Starring: Patricia Gozzi, Melvyn Douglas, Dean Stockwell
Director: John Guillermin
John Guillermin is one of those directors where you might not know the name but you’ve almost certainly seen one of his films. The Towering Inferno was one of his. So was Death on the Nile and the 1976 King Kong remake, plus several WWII movies that used to be staples of afternoon TV. And then there’s Rapture (1965), the odd one out. It’s the only John Guillermin movie where you make a point of checking the director’s credit because you wonder who would be crazy enough to put together a film like that.
Shot on location on the coast of Brittany, it concerns a family who live in picturesque squalor in an isolated farmhouse. There’s grouchy old Frederick (Melvyn Douglas), a retired judge; Agnes (Patricia Gozzi), his teenage daughter; and Karen (Gunnel Lindblom), their nubile housekeeper. Like Breton cousins of the Starkadders in Cold Comfort Farm, the characters nurse their secrets and fly off the handle at each other at the slightest provocation. Agnes is a half-savage waif in the grip of a febrile sexual awakening; she’s only happy running wild on the cliff-tops, where she has a secret cave full of treasures. Then she befriends Joseph (Dean Stockwell), an escaped prisoner, confusing him in her mind with a scarecrow she has made because he has stolen the old suit it was dressed in.
It’s a story full of jarring, implausible notes (a police van tumbling end over end in front of the family as they walk home from church is, in this context, something you take in your stride), and these are only heightened by a mise-en-scene that feels stilted and mannered. It’s certainly a motley crew to find under one rooftop: crotchety character actor Douglas, putting on a French accent; Stockwell, not putting on a French accent, but doing an uncanny James Dean impersonation (you can only tell it’s Stockwell because of the eyebrows); and Ingmar Bergman regular Lindblom, bringing her own Swedish gravitas and sensuality to proceedings.
With a cast like that, naturalism clearly wasn’t the first thing on anyone’s mind. But in a way the sense that everything is slightly off is part of the film’s appeal, helping to draw your attention more firmly to the weird sexual symbolism and strange subtexts that come pushing through the grotesquely heavy decor. Agnes falls for Joseph, building up to the moment when she finally shows him her secret cave. Meanwhile, under the guise of sharing his thoughts on jurisprudence, set down in a lengthy tome he’s been writing, Frederick, too, takes a keen interest in the handsome visitor. “My book, perhaps you can look at it this evening, tell me what you think.” An innocent enough request, you might think, but it’s the way he insists. You can tell It’s a short step from that to Frederick showing him his etchings. Unfortunately for them, Joseph is more interested in Karen’s buxom charms.
Rapture was apparently intended as a vehicle for French child actress Patricia Gozzi (fifteen years old when she played the role) in the hope that it would introduce her to English-speaking audiences. That perhaps explains why – despite authentic production values and the presence of a French crew behind the camera – the film owes more to the overblown idiom of late ’50s/early ’60s Hollywood than it does to the breezy excitement of the French New Wave. You can practically feel Gozzi fighting against this on some instinctive level. She brings a wailing, wild-eyed artlessness to her role. The thing you remember most about the film afterwards is her voice, so raw and plaintive, and the sight of her, grubby yet radiant, framed in medium close-up against the stark, forbidding, monolithic compositions of Marcel Grignon’s black and white CinemaScope cinematography.
The HD transfer is very striking. There’s some rather busy grain, admittedly, but also lots of etching-like detail and thick inky blacks that look like they could rub off on your fingers. The audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redmon – who were asked by the director himself to look into whether there were any usable prints that could form the basis for a home video release – is very helpful in filling in the background to the film and its key participants and in teasing out various themes and motifs.