L’inconnu de Shandigor [The Unknown Man of Shandigor] (1967)

Think Nouvelle Vague James Bond, directed by Jean-Luc Goddard and you won’t be far wrong.

Picture elegant, misty black and white film; bleak modern architecture contrasted with Art Nouveau and carnival rides; a stunning collection of classic cars; and some of Antoni Gaudi’s best known works.

The familiar image of an H-bomb blast runs backwards, and then we meet Herbert Von Krantz, a scientist who invented a device that cancels out the effects of nuclear weapons (played by Chilean actor Daniel Emilfork, best remembered for his bravura performance as Krank in The City of Lost Children).  However, he hates the journalists crowding around him like flies, and all the people who want to get his invention so they can rule the world.  Thus he isolates himself on his ultra-modern estate along with his albino assistant and daughter — and the beast, a horrible creature that lurks in his swimming pool.

Meanwhile, a horde of spies from a dizzying collection of  competing factions have descended on the area and hope to find some way past Von Krantz’s defenses.  They watch him — and he watches them.

…But all Von Krantz’s daughter wants is to return to the island of Shandigor where her fiance, Manuel, waits…

The director, Jean-Louis Roy, was actually Swiss, and this is in fact the only Swiss genre film I’m aware of until Cargo in 2009.  I’m not saying there aren’t any others, just that I’ve never heard of another one.  While he made three other films (two of them for television), this is the one Jean-Louis Roy is remembered for.  Not all that well remembered, either:  it may have debuted at the prestigious Cannes film festival, but has been nearly forgotten.

Which does seem a shame as this is a gloriously strange sort of movie.  After all, how many films have you seen that actually give special billing — by name, mind you — to a classic Jaguar XKE in the opening credits?

It comes with a very weird and appropriately ironic sense of humor, which manages to be absurd and serious by turns.  We have legendary organist Serge Gainsbourg as the leader of a gang of bald-headed, sunglasses and black suit-wearing spies.  He gets to perform an original song, “Bye, bye, Mr. Spy” while the so-called “Baldies” enbalm one of their own who got killed in the inevitable crossfire.

There is a small child working for the Russian spies, and the American Spy has lost his taste for his work because he fell in love.  We have a psychedelic torture scene, an exploding kamikaze suit, and a wonderfully out of place (if beautiful) love story.  Gaudi’s Park Guell and the rooftop garden of his Casa Mila get to represent Shandigor.  And there is a wonderful collection of cars on display, including a ’49 Packard, the iconic Citroen DS, a classic Rolls Royce, a ’62 T-Bird, an SS Jaguar, and that rarity, a rear-engined Tatra 603.

It’s a bit scattershot, and while it does more or less fit together, you are aware of the cracks here and there that they’ve plastered over.  There are some slow moments, as hard as that may be to believe in a film this crowded, but not many.  The sense of humor, in particular, is very French, and more ironic than one would expect in a film this absurd.  It all comes with a final twist that is completely unexpected — and as ironic as one would expect from a film which wears its New Wave sophistication so easily.

Clearly this is not a film for everyone.  In fact, it is a somewhat exotic treat — and not just because it is subtitled.  Those who already love the French New Wave, with all its ironies and little jokes, are best prepared to watch this one.  The rest of you are on your own.

Although, if you can find the right frame of mind to watch this in, you should enjoy it.

Just avoid the swimming pool.  And if Von Krantz opens a door for you, you probably shouldn’t go in.

(Video available here, without subtitles.  Subtitles available here.)

(My thanks to the Make Mine Criterion blog for introducing me to this très cool oddity!)

(Former member of Mark’s Wish List)

 

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