A film now so incredibly obscure it almost doesn’t exist, Sérail opened to little fanfare in 1976, disappearing shortly after arrival like the mysterious phantom that it has now become. Very much a film of its time, it helped to corner a market in French cinema that had seen a tiny flourish of fantasy-themed dramas first initiated by Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), a film that dispensed with logic and chronology for a shattered perspective on cinematic narrative.
Sérail, arguably the spiritual sequel to Rivette’s vehicle on star-crossed lives of feminine (and feminist) dualities, makes up the quartet of surrealist dramas that followed Céline and Julie Go Boating during the ‘70s, including Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977), Rivette’s Duelle (1976) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975). Written and directed by France-based and Argentinean-born Eduardo de Gregorio (who incidentally wrote the dialogue for Céline and Julie Go Boating), Sérail offers yet another submission into the French-film canon of surrealist abstraction.
Its deceptively simple narrative follows Eric, a young British mystery novelist living in France (played by Corin Redgrave) who, seeking to procure living quarters where he may write his next book, answers an ad in the newspaper regarding a house for sale. The film opens with a befuddled Eric (who narrates his exploits throughout), circling around in a wooded French countryside, hunting for the advertised home.
To his amazement and dismay, he stumbles upon a dilapidated mansion which looks as though it hasn’t been occupied in more than half a century. Deciding to take a gander, Eric is received by a strange young woman named Ariane (Bulle Ogier) who shows the skeptical young man around the house. Eric is a little bemused with the young woman, her capricious nature made all the more strange by her outlandish getup; the curls in her snow-blonde hair and her 19th century custard-yellow dress suggest Ariane is visiting the present via a time-warp from the years of the Bourbon Restoration.
Eric is sure that this supposedly incidental meeting is a put-on, some joke placed in the papers for a cheap laugh. But when Ariane turns a corner in the house and suddenly vanishes without a trace, his interest in interminably piqued. Determined to uncover the nonsense, Eric returns to the house the very next day where he meets Céleste, the housekeeper (Leslie Caron). Céleste knows nothing of a woman named Ariane, but introduces Eric to the woman of the house, Agathe (the late Marie-France Pisier). Agathe, a cool, playful and aloof young woman, denies the existence of another inhabitant besides herself and Céleste. Rather, she does her best to persuade Eric to purchase the house, assuring the writer that the distinctive nature of the mansion with all its quirks and irregularities would only prove valuable as a source of inspiration for his next work. Still doubtful, Eric decides to wait it out, certain that Ariane indeed exists and that Céleste and Agathe have some trick up their sleeves.
When Eric returns yet again, he finds Ariane once more. Acting even stranger now, Ariane receives his questions with a flustered, nearly theatrical show of histrionics, incensing the writer even further. Later, when Eric continues probing the matter, he catches both Ariane and Agathe in the act of their conspired duplicity, unceremoniously disrupting their hoax with an unmasking fairly common of the dime-store mystery novel. Neither Agathe nor Ariane really explain their reasons for concocting such an absurd act; Ariane playing a ghost in the house can be interpreted as some feeble ploy to entice a young, curious writer into buying a “haunted” home. Yet there seems to be a deeper motive at work. Whatever schemes that are conceived of upon Eric’s arrival, they seem to involve him in ways that require a bait and switch seduction: the keys to the house for an unsuspecting soul.
In the comic exchanges and intervals throughout, we witness an unfolding of subsidiary events which have become fairly typical of French cinema; little asides that mark the situational drama with an uncomfortable shift in narrative and structure. What exactly are Eric’s personal sexual hang-ups that eclipse better judgement? Phone calls to his editor promise a novel full of sex and intrigue, but those undertakings in commerce reek of mechanical rationales on the twisted nature of his sexual desires. Eric needs a scandal as much as he needs a mystery; his subsequent returns to the house prove a perfunctory reaction to the peculiar attractions of the (un)obvious dangers lurking about.
Once insinuated into the household, Eric’s sexual exchanges, both literal and conversational, are shadowed with the discomforting awareness that both Agathe and Ariane are essentially two sides of a trick coin, either side revealing a face that, at a calculated slant, could be one or the other or neither woman. It’s an obvious comment on an antiquated ruse of the old-fashioned mystery, one that is littered with red-herrings and missed clues. In the midst of it all, the overlap of stage-play dramatics and erotic manoeuvres find a curious counterpoint in the carnal interplay within the house.
Agathe’s story of witnessing beheadings unnerves Eric in particular; for all his disgust with Agathe’s recount, Eric also finds himself strangely fascinated and aroused. At one telling moment, sexual intercourse is replaced by sexual discourse, and Eric and Agathe fuck one another, not with limbs but with words. When Eric finally does sign the deed to the house (thinking that both Agathe and Ariane will be included as a package deal), this turn in the narrative opens up a box of ghosts which soon work to unhinge the young writer’s mind.
Here, in fact, is where Sérail‘s true mystery begins, diverging from the Had-I-But-Known variety of mystery-themed genre films to a deeply poetic surrealism that floats the narrative as much as it sinks its strained logic. With the narrative riding high on the gothic trappings of the plot, filmmaker de Gregorio conceives of one unusual hitch in the phantasmagoric melodrama: he eschews storybook horror for a self-reflexive counterpoint to the proceeding action, reconstructing his occult mystery-romance as an inverse and paradoxical metafilm. With tensions and anxieties running high, roles and personas within the house interchange with the speed and fluency of an abrading language, filed down to the vestiges of a few remaining words – much like the story Eric works on throughout the film.
