Once upon a time…
This quote opens Jean-Claude Biette’s third movie, Le Champignon des Carpathes which could be translated into The Mushroom of the Carpathes. Despite this, the feature isn’t really a fairy tale, more akin to a choral film in which the viewer follows a band of Parisian inhabitants, some total strangers to the others, as they fear a radiation cloud that passes over the capital just after a nuclear power plant blew up.
French Frights: The Big Scare
In the 60s a mysterious Belgian author began to make headlines in France. This newfound fame led to Jean-Pierre Mocky…
Born in 1942, Biette would direct seven movies from 1977 to 2003, the year of his passing. He first began as a film critic in the famous magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma before fleeing France to Italy in order to avoid military service. It is through this escapade that the man would go on to meet Pasolini and begin working on movies, being either an Assistant Director or working on the French cut of Italian movies. For, during those time it wasn’t rare for a movie to have a bunch of different cut depending on its territory, be it French, Italian or American, a good example would be The Conquering Worm which is known as Witchfinder General in the European Union, upon which I have already written.
In 1969, Biette came back to France and did not get back right away to Les Cahiers du Cinéma preferring instead to bet on his beginning acting career. He would then take on a few roles before turning back to writing about movies. This is when Biette decided to try his hand at directing. See, Biette had befriended a producer named Vecchiali, founder of a production company named Diagonale which aimed at producing movies which would smell like freedom, cost not much money and feel professional. It is through them that Biette would produce his first three movies.
In 1989, the nuclear plant in Chernobyl exploded and the French government would go on to tell that the radioactive cloud could not pass over the Alps in order to appease the population. A white lie no one really believed. I, once, even wrote a short story about this, for even when the plague of Covid-19 hit, people were busy joking about it “not being able to pass over the Alps’’.
According to sources, Biette was desperate for the production of his next film Chasse Gardée going way too slow for him. In his defense, it appears the production of this movie would debut in 1989 and finally cease in 1993, date of its release.
From 1990 to 1992, during each week-ends, Biette began filming Le Champignon des Carpathes. The plot he crafted as he wentalong and as his schedule enabled him. It is not weird for aspiring directors to go through such a process (Hello, Peter Jackson!)but for an already established filmmaker, this is a rare occurrence. Still, I’ve worked with directors who could not stay idel and would direct and direct movies even though it meant they probably would never be able to show them to anyone, so I sort of get the feeling. You make three or four guerilla movies with the same team, you sort of get it.
What’s more this weird way of filming may have been helped by the director’s style which mostly consisted of sequences featuring a lot of characters who might not know one another but are linked in some weird and arcane way. Sort of like life itself. Biette seemed to think that his movies were the reflection of reality in which we all interact with one another but the whole picture does not reside in the two hands of one sole individual.
Despite all of this, 1990 may not have been the right time to release a movie about irradiation. Truth is we’ll never know for the feature got released in one theater only in Paris, on the 5th of March 1990 and made 1580 entries, before being bought by Canal+ and disappearing off the hertzian wavelength entirely. That’s until 2013, when the Cinémathèque Française decided to restore most of Biette’s filmography in order to do a retrospective, today some are viewable freely on their Henri streaming service. Including Le Champignon des Carpates.
It could be noted that the fear of a nuclear accident had already been present in the French fantastic genre. Most notably in 1972 with Malevil, a book by Robert Merle which was turned into a 1981 movie. In said fiction, a group of people attempt to survive on an isolated farm after the neighboring nuclear plant blows up. In 1982, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, one of France’s most famous sci-fi writers, would write Les Retombées, which deals with pretty much the same plot. Although this one is less grounded in sociology and more in the down-to-earth rescue mission which would ensue. Truth is, with his leftist mentality, Andrevon would often write about nuclear catastrophe, enough to fill entire short stories collection. Even Pierre Bordage dwelved a few times in post-apocalyptic fiction and whatnot.
French Frights: Bertand Mandico’s The Wild Boys
Actresses playing boys slowly turning into girls. This is the idea behind Mandico’s movie.
I’ve written time and again of the disdain France’s elite possesses for the genre. Be it smart, classy, fun, satirical or whatever, genre fiction, science fiction or horror or fantasy are still considered child toys by Cartesians thinkers over here. Maybe Biette didn’t even know such a trend had existed ten years before he put his movie together.
Maybe he didn’t know he was late.
We’ll never know.
Next week we’ll talk about Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead!