They are a mini-sized Bonnie and Clyde, racing through Southern France, being violent when need be, eluding the sluggish police, until bullets in his torso cause little Joseph (Vincent Rottiers) to slow down. Though fatally wounded, the blood beneath his t-shirt making a red pool, Joseph faces his death happy and unrepentant: his beloved Chloe (Adele Hanel) appears before him, an earthly angel, flying towards the heavens and back on a garden swing.
His last sight. His last sigh. Christophe Ruggia’s remarkable, dazzling Les Diables/The Devils, which played in Competition at the Miami International Film Festival (it has shown previously, among other places, at Toronto and San Sebastian) is Bunuelian to the core, a new-millenium toast to the great Spanish master and also, though done in a naturalistic way, to the spirit of Surrealism. Think Los Olividados converging with L’Age D’Or.
Los Olvidados? Les Diables is a story of youthful criminals running wild, not only Joseph (11 years old?) and Chloe (13?), but the rat pack of juvenile delinquents they first confront at a detention center, and later out there in the streets. As in Los Olvidados, Les Diables’ young and damned are stopped in their tracks by kindly belevolent social workers who try to show them a better way: by trusting Joseph, by trying to cure Chloe of her unnamed malady, which keeps her speechless and apart from the human race. As in Bunuel, good deeds and liberal intentions explode in one’s face. Joseph (Little Caesar as a child!) has no interest in being uplifted, and he wants Chloe just as she is, unable to communicate with anyone but him. The two run away from the do-gooder haven and are thrilled to be back together in the forest, back on the streets, then back living together in the sewers beneath the city.
(Chloe’s malady resembles autism. She walks in compulsive circles, she can’t stand to be touched. To his credit, filmmaker Ruggia never gives a name to her disease. Les Diables is, emphatically, not a sentimental Movie-of-the-Week about a suffering young girl. If anything, Ruggia endorses her whirling-dervish mental state, her witch-like delirium which puts her in direct touch with her unconscious.)
L’Age D’Or? Les Diables quotes directly a key scene from Bunuel’s 1930 classic, that in which the sexually-locked lovers are pulled apart by society people, while they kick and scream in protest at the separation. So it is in Les Diables, when the police catch up to Joseph and Chloe and drag them into separate cars. Our two protagonists are all hostile arms and legs, hysterical that they are being yanked apart, now that they are deliriously making love.
Yes, making love, these two deeply under-aged individuals. Ruggia is admirably, courageously transgressive in finally taking their l’amour fou where it has been squirming to go: to them climbing onto each other, into each other, as Chloe has discovered that she likes to touch, loves to touch!
I suppose it’s time to mention that Joseph and Chloe are not only pre-pubescent but brother and sister. An underaged tale of incest! Voila! Scarface’s jealous, pathological Tony Camonte and Cesca as almost kiddie porn? Even more subversive, Ruggia sympathizes with, and celebrates, all this morality-smashing. Uninhibited dreams and the sex-and-violence cinema world wonderfully commingling.
A postscript. One more shot to mention. When Joseph sets a terrible fire he backs toward the camera and then turns suddenly in close-up ecstasy, mirroring the blissed-out pyromaniac moment of Mercedes McCambidge’s Emma in Johnny Guitar. The French never stop adoring Nicholas Ray! More l’amour fou!
© FIPRESCI 2003