Synopsis: Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim adapt works by macabre author Edgar Allan Poe in the anthology film Histoires extraordinaires. Dealing with tormented characters experiencing a personal hell, filled with angst and delirium, Histoires extraordinaires was a ground-breaking departure for the adaptation of Poe in cinema.
eyelights: its collection of short films. its memorable casts. the quality of its productions.
eyesores: its ill-fitting third entry. its overdub.
‘Histoires extraordinaires’ is a 1968 anthology of three Edgar Allan Poe short stories, as directed by three different filmmakers: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. It is based on “Metzengerstein”, “William Wilson” and “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” and stars Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot and Terence Stamp.
As much as I’m a fan of Poe-related cinema, I hadn’t heard of this film until it was recently released on blu-ray in the UK; it doesn’t appear as though it made much of a mark in North America (where it was overdubbed and/or re-edited and retitled ‘Spirits of the Dead’). In fact, it didn’t even find a distributor until over a year later.
Aside for a brief quote by Poe to open the picture, it’s very much a no-frills affair, jumping right in and serving up the approximately 40-minute long shorts in sequence over the course of two hours, tied together merely by shots of smoke and/or clouds. Each of the shorts is titled in a cursive hand-writing that befits the period and its inspiration.
1. Metzengerstein: Starring Jane Fonda, this one tells the story of Countess Frédérique, head of the Metzengerstein estate. Rich beyond belief, she fulfills her every whim and leads a life of decadence and cruelty. After returning to the castle she grew up in, she becomes fascinated with her cousin Wilhelm, whom she’d heretofore always mocked due to a family feud.
But he brushes her away, content with his simple life. Frustrated with his attitude, she exacts revenge by burning down his beloved stables, leading to his untimely death. But a black horse comes running out of the stables and into Frédérique’s care. She becomes enamoured with it, retreats from the world and spends all her time with the stallion as her only company.
This lovely horse will be the end of her.
I enjoyed this short because it establishes Frédérique’s character well, showing us how immoral she is: on her journey to her childhood home, she looks at the landscape with awe, despite the hanging man in the background, which she doesn’t even acknowledge. She also has no qualms torturing children if they displease her. And she’s also a libertine, hosting orgies.
Her transition is also well done. We can easily believe that her cousin impacted her in the way that he did and that the horse has a mesmerizing effect on her. Though she goes from cruelty to playfulness, her overarching quality is empowerment and freedom; she doesn’t change completely, even if she becomes somewhat unrecognizable to the people who know her.
Jane Fonda is terrific in the part. It’s easy to forget how good an actress she is because of all the other baggage: the sexy films, the political controversies, the exercise videos and her marriage to Ted Turner. She owns the part and smooths over the changes. Peter Fonda, her brother, is excellent as a quiet, self-assured, content man. He’s the calm to her storm.
(And, yes, it’s a slightly incestuous casting choice, but at most Wilhelm wraps his coat around Frédérique. It’s nothing shocking.)
I very much like the atmosphere of the piece, its slow burn. And it’s a really nice-looking production, set in real locations, not on sets; you can’t beat real castles. And Fonda is absolutely lovely, dressed in sexy -but not especially revealing- outfits or in thigh-high leather boots and a fascinating thick brown horse-riding bustier. She’s total eye candy.
But I didn’t understand the relationship between the stallion and Wilhelm. Was it supposed to be his reincarnation? Was it his retribution, taken a life of its own? And the ending was also unclear: what compelled her to ride the horse into the brush fire? Was it the horse? Was it her own madness? Though it remains a terrific ending, I didn’t get it.
There were also some curious editing choices, such as the abrupt opening: the first shot is of a dead man bleeding on the ground, with no explanation or context for it. Who was that man? What was the point of showing him if he’s irrelevant? Then Frédérique departs suddenly, within seconds of the film’s start. Why show us her chambers at all, then?
I also found it really strange to have so many pieces of dialogue buried under either narration or music – especially since the ambient noises (like birds, crickets, …etc.) remained present. I suspect that this was done to simplify the editing of the various language versions, but it was weird for only the actors to be silent in those moments, nothing else.
Still, all in all, I enjoyed “Metzengerstein”. Of course, I’ve never read the original short story: based on its wiki summary, some liberties were taken with the source material, in particular by making the lead a woman and changing the relationship between her and Wilhelm. But the tapestry is present, though the finale seems to be slightly altered.
2. William Wilson: Starring Alain Delon, this one finds a soldier running through the streets of 19th century Italy looking to confess. Though he’s not Christian, he imposes on the priest and recounts his recurring lifelong encounters with his doppelgänger, who is also named William Wilson.
A psychopath, the implacable Wilson would tease and torture schoolmates he didn’t like, irrespective of the consequences to himself. Even as an adult, he would take advantage of the people he encountered, manipulating them with threats or lies, merely out of some twisted desire to cause harm.
