Sunday, August 16, 2015

Le laboratoire de l'angoisse (1971)

... aka: Laboratory of Anguish, The
... aka: Laboratory of Fear

Directed by:
Patrice Leconte

Leconte first picked up a camera at the age of 15. By his early 20s, he was working as a cartoonist and attending the famous state run film school Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for Advanced Film Studies), which would later be renamed La Fémis and boasted many alumni who'd later make their mark in film including Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Costa Gavras. After completing a number of shorts, Lcconte made his feature film debut with the comedy Les vécés étaient fermés de l'intérieur, which wasn't well received by either audiences or critics. Leconte's follow-up films, however, were hits and he'd go on to become a top comedy director in his home country. Unfortunately, his films were seldom released outside of France and none really got him much in the way of critical respectability. The tide started turning with Tandem, which was not only financially successful in France but also received six César Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. Lcconte broke away from comedy with his next feature, Monsieur Hire (1989), and the results were career-changing. Not only did the film win widespread critical acclaim and numerous prestigious awards, but it also put the director on the radar outside of France and won him a much-wider international audience that he enjoys to this day.

Le laboratoire de l'angoisse was one of Leconte's very early shorts; his second if IMDb is to be trusted. It's also his only film with a horror label, though it's primarily a dark comedy. The song "The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid" (aka “The Snake Charmer Song” and “The Girls of France”) plays over the opening credits and then we get a disclaimer telling us that “Chemical and biochemical realism was not the primary concern of this film.”

The setting is the National Research Center of the IMPC, where all of the best graduates of the nation's chemistry schools go to work. The pretty Clara (Marianne di Vettimo), the sole female employed there, proves to be one of the most dedicated and hardest working scientists in the place and is always there late into the night after everyone else has left. As she's working on obtaining a deposit of silver oxide from lead chloride; a slow process that requires lots of patience and many different chemicals, klutzy night janitor Antoine (Michel Such) sets about trying to woo her. He plays her a Lebanese flute, jumps up on the table, breaks flasks, brings her cold chicken to eat and does various other things to try to get her attention. She's so busy with her work that she barely pays any attention to him even when he confesses his undying love for her.

By the film's end, Antoine manages to accidentally mangle himself up pretty good with various chemicals as he nervously pursues the completely disinterested girl. His hand smokes as he spills sulfuric acid, arthycylic acid and mercury on it. After Clara successfully completes her experiment and he thinks he stands a chance, he has a nasty encounter with some chemical called carburet tritonytrate that leads up to a gory visual gag. This is OK but not particularly clever or inventive and the laughs are mild at best. It runs 11 minutes and is available on a Region 3 DVD called Their First Films distributed by Alto Media. The set also includes early shorts from other well-known French directors like Mourice Pialat, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Jean-Pierre Melville.


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