduct a petty act (the burning of documents), and secondly because he’s lured into believing he can have a normal, above ground relationship with Stephanie. The film’s ending implies that this time, Francois will be locked up for good. There will be no more escape attempts and instead Francois will return to the nightmarish existence at the asylum where he will, eventually, go insane. The mental asylum becomes the battle ground for the individual against the power, control, and violence of the institution.

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Filed under France, Political/social films

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