Cinematheque celebrates France’s forgotten Franju

Georges Franju (1912-1987) holds a unique place in the history of French cinema. In the vanguard of both its appreciation and development, he nonetheless remains a largely forgotten figure, usurped by bolder personalities and bigger waves and trends.

The American Cinematheque’s “Sacred Monsters: The Fantastic Cinema of Georges Franju” provides an opportunity to correct the imbalanced scales. Opening today with his stylish homage to silent cliffhangers in “Judex,” it unspools a near complete retro of his features and shorts over the course of two weekends.

Following a series of odd jobs and military service, Franju teamed up with a young movie buff named Henri Langlois to make the short documentary “Metro” in 1934. The two men started a magazine and film club and, in 1937, the Cinematheque Francaise.

His stalled career as a filmmaker resumed in 1949 with the groundbreaking “La Sang des Betes,” a lyrical and emotional tone poem set inside a Parisian abattoir. Subsequent shorts produced in the next decade flaunted conventions of dramatic and documentary films. His view of a veterans hospital in “Hotel des Invalides” was hailed as both an artistic triumph and a shameful scandal.

Franju’s initial features were equally unconventional. With “The Keepers” and “Eyes Without a Face” in the late 1950s, he twisted conventions of the horror movie into a pretzel. He combined haunting images with disturbing psychology that elicited critical kudos and audience indifference.

Though cineastes claim his arrival at a time between the pioneers of French cinema and the emergence of the New Wave cast him as an outsider, it’s safe to say his individualistic imprimatur would have put him in a unique orbit at any time. His observations of descents into dementia and mythomania in respectively “Therese Desqueyroux” (1962) and “Thomas the Impostor” (1965) were elegant, chilling and unnerving. However, they did little to expand his popularity. He was a darling of the cognoscenti but box office poison for producers.

In the 1970s, Franju’s personal and professional fortunes suffered. Langlois was lionized for his work at the Cinematheque while his co-founder was relegated to a footnote. Film assignments became increasingly rare and the finished movies lacked the style and originality of his earlier efforts. His last film, “Shadowman,” became an apt monicker for its creator, who had become increasingly bitter and reclusive.

The passage of time and the absence of a commercial imperative have worked to the filmmaker’s advantage. Franju’s movies have aged well as a result of a keen visual sense accurately married to emotional content. With the exception of his last couple of movies, his oeuvre remains fresh and vibrant and well worth catching. Further program details and tickets are available by contacting the Cinematheque at (213) 466-FILM.

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