The Castle of the Baron de Curval
- onMarch 7, 2016
- Vol.31 Spring 2016
- byChoi Jae-hoon
- The Castle of the Baron de Curval
Tr. Josie Sohn 2010304pp.
The Castle of the Baron de Curval
9 June 1993. K University, Seoul, Korea.
Paek Chŏngin, Lecturer.
Course Title: Women in Cinema.
Okay, let’s get going. By the way, where is everyone? We have so many empty seats. It must be the gigs for extras. Well, I’ll let them be for today. You weren’t half bad in the acting lab. Let’s close the window over there. It’s rather loud outside. It’s not too hot, is it? …Why on earth are you putting on a jacket? And you go on about the heat.
Today, we’re going to discuss Edward Fischer’s 1953 film, The Castle of Baron Curval. The title’s got a nice and chilling gothic-horror feel to it, hasn’t it? The film is based on a 1932 novel of the same title by the French author Michel Perrault. The ending is, however, quite different. Fischer himself wrote the script, and it is, I think, his second or third feature film. Fischer was an unknown at the time, but the film itself became the talk of the town for casting Jessica Hayward, a Hollywood megastar of the 1950s. Who has seen the film? Let me have a show of hands. …A staggering three. How about anyone who’s read the novel? …Hmm, no one as expected. This is sad. There was no point in giving you the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. I repeat myself, but please do watch the films before coming to class. We’re supposed to be having a discussion, but I end up talking alone for two hours straight when none of you even have a clue about the plot. You all look as if that’s how it’s supposed to be. In the final exam, I’ll test you on the mise-en-scène. In The Castle of Baron Curval, how does the baron wear his hair? Number one, slicked back. Number two, bobbed… I kid you not.
At any rate, the baron’s castle in the film can be seen as a symbol of interiority where all kinds of human desires are housed. As a matter of fact, practically every narrative text, be it a film or a novel, deals with desire. The point in question is the ways in which desire develops in a work. This film is unlike any other that came before it in this regard, which makes it quite a significant piece in film history. Prior to this one—though nothing much has changed since then—the horror genre portrayed women generally in a couple of different ways. Any guesses? Forget the things like feminist film theories, and just think back on the movies you’ve seen. Like the Dracula series or Basic Instinct that opened last year. …Remember anything other than the leg crossing scene? Women are either the object of desire or the object of fear. The bloody victim is always a hottie, or you have the femme fatale, the dangerous woman. Consider Dracula, for instance. It’s always a beautiful woman with long locks of hair who sleeps with her white neck exposed. Then the vampire comes along, says thank you, and sinks his teeth in. As if the blood tastes better the better looking you are. Even your blood gets discriminated against when you’re not as pretty. Good grief. A woman like me won’t have anything happen to her even if she roomed and boarded in Dracula’s castle, except perhaps for mosquito bites. Ah, I saw you nodding over there. See when you get your grade.
Alternatively, when women are portrayed as evil or monstrous, we can say that it reveals men’s unconscious aversion to and fear of femininity. Julia Kristeva calls this abjection, the womb of horror that is cut off in order to enter the symbolic order. You don’t need to take notes on this. It’s probably all Greek to you, don’t bother. Sexuality, in any case, is equally important for the femmes fatale. Do you think you’d have the same story in Basic Instinct if Sharon Stone wasn’t sexy? She’s got to catch her prey before she can kill it or let it go. At the end of the day, the horror film objectifies woman as the Other, whether she is an object of desire or of fear. Laura Mulvey argues that the logic of the patriarchal unconscious in the male gaze is encoded into the language of classical Hollywood cinema itself as such. …Goodness, you gentlemen make a face the minute you hear the word patriarchy. Relax, it’s not about you.
Anyway, although The Castle of Baron Curval did not really attract much attention in its day, it is still worth thinking about the character of Camilla Harper, the female protagonist, in the context of the 1950s cinema. That is, she appears as an active subject in the narrative without conforming to the conventional image of the screaming damsels in distress in horror pictures. She’s like a foremother of Sigourney Weaver, the woman warrior in Alien, or Linda Hamilton in The Terminator. …You’re all spacing out. What a sight. What’s all this yakety-yak about? You don’t know because you haven’t watched the film. Oh well, let’s do a quick review of the plot. The Harpers who run a ranch in Texas have a hard time making ends meet and are about to go bankrupt. Then Camilla remembers her sister who married Baron Curval and moved to France ten yeas ago and sends her a letter to ask for help. Her brother-in-law is rolling in the dough, why not borrow some? Camilla’s sister writes her back saying that she’d be more than happy to help and invites the Harpers to France. With a sigh of relief, Camilla and her husband take their daughter, Catherine, across the Atlantic Ocean to receive the money and, while they’re at it, take a vacation. After a long voyage, the Harpers finally arrive at the castle of Baron Curval in Creully, France.
9 June 1932. New York, New York.
The Writer Michel Perrault and His Editor
“Granny used to gather us children and tell us stories every evening. The rhythm of her creaky rocking chair, the flames swaying to and fro in the fireplace, and the slow and gentle cadence of her voice… We were always spellbound by her wonderland stories. The cat talked, the one-eyed giant lost his bag of gold, Bluebeard killed his wives, the fairy helped the knight marry the princess… Everything is still so vivid. The world created by Granny’s voice was more real and exciting than the one that I lived in. Actually, I borrowed a motif from one of her stories called ‘Courageous Jean and Baron Curval’ to write this novel.”