Arianne, Agathe and Céleste, who now form the basis of his novel-in-progress, become residual language on the page of which Eric types, assembled and destroyed in the percussive movements of the flowing, eroticized text. Framed yet again in the story-within-a-story of de Gregorio’s script, Sérail de-contextualizes the character from his or her respective narrative, suspending each character in a space just outside the story, until Eric is ready to place them back into the reconfigured plot of his constantly shifting tale. The typewritten narrative before him (and the viewer) dismantles and reconstructs before disintegrating into a stationary, non-conceptual blank of vanished text; Sérail isn’t a story, but rather the telling of a story. More accurately, it is the telling of what’s left of a story, once the narrative thread snaps and is left hanging precariously for either viewer, filmmaker or character to take hold of.
De Gregorio’s comment on film and narrative itself is further expatiated through the household’s mediator and den mother, Céleste, whose duties beyond housekeeping include briefing Eric on Agathe’s wily tactics of procuring information (these involve two-way mirrors and secret passages). Balanced on a precarious fence of loyalties and ulterior motives, Céleste matches chess move for chess move with every member of the house. Her persuasions and coercions with Eric establish an almost maternal pivot within him, creating yet another surreal and psychological dynamic between the four occupants. Sharing narration duties with Eric, Céleste sparingly comments on the surrounding action with an objective distance meant to imply she knows little more than Eric does where Agathe and Ariane are concerned.
If the dénouement reveals otherwise, then perhaps one should consider the viewer himself a part of de Gregorio’s metafilmic design. Meant only for the ears of the viewer, Céleste’s voiceovers of her personal observations hint at the possible deception aimed squarely at the audience, an extradiegetic ploy that ensnares the viewer in the interactive trap of the mystery. That she may not be truthful in her observations, that the deception is deliberate and meant only for the viewer, seems to suggest that the viewer himself is granted the liberty of slipping in and out of the narrative as an observing, commentating spectator, much the way Céleste is.
For his part, Eric continues to comment on and recreate the action in the house with his typewriter, articulating the fragments of perceived reality with strained effort. Somehow, his inspirations cannot prove a cohesive, logical line of thought and, soon, a revolving door of questions feed the growing concerns and doubt: who are these women? What do they want with him? Why are they so eager to sell off the house? And what about the games they play and the stories they tell?
De Gregorio continues his shifting of plot and narrative, moving the story along with nearly geometric turns. Every turn in the scripted drama is received with some diminishing return of the mystery; the more questions put forth, the fewer the answers. When dialogue and plot have finally reduced each actor to mere dolls possessed of fictional lives, Sérail‘s frail frame of a story turns its narrative trap inwards, imprisoning each character in a shifting and self-obliterating labyrinth of ineffective and frightful turns; what started out as a solid mystery, becomes a hallucinatory, phantasmagoric ghost-story – a deadly interlock of disorienting terror. There isn’t a dead body in sight – and yet the air of murder and dark magic hangs in the shadows of both the house and the story in which it’s situated.
It is to de Gregorio’s credit that his actors manage a disciplined balance amongst one another in a script demanding a gradual loss of perspective and objective distance. Three of France’s most respected actresses recreate a tension of drama that was once appropriated by the likes of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Polanski’s meditation on mental illness and perhaps Dominique Sanda’s turn as a doomed ingénue in Il Conformista. Caron, Pisier and Ogier, along with Redgrave, form a most peculiar quartet of actors who explore a weird dynamic that is equally Brechtian as it is Hitchcockian. Filmed in a lush, tantalizing swirl of colour, where reds, greens and magentas bleed into one another in a fantastical, unearthly sheen, characters are further displaced in the baroque fusion of modish haute couture and gothic pretensions of de Gregorio’s fey, cinematic universe.
When the film winds down to the final scenes of its last act, the one true sliver of revelatory information offered up only serves to further complicate a most baffling mystery: “She’ll be so happy… so happy,” Céleste quietly professes, hinting at a possible fifth inhabitant lurking undiscovered on the premises. If there is no sense to be found in the film’s conclusion, then perhaps the film should be taken up on its alternate English title, Surreal Estate, which would suggest that there never was a placement for logic or reason to begin with. Taken from a purely surrealist standpoint, characters simply contend with the shifts of a loose and unfocused storyline, where actions solely depend on emotion, divorced from any narrative ideology. It’s certainly one way to view Sérail; without conjecture or pretext, we are left to wander the corridors and hallways, always at the mercy of a strange and transmutable house. And perhaps rather than solve a mystery, we fall for the inverse trick of mystifying a solution.
De Gregorio’s film didn’t fare well at the box office, vanishing from the collective memories of critics and filmgoers alike, shortly after its release. A year later in 1977, filmmaker Chabrol would resurrect de Gregorio’s ploy of the death-trap mansion in his one-off fantasy film, Alice ou la dernière fugue, a detour from his usual socio-political French murder-mysteries. An adult and eerie take on Alice in Wonderland, Alice begins from the departure point of where the victims of Sérail have been entrapped and forsaken. Here, a lone young woman circles endlessly in and around a French countryside manor, doomed to an enclosed and undetermined space. And, like Eric, she too will soon meet the mirror-image of death: eternity.