by Gilles Gressard
ONCE UPON A TIME...
René Manzor occupies a very exclusive position in the French film industry. He is the secret offspring of a cinematic union between Terry Gilliam and David Fincher, between Steven Spielberg and... well, frankly, only American names come to mind ! And there’s the rub... René Manzor is perhaps too much of a “Martian” for the French film industry. In short, René Manzor is politically incorrect in France ! As we shall now prove...
WHAT MAKES RENÉ RUN ?
November 1986. Immediately after the screening of his first feature, « LE PASSAGE », I feel that the film is too original, too powerful and too vital, beneath its outwardly commercial aspect, to avoid being shot down in flames. An unusual poster (for a film with Delon) that is also enigmatic, no backing from the critics... I have to meet this new “alien” of the French film world ! The phone directory can come in handy at times.
The meeting, fascinating and friendly, more than fulfils my expectations. I discover a hypersensitive young man of 25 who wishes to express, through uncommon stories, simple things such as life, death, the loss of a child, awareness in the face of a world gone mad, the artist’s questioning and the difficulty of living with someone.
« LE PASSAGE » was a big hit. 2,300,000 admissions in France. The audience was able to recognize one of its own. But, in 1986, in France, it wasn’t a good thing to be “commercial”. Three years of silence.
DON’T BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS
1990, René Manzor’s new film « GAME OVER (36-15 CODE PERE NOEL) » opens the Avoriaz International Film Festival. The first and only time that a French film opens this high mass of fantasy cinema. The film doesn’t even have a French distributor even though its foreign sales break every record at its screening at the Cannes Film Market (three times more than « LE PASSAGE » ! And without Delon !). I am in the theatre. And it happens again ! I am stunned by the style, technical prowess and René’s skill in creating impressive visual worlds.
The film is nothing like the usual horror film. It traumatizes you, haunts you and hypnotizes you because, aside from a seemingly conventional plot (a simple thrill ride around the theme of childhood !), Manzor awakes fears that are buried in our subconscious, both individual and collective. « 36-15 CODE PERE NOEL » is a vital and traumatizing film.
Like « LE PASSAGE », « 36-15 CODE PERE NOEL » (a terrible title, I have to admit !) is an original screenplay by René Manzor. A story with all of the gentleman’s obsessions. It is the extraordinary and unique duel between a child and a psychopath with the imaginary world as its battleground. Manzor’s movie is dark, very dark. Fascinating and today considered a “cult” reference because of its very darkness. But, in 1990, it wasn’t a good thing to be a “cult” director in France. A ten-year exile in the USA.
TV HIGH ON MANZORPHINE
Nearly all the great American directors from the 1960s to the 1980s started out in television where they learned the ropes. Even worse, they used TV as a genuine “laboratory”, a place where they were free and able to try out everything. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Brian de Palma gave a new lease on life to the TV series.
Cock-a-doodle-do, France is the first to understand what René Manzor can bring to the small screen... Probably also because producers realize that René Manzor is a sort of “Mr Bonus”. For the same price, more visual innovation, more narrative intensity, more sophistication and more originality. René Manzor is a workaholic. He works, prepares, studies, imagines, storyboards, and controls things... And, when he steps onto the set, he doesn’t waste any time, even if his imagination is constantly on the alert.
This is apparent in the incredible episode in « SUEURS FROIDES », entitled « LA SUBLIME AVENTURE », in which the butcher played by Guy Marchand has nightmares about chopping up his obese wife. The whole thing is filmed with an attention to lighting, framing and even the special effect shots that is way beyond the usual ambition of a modest TV series.
After « 36-15 CODE PERE NOEL », René Manzor becomes the darling of American TV producers. Two episodes in the series ">THE HITCHHICKER » and our little French filmmaker gives in to the siren call of Hollywood, directing TV-movies and episodes in series, including George LUCAS’ prestigious saga « THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES »... The Jedi of the silver screen wasn’t wrong. He spotted René Manzor’s inspired technical skills. Among the nine other directors selected were Bille August, Terry Jones, Nicolas Roeg and Mike Newell. You get the idea ?
In « PARIS 1908 », the young Indiana Jones meets the young Picasso. In « VERDUN 1916 », he is confronted with the horror of war. George LUCAS and Steven SPIELBERG were wise enough to “suck the lifeblood” out of René Manzor’s European culture, sensitivity and roots. Just like his incisive, graphic and off-key approach that results in his cinema (or his television) being attached so often to the “fantastic” genre. You merely need to view the battle scenes in ">VERDUN 1916 » for proof of this.
This eminently graphic side to René Manzor’s work in general finds its confirmation in the cartoon film that Jean Diaz has to make in « LE PASSAGE », a cartoon that Manzor himself created. Black and white visuals (long before music videos made them fashionable) with red as the only colour. There’s a clown in a pool of his own blood, a female rape victim, a murderous monkey... We’re closer to German Expressionism than to Disney !
In 1994-95, Manzor writes and directs for TV two TV-movies (but given the quality and scope of the direction, it would be wiser to talk about films made for television !) : « WARRIOR SPIRIT ») and « LEGENDS OF THE NORTH »), two adaptations of the work of James Olivier Curwood and Jack London respectively.