“Your grandmother left you a treasure for an inheritance.”
The editor nudged his plate of steak aside and ordered coffee.
“Without a doubt. The stories also came in handy for Mother. She had only to say, ‘Michel, be a good boy or we’ll leave you alone in the castle of Baron Curval.’ And, lo and behold, I’ll be as meek as a lamb. Granny’s tales were much more than simple amusement for me. I believed in them, as if all of the creatures and characters were living their lives somewhere, as if I could go see them someday. Take Baron Curval, for instance. He simply leapt out of the story and has long been hovering about in my mind’s world. I wonder why. It’s only a short fairytale after all. I still see him every now and then in my dreams. His face is, however, always different. Anyone I dislike or fear never fails to appear as Baron Curval in a dream. I’ve, in fact, had the pleasure of seeing you as the baron a few times—you always asked for my manuscripts.”
Perrault broke into a smile as he dabbed at his mouth with a napkin.
“I wrote this novel to give a shape to the baron, the ghost that roams about the cave of my unconscious. And, you know what, as I continued writing, the baron’s face gradually became that of mine. I was hardly surprised. He’d been feeding off all the dregs of emotions that I refuse to face myself. He must be more like me than I am—yes, more than myself… You know what I think? I wonder if Baron Curval had been around since long ago, somewhere far away, like in Granny’s stories and if I’m only a mirror that reflects a small part of the man… Look, are you listening?”
“What? Oh, yes, I am.”
“What are you looking at so intently?”
“Over there, in the churchyard. See that man grabbing someone by the collar at the soup kitchen line? His name is Wilson, used to be an up-and-coming stockbroker. I’ve met the guy a few times at Buchanan’s parties. A bit cocky, but he was a lot of fun and everyone liked him all right. He used to be a smart dresser, too—had all his suits cut in London. Good heavens! He’s all rags and tatters now.”
“There is not a shortage of others like him. It must be a temporary thing.”
“Well, I hope so. The depression has been dragging on and on. Publishers are closing down all over the place.”
“Oh, stop it already. We’ve had a depression before. It’s only expected in a capitalist economy. Things will pick up soon. By the way, have you read the manuscript?”
“Of course, I’ve finished it already. It looks good. Adding elements of fantasy breathed a new life into your writing. It is good, but how about if you cut the beginning a little? The part where Camilla visits her sister and spends time at the baron’s castle reads a bit slowly. It lacks suspense compared to how the plot develops from there, and it makes the entire narrative rather unbalanced.”
Perrault sipped his coffee and stroked his beard thoughtfully. His burly eyebrows wiggled awkwardly like a couple of caterpillars fallen on a marble floor.
“Yes, quite so, quite so… But it is very important to describe Camilla’s psychology right early on. Readers will find the latter half of the story persuasive only if they can identify with her to begin with. Right from day one, Camilla feels distant from her sister even before she has a chance to enjoy the reunion. Her sister, for one thing, has not changed a bit from ten years ago. She also sees herself in the mirror looking much more aged than her sister what with the rough ranch work and all that. She begins to harbor fear beyond remorse before the existence called time. The noble and dignified bearing of Baron Curval, the rare dishes that she had never laid her eyes on before, and the servants who do everything for them so they can eat, drink and be merry… The story must show the stark contrast between the riches of the castle at her disposal and her inner world that only grows darker as time goes on. It is not simply what you would call jealousy or envy. It is rather that there is no sense of reality, as if her sister no longer belonged to this world in her mind.
Yet, one day, the situation turns upside down. Her sister promises a sum of money large enough to buy two or three ranches and proposes that she adopts Catherine. Guess what, it’s not so easy for her to turn this down. And, mind you, Catherine is the dearest thing in the world to her! She basically draws an ace in a game she almost gave up on. She can’t help but feel pleased, however secretly, at the sight of her childless sister who seemed to have it all. She no longer feels so distant from her sister and is now free to envy and feel jealous, and even admire her sister to her heart’s content. Don’t we all begin like this whether we mean well or ill? ‘I want to be like that, I can be like that.’”
9 June 2004. Tokyo, Japan.
Interview with Filmmaker Nakazawa Satoshi, Kinema Junpō
Q: The Castle of Baron Tōsen, your last film before your move to Hollywood, is a remake of Edward Fischer’s The Castle of Baron Curval. This came as a bit of a surprise for many. Have the prospects of moving to Hollywood had any hand in making this decision?
S: Yes and no. If I had been preoccupied with moving to Hollywood, I would not have taken the pains to pick the least popular piece from Fischer’s extensive filmography. (Chuckles) The Castle of Baron Curval holds a special place in my heart. I began dreaming of becoming a filmmaker after watching it at fifteen. Working on the remake, like changing the setting to Japan and reinterpreting the original, reminded me of my humble beginnings. It is also a gift from me to my fans in Japan, a token of my appreciation for their faithful support. Please consider it a stamp of resolution that I will not lose my own filmmaking philosophy and touch as I continue making movies in Hollywood.
Q:Why were you so drawn to The Castle of Baron Curval?