“Where are we?
– In a castle.
– Where the witch makes poisoned red apples to advertise the toothpaste movie stars use.”
(St Maurice de Remens, France, 1985)
There is one sound which, when I hear it, transports me back to my childhood in a flash. It’s the sound of a film playing on a television in another room, loud enough that I can recognize the speech patterns of cinema (as opposed to say, an ad or a soap), far enough that I can’t actually make out the words.
My mom has always been a fierce defender of sleep. “You can lose sleep but you can’t catch up on it once it’s lost”, she used to say. Until the age of about 13, I had a very strict curfew. 9pm on a weeknight usually, though I subsequently negotiated it back to 9:30pm.
Most nights I’d sit in front of the TV and start watching the evening’s movie. This was back in the day when television still showed feature films playing in prime time. I’d usually only catch the first 20 minutes before being sent (never without a fight) to bed.
“C’est pas un film pour les enfants!” my grandparents would say. Or my mom would argue that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate in school if I stayed up late. Insisting the door to my bedroom stay ajar, I tried hard to hear the rest of the movie, falling asleep to the muffled sounds of a story begun in Hollywood and finished in my imagination.
I still encounter movies today on video with a sense of deja vu. “I’ve seen this before…”, I think, “this isn’t how the film ends!” Often, I would’ve seen the first scenes as a child and made the rest up in bed. Years later, many films seem to resonate with some distant echo, a blend of memories, dreams and semi-conscious fantasies.
I must have seen hundreds of these intros as a child, making mental notes of the films which I’d vow to watch again in full, once my tyrannical parents had somehow been eliminated. Sometimes when the film was particularly alluring I’d sneak out of bed and peek at the TV from the living room door. The first film to benefit from this bold transgression was Jean-Jacques Beinex’s cult thriller Diva, and I still remember the beating of my heart as I experienced the illicit, voyeuristic thrill of watching a film made for adults from beginning to end.
It was at my grandparents’ house in the country, just outside Lyon in France, I must have been 8 years old. I was sat in my pj’s on the cold tiles in the corridor, with a clear view of the television in the living room. There was a clear sense from the start that this was a film for adults. And yet it was filled with wonders… the opening aria by Wilhelmenia Fernandez, a frightening ice-pick throwing hitman, a pursuit through neon-lit video game arcades and, best of all, the most incredible chase sequence involving a young postman racing a moped down the underground tunnels of the Parisian subway.
This stylish French thriller ushered in a new 80’s aesthetic, an influence which would be felt far and wide, from Luc Besson and Leos Carax in France to Michael Mann and Ridley Scott in the States. Not since the French New Wave had a local film so redefined style: “the image is the message”. My amazement that night, however, was centered around an unexpected and, until now, unrecognized influence. My father’s apartment, in which I lived half the time, was modeled almost entirely on the super cool lofts in Diva.
Some pieces, like the sawed off front end of a Citroën 11CV traction avant which was hung above my dad’s bed, was borrowed directly from the film. Others, like the many store mannequins which littered the flat, the Wurlitzer jukebox, the Space Invaders pinball machine in the living room or the Harley Davidson motorcycle he used as a coat hanger (brought up to the top floor piece by piece then reassembled in his bedroom), were clearly inspired by Beinex’s cult film.
This was a film I’d heard the adults around me speak about often since its release in 1981. All round me it seemed I saw signs of its influence, in the fashions, in the obsession with industrial aesthetics, in the music (Alfredo Catalani‘s opera La Wally and Satie, everywhere). For the first time I understood that cinema could be part of the culture, and that – in France, at the time – a cool independent film like Diva could embed itself in the collective cultural DNA like a virus. I was a child, but I felt part of a very exclusive club.
Seeing this adult film right until the end was part of my coming of age. And when I think back to the many films of my childhood, aborted by curfew, I realize this endless series of teases go a long way towards explaining my current cinephilia, a violent hunger for cinema barely satiated by hours of nocturnal viewings. To this day I still feel lucky and excited when I get to stay and watch a film past the 20 minute mark, victorious when the end credits finally roll.
Mathieu Ravier is originally from France but has lived in San Francisco, Tokyo, Paris, Toronto, Hong Kong and Manchester. He now lives in Sydney where he works as manager of programming at the Australian Museum. Before that he was the artistic director of the Commonwealth Film Festival and the founder and director of The Festivalists. He has programmed and attended hundreds of film festivals and is passionate about cinema in all its forms. Favourite film: Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.