Far too many coincidences
Around the age of ten or twelve I was struck more than anything by The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the fear of seeing a gorilla appear at the window haunted my childhood insomnia for a long time (at the age of three I had been extremely frightened of a small marmoset which suddenly leapt up at the window; it is perhaps the only precise memory of my earliest years).
This childhood memory of Jean Ferry anticipated strangely the experience of seeing King Kong, a film which should in later years by turns delight and horrify him.
The text he wrote about this film for the magazine Minotaure in 1934 (translated by Paul Hammond for The Shadow and its Shadow) intrigued me by its notion that logical lapses could actually heighten the appeal of a film.
To sum up, through the absurdity of its treatment (an inept script with numerous incoherent details), its violent oneiric power (the horribly realistic representation of a common dream), its monstrous eroticism (the monster’s unbridled love for the woman, cannibalism, human sacrifice), the unrealitiy of certain sets… the film seems to correspond to all that we mean by the adjective “poetic” and in which we had the temerity to hope the cinema would be its most fertile native soil.
As I dug further into Ferry’s life I found out that he was very prolific as both screenwriter and participant in surrealist activities (click here to see 4 surrealist tracts signed by Ferry). But the conjunction of these was rather seldom in his career. Maybe that’s the reason why he is so underrepresented in film history as well as in accounts of the surrealist movement.
Jean Ferry was born as Jean André Levy in 1906 in Capens (France). It seems that he was a natural-born surrealist as he was a nephew of the important publisher of surrealist works José Corti. After his studies in Paris he worked several years as a radio operator on a freighter of the merchant navy. In 1933 he began to participate in surrealism, but according to Eric Losfeld “he showed an ease in life that the other members of the (surrealist) group maybe didn’t possess”.
Collages by Jean Ferry in Minotaure No. 10
At about this time he also joined the agit-prop-theatre groupe octobre which was largely dominated by the writing of Jacques Prévert. Ferry’s part was mostly that of an actor.
His first job in the film business was as “chef de plateau” (a position comparable to a unit manager) for the Pathé-Nathan studios. Jacques Brunius, another surrealist filmmaker who was also hired in this function, hated it as it mainly consisted of writing reports about the occurences on the sets or as Brunius put it “industrial espionage” for the studio bosses. At the same time Ferry was also pursuing a career as a writer.
During the occupation of France by the German troups he changed his birthname to that of his wife Marcelle ‘Lila’ Ferry, a flashy redhair and former mistress of André Breton, in order to conceal his jewish identity.
After the war Ferry wrote a story which so impressed André Breton that he included it in the revised edition of his Anthology of Black Humor: Le Tigre mondain. The story, which later appeared in Ferry’s book Le mécanicien et autres contes, describes a circus act which involves a tiger who is trained to mimic the behaviour of chic party people. Although the tiger stays in character throughout the story, a sense of danger permeates the event. For Breton Ferry’s story perfectly summed up the human condition during the cold war era. “Ferry writes on the resting place of the cloud that Hiroshima has created in our conscience”. The narrator of Le tigre mondain puts it this way: “we’re all in a state of equilibrium which is frighteningly instable and which could be shattered by a nothing.”
Ferry was also a brilliant author of secondary literature. Among other things he was an eminent authority on absurdist writer Raymond Roussel and on genre writers like Gaston Leroux, Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. He was crucial in the foundation of the magazine Bizarre, in which would be published many of his articles concerning these issues.
Around 1953 Ferry turned his back on surrealism to become a prominent member of the Collège du Pataphysique (if you follow this link, you’ll find many details of Ferry’s career in this organisation), which was founded in 1948. It is a sort of club whose philosophy is grounded on the “science of imaginary solutions” established by Alfred Jarry. Other interesting members were Raymond Queneau, Marcel Duchamp, Michel Leiris and Jean Dubuffet.
His career in screenwriting spanned thirty-five years and comprised about fifty films of which many seem to be quite forgettable as they were mainly commissioned works. His first really interesting collaboration is that with Henri-Georges Clouzot for Quai des Orfèvres.
Set within the vibrant dance halls and crime corridors of 1940s Paris, Quai des Orfèvres follows ambitious performer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), her covetous husband Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), and their devoted confidante Dora Monier (Simone Renant) as they attempt to cover one another’s tracks when a sexually orgreish high-society acquaintance is murdered. Enter Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), whose seasoned instincts lead him down a circuitous path in this classic whodunit murder mystery. – synopsis from the Criterion DVD
Luc Sante observes that for a crime story “it has a flimsy plot, with far too many coincidences for the good of any story” and that the main interest lies rather in the “emotions of the characters than in fripperies of plot construction”. I assume that the unlikely coincidences are part of the Ferry-touch and intentional as Ferry’s literary hero Raymond Roussel also liked to (ab)use beneficent chance in some of his plots.
