Judge Geoffrey Miller said ten Our Fathers and four Yo Mamas before watching this movie.
"I renounce forever Jesus Christ and all his works, and dedicate myself for eternity to Satan. We beseech thee, Satan, our Lord and Master. Help us to be ever more wicked; help us to do evil; and at the hour of our death, take us to your Satanic bosom."—Anne and Lore
Banned in France and only sporadically available since, Don't Deliver Us From Evil has earned a reputation as a controversial piece of cult cinema. Novice writer-director Joël Séria's tale of two teenage girls who dabble in Satanism is rife with images of blasphemy and taboo sexuality. It's unlikely that you haven't seen these themes explored before (and probably more explicitly and offensively), unless your media consumption consists solely of The 700 Club and Left Behind. But what Don't Deliver Us From Evil has lost in shock value over the years, it more than makes up for in enduring quality. Loosely based on the Parker-Hulme murder (which also inspired Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures), it's an oddly affecting art-house gem.
Facts of the Case
Anne (Jeanne Goupil) and Lore (Catherine Wagener) are two girls attending school at a Catholic convent. They are extraordinarily close friends, often sneaking into each other's beds furtively at night to read controversial literature under the covers. When summer break finally comes, Anne's parents leave her alone, and she enjoys her freedom by spending most of her time with Lore. The two go on long bike rides, seduce older men, and perform a Satanic ceremony with stolen Catholic vestments. But what starts as a game—a way of rebelling against the stifling, corrupt system they're stuck in—soon takes a turn for the sinister.
Censorship in society often says more about the society itself than the censored content. The racially insensitive cartoons put out by Warner Bros. and Disney during World War II are verboten these days, but the audiences of the 1940s would be horrified at the modern prime time fare we barely bat an eye at. Bill Maher was thrown off ABC for making an off-the-cuff remark seen as offensive after Sept. 11; these days he can call George Bush a traitor without rousing any controversy outside a handful of blog posts. Basically, being the victim of censorship is about bad timing more than anything, and that's exactly the case with Don't Deliver Us From Evil: 35 years ago in France, it was not wise to make a movie with anti-Catholic overtones.
In 2006, it's a different story. Criticism and satire of Catholicism—and religion is general—is not only widely accepted, but increasingly passé. Madonna would rather discuss her newfound interest in Jewish mysticism than her Catholic past, and when's the last time anyone's heard anything out of professional organized religion critic Marilyn Manson? Don't Deliver Us From Evil certainly uses the then-hot topic of Catholicism to grab attention, but it's mostly used as a backdrop to set up the story. The film is really about a relationship between two girls who bond over their need to rebel.
When we first meet the pair, they're in bed at the convent where they're educated. Anne is hiding under the blankets writing in her diary and putting on lipstick; Lore sneaks in to show her a book of lesbian erotica (presumably owned by a less-than-pure nun) she stole from the convent's attic. It only takes a few moments for Anne and Lore's situation to become clear: They are close to the point of obsession, troublemakers at the convent (albeit clever ones who know just how much they can get away with), and Satan worshippers. They seem to be each other's only friends; there are no other students they talk to (or who even have speaking roles).
Despite that, they are, externally, very much normal teenage girls. Make no mistake: These are not a couple of morose Goths. They're bubbly and constantly giggling. Their relationships with their parents are cordial but distant. (At one point, Lore exclaims that their parents "don't love" them, hinting at a deeper, unspoken degree of alienation.) During the summer vacation, when most of the film is set, they ride on their bikes, frolic outdoors, and have sleepovers. Even their love of exploring their sexuality through playing Lolita is relatively typical for girls their age (although they take it to dangerous extremes).
Because they are so young and outwardly cheerful, Anne and Lore come across as more innocent than I expected. The Sapphic overtones in their relationship—never acted upon physically but always lingering—seem to be more a case of mutual platonic infatuation than true sexual attraction. Their cruelest pre-meditated act is killing the birds kept by Anne's feeble-minded gardener, and Anne eventually expresses regret over that. When they finally murder a man, it's out of self-defense after he tries to rape Lore, not part of some Satanic ritual. It isn't so much that they're sympathetic, though—they're far too guilty to be—as it is that their situation is relatable. Anyone who remembers the confusion of adolescence will understand these girls' behavior, at least somewhat.
The power of Don't Deliver Us From Evil primarily comes from writer-director Joël Séria. A small-time actor who turned to directing after an accident, Séria has a natural gift for filmmaking that overshadows his lack of experience and budget. (A film by an unproven director that dealt with subject matter likely to get it banned had difficulty finding funding, for obvious reasons.) Structurally, it most closely resembles—and appears to be consciously modeled after—a classic Shakespearean tragedy. It lends an air of familiarity to the plot progression; in a strange way, it's almost like a twisted, Bizarro World version of Romeo and Juliet. Séria's style behind the camera recalls some of more daring and experimental European directors, particularly Bunuel. He drapes the film in a surreal haze that's constantly shifting between a dream and a nightmare.
Séria also had luck in finding Jeanne Goupil, an art student with no previous acting experience, to play Anne. A raven-haired Gallic beauty, she has dark, sultry eyes and full, pouty lips. As the dominant half of the pair, she delivers a natural performance free of self-consciousness. Catherine Wagener, a young blonde actress with only a few roles under her belt, plays Lore with a combination of wide-eyed naiveté and mischievous glee. She is far quieter than Anne is and generally submissive to her, although, paradoxically, she's more aggressive in sexually teasing men.
Mondo Macrabro has a knack for digging up obscure movies and introducing them to wider audiences. What they don't excel at, however, is restoring these movies and giving them proper treatment on DVD. Don't Deliver Us From Evil is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, but its transfer is lacking in every other way. The print has some very noticeable damage, including prominent scratches. The audio track is only marginally better. There are three interviews included on the disc: Joël Séria discusses the difficulties of making the film and his interpretation of it; Jeanne Goupil talks about her experience as an inexperienced actress starring in a feature film; and writer Paul Buck delves into the film's anti-Christian themes. Séria's interview was my favorite; he offers insight into the production as well as a unique angle on the film (framing it as a story of Anne's dominance over Lore).
I was expecting Don't Deliver Us From Evil to be a cheap, gory horror flick only good for some gross-outs and laughs. So it's a pleasant surprise that it's almost the complete opposite: a relatively subtle, artful drama. It is haunting and strangely beautiful—an ode to the poignancy of doomed youth. This disc's only flaw is its less than perfect transfer, but even that can't ruin the joy of this obscure hidden treasure being unearthed. Seek it out; you won't be disappointed.
Not guilty. Go indulge yourself in a little bit of evil.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
• Interview with Joël Séria
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