In « WARRIOR SPIRIT », two adolescents, one poor and from the city, the other Native American and uprooted, become friends. Together, they have to confront the Warrior of the Great Spirit who, according to legend, shoots gold bullets to protect the mountains. In « LEGENDS OF THE NORTH », an unscrupulous gold prospector and a naïve antique dealer have to cross the Yukon together looking for Esperanza, a legendary lake studded with gold.
All this begs a question : how did the claustrophobic and contemporary director of « 36-15 CODE PERE NOEL » end up in the wastes of the Far North with 19th century characters ? He simply shifted his world to that period, to the wide open spaces where man has to impose himself in the face of the wilderness. Once again, the Manzor touch. In playing with the myths and legends of the icy wastes, the gold rush and the struggle for life, René Manzor speaks first and foremost about men and relates an initiatory journey. The adventure story becomes a moral tale. The power of the images, the traumatizing beauty of the lighting and sets, the emotion aroused by the music, the actors’ performances (you really have to see the “making of” for « DEDALES » to understand the extent to which Manzor “conditions” his actors before he even thinks about filming them !)... All serve a humanist fable.
Then, in 1997, along came « WITCH WAY LOVE »... A both coherent and incoherent step in René Manzor’s cinematic journey. A return to France, just long enough to shoot a film ! René Manzor admits that he has always followed the films that he was making, wherever in the world that may take him. "In movies, there’s “move”, he likes to remind people. He has never had an “American dream” and when the producer Christian Fechner (the man who produced « CAMILLE CLAUDEL ») offers him this film starring Vanessa Paradis, Jeanne Moreau and Jean Reno, it’s hard to turn him down. A simple commission film. A romantic comedy playing with magic, updating the witchcraft myth, pitched somewhere between « BEAUTY AND THE BEAST » and « HARRY POTTER ». We can see what attracted René Manzor to « WITCH WAY LOVE » : the Méliès-style fantasy fable side. However pleasant it may be (the film drew 1,000,000 admissions in France), it is a mere distraction whereas its maker, in order to express himself fully, needs more deliberation.
René Manzor - and his young family - set off back for America. He returns to the “gym”. This is how René Manzor refers to these moments, between two features, when he directs for television. “Less money, less time. You have to stick close to the net. A much better way of keeping in shape than commercials that only make you fat.”
In 1999, two French producers come to see him at home in Los Angeles with another film for hire : « MONSIEUR N ». He will take two years to write this “Empire thriller” about Napoleon’s last days on the island of Saint Helena. But, despite putting a lot of himself into « MONSIEUR N », he will decide not to direct it. Because, on completing the screenplay, he is obsessed by a new idea that is running through his mind, that of his most personal and accomplished film so far, « DEDALES ».
All the same, despite the complexity of « DEDALES », he remains available at all times, as screenwriter, for Antoine de Caunes, the director of « MONSIEUR N ». René immediately finds himself very comfortable with this simple role. There too, his American experience plays its part. “The screenplay was magnificent,” De Caunes said in an interview (with Jean-Luc Brunet, monsieurcinema.com). “I’d never read such a well-written screenplay, so well constructed and with such sharp dialogue, since I started out in the cinema. Then I met René... I discovered an extremely subtle and brilliant guy who also happens to be an excellent screenwriter.”
RENÉ AND THE MINOTAUR
René Manzor thrives on encounters because, in everyday life, he is constantly on the alert. It required very little for the screenwriter-filmmaker (we could say... the storyteller) to dive into the labyrinth of « DEDALES ». Again between horror and fantasy. A simple encounter with a doctor friend who told him about people who end up with “several personalities within the same body”. The next day, he viewed a tape, the day after that he met the patients... When René Manzor is passionate about a subject, he throws himself into it with overriding enthusiasm. On « DEDALES », his quest led him into the patients’ minds and the heart of the condition. And I admit that I wasn’t totally surprised when he confided to me in the course of one of our discussions, “Through the ‘multiples’, I discovered such an original way of viewing the world ! All my choices in writing, directing, lighting, editing, sets, sound and the actors’ performance were dictated by the initial emotion that these patients aroused within me !” Just imagine : individuals, independent of each other, taking possession in turn of a single body. What a challenge ! A double challenge on both a narrative and technical level !"
With each film, René Manzor seeks out an original angle to approach the world around him., the social structure that he lives in and, above all, the soul of those that inhabit it. René never cheats. That is why a certain number of us are so fond of the man and his cinema.
In conclusion, I’d like to quote the words confided to a journalist who urged him to define his job (Sophie Lellouche in Ciné-Live) : “The director has to practise five different indispensable trades in order to bring his crusade to completion. First, he has to be the inventor of the story, then be a hunter of emotions in his sensual relationship with actors. But he is also a gardener who cultivates his visual and aural space. Finally the director is a beggar seeking the money without which his crusade isn’t possible.” That says it all !
For years now, René Manzor has had a screenplay that he’ll film one day : the life and work of Georges Méliès. Not a film on the Lumière brothers, those recorders of reality. A film on the ancestor of George Lucas ! Méliès who, before anyone else, had the desire to recreate on screen his fantasy, fantastic and spectacular world. The first too who, through his highly visual trick shots tackled extremely human themes by sublimating them. But Méliès died far from his sets, forgotten... I’d be willing to eat my fountain pen if the same thing happened to this eternal explorer of the child-like soul, René Manzor !
by Gilles Gressard