- Another collaboration with Clouzot initially became part of the surrealist film pantheon. Ado Kyrou termed Manon “one of the most dazzling images of mad love”. It is a transposition to a contemporary setting of Abbé Prevost’s novel Manon Lescaut.
In this film… love overwhelms the protagonists in much the same way as in L’âge d’or. Manon is without redeeming qualities except when she surrenders to this love, while Robert seems devoid of character except when he is roused by it. Love acts on them to enable them to live beyond what they could otherwise experience, making them realize that the life offered to them is not the life they want.
Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema
- In 1953 he worked for Riccardo Freda and Mario Soldati in Italy. Spartaco aka Sins of Rome was a peplum and La provinciale an adaptation of a novel by Alberto Moravia. Interestingly, both were directors of films which were greeted enthusiastically by surrealists. Freda with L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock and Soldati with Malombra.
- In 1956 Ferry wrote the screenplay for Cela s’appelle l’aurore together with Luis Bunuel. He came in as replacement for Jean Genet who had already collected his fee for the script but failed to deliver.
- Probably a project more personal for Ferry was Si tous les gars du monde as it echoes Ferry’s former job as a radio operator and the surrealist’s interest in world citizenry.
- For Louis Malle he scripted Vie privée. Malle wanted to “recreate in the film the strange social phenomenon that Brigitte Bardot had become…”
La faute de l’abbé Mouret (1970) was an adaptation of Zola’s novel for Georges Franju.
- Among his last films are his collaborations with Belgian director Harry Kümel and I gather that these were the films were Ferry came closest to express ideas akin to these in his literary activities. Rouge aux lèvres aka Daughters of Darkness is a sensous vampire film with Sternbergian overtones.
The script proceeds with comic-strip tableaux, frozen in their fetishistic splendour but also destroying whatever narrative coherence, if any, may have been intended.
Aurum Film Encyclopedia – Horror (Ed. Phil Hardy)
The excellent Esotika Erotica Psychotika recently wrote a post about the personal importance that this film has for him.
There are countless subtleties to the film that not only heighten the atmosphere, but also extend the psycho-sexual story of Stefan and Valerie’s relationship into something truly worthwhile. The film, in actuality, has the relationship more at it’s core than the vampires that help to extend these ideas. It’s almost safe to say that the vampires are symbolic, but doing so would over look much of what makes the film a success. more…
- Malpertuis, the best adaptation of a Jean Ray novel ever, is about…
…an old seadog (Orson Welles) who discovers the gods of ancient Greece, exhausted by centuries of neglect but still alive. He captures them and , with the help of a taxidermist, saws them into human skins.
Aurum Film Encyclopedia – Horror (Ed. Phil Hardy)
- An adaptation of a novel by Hubert Lampo which was directed by Kümel for Belgian TV – De komst von Joachim Stiller (1976) – was to be Ferry’s last film.
- A project with André Cayatte which was never realized – because it was brought to a halt by the French ministry of justice – was about the Seznec affair. The alleged murder of Pierre Quéméneur (his body was never found) by his friend Joseph Seznec – who was found guilty and served 25 years in a bagno in French Guyana – was a case that created a huge scandal in France for years. Quéméneur was a politician and he and Seznec were involved in dubious business transactions with the Soviet Union.
- Fidelité – “a somber political crime story about the disappearance of a football” (E. Losfeld) – was a script which Ferry never intended to be made into a film.
… he invites his readers to engage in a matérialisation intime, by projecting his characters and their actions on an inner screen. Despite his professional manner of presentation, Ferry does not delude himself. He does not pretend to be providing in Fidélité the scenario of a film we can expect to see one day in a movie house. This is a movie for the imagination, not for commercial exploitation.
J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and Film
According to Eric Losfeld Ferry became so overweighed in his last years that his “waistline was equal to his height” so that he always had to carry with him “a battery destined to reanimate his heart in case of failure.”
Jean Ferry died of heart attack on the 26th phalle of 101.
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Tags: Anthology of Black Humor, Bizarre, Cinema, Collège de Pataphysique, Harry Kümel, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry, King Kong, Le Mécanicien et autres contes, Minotaure, Pataphysics, Quai des Orfèvres, Raymond Roussel, surrealism