At key moments in his life, the other William Wilson would come out of the shadows to rescue these victims. Seemingly powerless, Wilson would always let his doppelgänger undo his plans and railroad his future, getting him expelled from school, university or even the Army. He fears and loathes him.
But what happens if he tries to stop him?
I enjoyed this one because our protagonist was evil to his deepest core, savouring these moments of inhumanity – but he couldn’t get the leverage needed to become the full-scale monster that he craved to be; his alter ego always put a stop to it. It was a cool dynamic, and it set a nice balance.
Alain Delon perfectly incarnated Wilson, with his cold eyes and cruel mouth. And when Wilson was right in the middle of his malevolent plans, Delon gave him a small twinkle that made it clear he was in his elements. Brrr. And yet Delon was also able to fill Wilson with dread in his final moments.
Brigitte Bardot has a cameo as Giuseppina, a young woman who challenges Wilson at cards and whom the latter proceeds to reel in and cheat out of everything. Apparently Louis Malle would have preferred someone else but was vetoed by the producers. Bardot is solid, though I couldn’t get over her wig.
I also couldn’t get over the sight of the dummy being thrown from the church tower, limp limbs flailing all the way down; it would be so easy to fix this, to make it credible. The rest of the production, though, is superb; its use of real locations roots the film, making it look very much of the period.
Caveats aside, I really enjoyed “William Wilson”. I loved the gimmick of the doppelgänger and the twist at the end. It stirs the imagination just as much as it chills the bones. I’m not sure if fans of the source material would appreciate the short’s many changes, but it seems to capture its essence.
3. Toby Dammit: Starring Terence Stamp, “Toby Dammit” is loosely based on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” and is the least plot-based of the three shorts. It essentially follows a British actor on a visit to Italy for a promotional tour and to begin filming a Catholic Western produced by the Church itself.
Much of it satirizes Italian society on many levels, including the Church, but also the TV and film industry, transforming them into strange caricatures of what director Federico Fellini must have seen in his midst. The centrepiece is a motion picture award ceremony, which finds everyone lampooned to death.
Dammit is essentially a passenger on this wild ride: From the moment he arrives at the airport (yes, this story is set in modern times), he is faced with all manners of peculiar individuals, as though Italy was one huge circus – or a freakshow, depending on your perspective. Dammit drinks to get himself through.
By the time that he arrives at a TV studio for a lengthy interview, he’s in the perfect frame of mind for the nonsensical exchange that takes place between him and the interviewer. And by the evening’s gala, he’s so wiped out that he can barely stay conscious – and proceeds to making an outrageous acceptance speech.
Dammit is haunted by visions of an eerie blonde girl dressed in white and playing with a white balloon, but it’s not clear what her role in his life is, or if she’s even real. All we know is that she shows up at the end, when Dammit goes on a crazy joyride through the city street and barrels forward to his doom.
Stamp is phenomenal here, looking like a blonde incarnation of Poe, serving up such eccentric flourishes that his performance was reminiscent of Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken at their campy best. It was clear that Dammit was confused, wounded, maybe deeply damaged and could barely cope with his life.
But the short itself is just too nuts for the picture. While many lauded Fellini’s return after a lengthy absence from cinema and feel that it’s the strongest film of the three, it’s also the least contextually appropriate. While the other two aren’t as artistically memorable, they at least feel at home with Poe.
Still, I do enjoyed the satire. And I love its surrealistic quality. On its own, “Tony Dammit” is a superb short film; there’s no denying that. It would likely be at home with Buñuel, Jodorowsky and Lynch’s trippier fare. But it really has no place in this collection because it throws the tone completely.
And fans of Poe would be dismayed by how little this has in common with the source material, aside for the titular character and, to some degree, his fate. The rest of the story is absolutely unrecognizable, even if you transpose the setting to modern times. I’m not really sure what the intention was here.
There are different versions of ‘Histoires extraordidaires’: it was shot with many markets in mind, with “Metzengerstein” being shot in French and English and edited with alternating footage, giving it a slightly different feel, whereas the others were shot in their native languages and were either subtitled or overdubbed for their respective markets.
The overdubbing could be annoying at times, but it was unbearable for “Tony Dammit”, which was all shot in Italian with the vocals later redone in French. At least Jane Fonda could speak French and Alain Delon was French, so there was a minimal amount of overdubbing for those shorts. In “Dammit”, none of the dialogues matched the lip movements.
Still, the stories are fascinating and they’re all backed by very strong performances from all the leads, so its weaknesses don’t hamper ‘Histoires extraordinaires’; it’s probably one of the better adaptations of Poe that I’ve seen – if only due to the caliber of the productions. I don’t know how often he was treated with this much respect.
Or such extraordinary care.
Date of viewing: January 2, 2017