Curiouser and curiouser.
This was my third early Sixties Italian science fiction film for the weekend.
And, by far, the oddest.
Even for the early Sixties.
Now there are still a few little-known science fiction movies from the age before Lucas lurking out there which I haven’t seen yet. But it isn’t always easy to identify them if they weren’t in any of the standard works of science fiction film.
I can’t remember how I first heard of La poupée, but I’ve seen comments from various professional critics, odd references here and there, and even a few posters and stills.
But none of that prepared me for the film I actually saw.
Not that La poupée is exactly shy about telling you what it is. It starts off with a title card saying it is like a cabaret, full of contradictions and seemingly irreconcilable aspects.
Just like life.
But even that really doesn’t prepare you for just how unrealistic this film is. Yes, there are scenes set in jungle or city streets, but then the film goes inside the mansion of the big industrialist who is running the country, and so many of the sets are clearly a nearly empty soundstage with weird bits of furniture, curtains, odd artworks and maybe a staircase or two.
Throw in a few song and dance numbers, some very deliberate bits of stage lighting in certain scenes, random topless women showing up here and there, and a lengthy scene at a Cabaret club featuring, yes, topless women and a big song and dance number by the female lead.
Who is actually played by a female impersonator.
Or, to sum it all up, just like a cabaret.
This kind of deliberately theatrical approach to film isn’t entirely unheard of — in fact, it reminds me a bit of the classic Japanese musical adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s story, The Black Lizard, from the same year, although it isn’t quite as stagy as La poupée (ironically the film was adapted into a stage play, which was then itself adapted into a new Black Lizard movie in 1968, with its seductive villainess played by a Kabuki actor who specialized in playing female parts. Go figure).
The plot is equally absurd, with a scientist (of the mentally unstable persuasion), Professor Palmas, inventing a way to duplicate matter. He then duplicates the wife of the leading industrialist and steps into her body somehow and goes out to headline at the local cabaret and lead a revolution.
In that order.
Meanwhile, her husband is one of those backing the arrogant and obnoxious Colonel Octavio Prado Roth, who is seizing control of the government, while a group of rebels are planning to assassinate the Colonel, with the surprisingly willing help of the Industrialist’s daughter.
Only the Colonel gets himself killed too soon, and one of the rebels is forced to take his place so he can get shot on schedule.
For the good of the revolution.
And then things really start getting complicated…
I’m really not certain what I think of La poupée. It is a very strange little film, filled with the sort of perfect absurd timing we would expect from, well, a cabaret show. It remains very stagy and artificial throughout, bursting with energy and genuinely comic moments. The basic plot is enjoyable nonsense, and the copied woman doesn’t get used as much as one would have expected. Many of the performances — particularly that of the Colonel — are deliberately over-the-top and heavily burlesqued — as in, yes, a cabaret.
But I’ll admit that I love the scene in which we are introduced to Professor Palmas, who is surrounded by a whole chorus of admiring young women who love science passionately (or perhaps I should say erotically!) who, yes, do a big song and dance number throughout the scene. And there is a nasty revolutionary assassin who should look very familiar as he is played by The City of Lost Children‘s Daniel Emilfork.
Plus, it all comes to a wickedly ironic ending, where little has changed and everyone is happy with it.
I suspect that La poupée is one of those films which most viewers either love or hate. It was an Italian-French co-production, made by a director, Jacques Baratier, who would follow it up a year later with a musical mocking the French New Wave, Dragées au Poivre, which stars many of the New Wave’s iconic actors.
And mocks them as well. In a surprisingly New Wave sort of way.
La poupée was actually based on a 1956 novel (a notion as absurd as anything else about this film) by French playwright, novelist, journalist, director and screenwriter, Jacques Audiberti. I have no idea what the novel is like, although I can’t imagine that it is much like the absurdist cabaret on screen — even though Audiberti actually helped write the script and published it under his own name!
Like a lot of the many, many eccentric films of the era, it got lost along the way. I suppose we can blame the gritty realism of the Seventies, which swept away most of the eccentricity and playfulness that came with the New Wave, but it is shame that something this unique has been ignored. Love it or hate it, it is an interesting cinematic experiment, full of wit and irony.
Fortunately, there is a subtitled version up on Youtube. If you love your films eccentric, ironic, absurd and thoroughly unexpected, then by all means take a look.
You can’t go too far wrong with something this weird…