Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 5 
29 Oct
2001

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Guillaume Radot's Le Loup des Malveneur (The Wolf of the Malveneurs, 1942)HORROR
With them, I'm howling
Guillaume Radot's
Le Loup des Malveneur (The Wolf of the Malveneurs, 1942)

A rare example of French horror, Le Loup des Malveneur invokes family, gender and class issues to create its tension. Frank Lafond explores the film.


It is an established fact that the New Wave's directors cast a shadow over those chapters of French cinema which preceded them. Recently, however, various critical works have endeavoured to bring the forgotten past to light. Unfortunately, French horror films are too few in number to draw real attention. Hardly ever mentioned, Le Loup des Malveneur (The Wolf of the Malveneurs, 1942), the first picture of director Guillaume Radot, seems particularly interesting in this national context, since it is a rare example of a French horror film figuring a traditional monster.

A Universal picture?

When young governess Monique Valory (Madeleine Sologne) arrives at the castle of the Malveneurs, she learns that Reginald de Malveneur (Pierre Renoir)—the master of the house, and a scientist attempting to discover the secret of "total cellular rejuvenation"—has disappeared, along with the gamekeeper. With the help of a younger painter, Philippe (Michel Marsay), she begins to suspect that there is something strange at work in the household but is far from guessing the truth.

Le Loup des Malveneur is often considered a French version of the monster series produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s, and it actually displays various thematic and aesthetic features which are characteristic of these films: a gothic setting, a werewolf, a mad scientist, angry peasants and so on. The opening credits even use the same lettering as James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). However, Radot's film is anything but a simple reproduction of the Universal formula.

George Waggener's The Wolf Man (1941)
George Waggener's Wolf Man
First of all, although the film deals with a mythic creature (à la Frankenstein's monster and Dracula), it substitutes suggestion for all visual threats of the monster. There is no spectacular transformation scene such as takes place in George Waggener's The Wolf Man (1941), nor even an indirect hint that such a thing could happen, as in Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942). Moreover, one of the most visually striking scenes in the film, Reginald's false burial, does not resort to Universal's traditional expressionist lighting, but seems instead to owe its dreamlike atmosphere—mostly produced by eerie, hazy shots—to Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (Germany, 1931).

Le Loup des Malveneur manages to integrate both a werewolf and a mad scientist into the narrative of a gothic melodrama (eg Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca [1940]), but it still proves a coherent work because it steadfastly avoids visual representation. The opening sequence introduces the werewolf legend according to which the first of the Malveneurs was found dead in his bed, wounded by an axe, while a wolf was dispatched nearby with the very same tool. Initially, the werewolf plot does not seem central to the film, but not only does it bracket the entire narrative, it also links together horror and the family unit, as does the Malveneurs' motto, "With them, I'm howling." It is this legend which sets the Malveneurs apart from society and requires them to be buried on their own land, "like dogs." One can read the family curse as a symbolic response to their arrogant feeling of superiority (according to Reginald, their blood is "too rich"), and see in Radot's film a criticism of aristocrats who live shamelessly, without regard for the life and property of others.

Patriarchal conditioning

Another crucial element of the picture lays stress on an internal tension related to the Malveneurs' family structure. During the German Occupation, female characters in French cinema were placed in the foreground, and, in order to embody the society's fundamental values, were compelled to put their subjectivity aside.[1] In a perverse way, Le Loup des Malveneur is no exception to this rule. After Reginald's disappearance, the castle is inhabited almost solely by women, the one man being a half-wit domestic.

Guillaume Radot's Le Loup des Malveneur (The Wolf of the Malveneurs, 1942)
Tension in the family unit
The most interesting character in the film is neither Monique, the ostensible heroine, nor Estelle, the sick wife and personification of maternal love, but Reginald's sister Magda (Gabrielle Dorziat). She first appears majestically sitting in an armchair, two dogs lying at her feet, and we quickly realize how close she is to her brother. Not only is her incestuous desire for him made clear from the beginning, but she has integrated almost all of his patriarchal values. She resents being a woman, since for the Malveneurs only males count; Reginald's experiments, for example, aim not so much at curing his wife but at producing a male heir in order to save his name and his "race."[2] For this reason, Magda, who is proud to be a single woman, behaves like a man— she wears trousers, walks round the family's property all day long, and makes up for her feminine nature by believing that she is possessed by the spirit of a male ancestor, giving her a deep connection to the family's roots. This belief in the supernatural is clearly the result of family tensions and patriarchal conditioning based on gender discrimination.

Rationality and ambiguity

As alluded to above, the supernatural elements of Le Loup des Malveneur differ from their counterparts in the Universal horror films due to their ambiguous presentation, the "hesitation" they produce in viewers— a feeling which Tzevetan Todorov identifies as the basis of fantasy.[3] By the end of the film, however, Monique discovers that Reginald, now stark raving mad, is still alive, locked in his underground laboratory. After confessing to her the dreadful deeds he has committed—he killed the gamekeeper during his experiments, then tried to bring him back to life by injecting him with serum, scaring his wife to death in the process—and thus confronting us with an unquestionable reality, the film abruptly shifts genres and veers towards the detective tale: the young painter, who had peppered the governess with questions, turns out to have been a police inspector working undercover. Thus, Philippe's rational discourse works in harmony with that of the doctor in order to dispel the horror suddenly unleashed.

Yet the last scene of the picture is far less comforting. At the same time as peasants manage to shoot a wolf on the Malveneurs' tomb, Reginald dies off-screen in a fire which devastates the castle. The absence of cross-cutting here to parallel the actions creates a powerful ambiguity: was it simply an extraordinary coincidence, or is the family really victim of a curse? There is no clear answer to this question. But the film's final image, rather than presenting us with a reassuring shot of the surviving heterosexual couple, lingers on the concerned face of Magda, recalling that her brother died the same way as did the first Malveneur. This unsettling resolution not only confirms the fact that horror results from family tensions, but leaves the spectator puzzled and disturbed.

Frank Lafond

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Also of interest
About the author

Frank Lafond is a PhD candidate studying aesthetics at Lille University (France). He has previously written essays on the horror genre and film noir. He is currently editing a book on the modern American horror film, as well as an annual journal entitled Rendez-vous avec la peur (both for les Editions du CEFAL, Belgium). He also maintains a homepage.


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Footnotes

1. See Noel Burch and Genevieve Sellier, La drole de guerre des sexes du cinema francais: 1930-1956. Paris: Editions Nathan, 1996.

2. One may be tempted to see in the film allusions to eugenics, but such an interpretation would be historically erroneous.

3. Tzevetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975: 41.

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