Time travel has been explored in countless science fiction novels and movies over the years but it is not often treated in such an abstract and ethereal manner on screen as it is in Hu-Man, a 1975 French film from director Jerome Laperrousaz. Except for popping up at a few film festivals in the seventies, Hu-Man went missing for years and was assumed to be lost until clips from it appeared in 1998 on the BBC interview series Scene by Scene, hosted by Mark Cousins. Terence Stamp, the star of the film, was the subject of a career retrospective and Cousins was particularly interested in asking Stamp about some of the more challenging and unusual roles in his filmography such as Hu-Man.
Anyone who is a Terence Stamp fan knows he is not someone who pursued the traditional leading man path and often chose roles for reasons other than purely commercial considerations. Certainly his portrayal of a mysterious Christ-like figure who seduces a bourgeoise household in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) is one of his more unconventional films but so is Toby Dammit, the Federico Fellini directed episode of the omnibus thriller Spirits of the Dead (1968), in which he plays an ill-fated, drugged-out actor in Rome. Even more eccentric is the rarely seen Hu-Man where he is playing an actor named Terence Stamp although nothing about his character suggests that the role is autobiographical.
Synopsis: Terence, a once famous actor, has abandoned his career and dropped out of the public eye after a personal tragedy. He has been living a private, cloistered existence since his wife Viviane (Agnes Stevenin) died three years earlier. Out of the blue, Sylvana (Jeanne Moreau), a former lover, pays him a visit but she has an ulterior motive. She works for an institute that is experimenting with time travel which is possible when a massive amount of human energy is captured and stored. They believe Terence is the ideal candidate for their project because of his past emotional trauma.
With Terence’s approval, she arranges a meeting with Frederik (Frederik van Pallandt), the head of the project, who explains their goal: “If we want to send a man into the future, we need a huge quantity of that energy – a worldwide TV show where a man would be ready to risk his life. Such a show would allow us to store that energy.” When Terence tells him a stunt man would be a better choice, Frederik responds that “an actor could convey emotion much better.”
So it begins. Terence agrees to be followed by a television crew as he undergoes various life-threatening situations that will trigger strong emotional responses within himself as well as the worldwide viewership of Mondo Vision, the reality TV show. All of this emotional energy will be harnessed and utilized by the organization for travel into the future and possibly the past.
Terence, of course, is mostly interested in traveling to the past where he can be reunited with his late wife but first he must undergo the various challenges of Mondo Vision’s agenda. How all of this is supposed to work is not explained in detail or with any scientific jargon that could help suspend disbelief. Instead, the viewer just has to go with the flow as Terence is taken by helicopter and abandoned on a tiny patch of beach as the rising tide surrounds him. The ordeal is so upsetting to one young viewer that she commits suicide in the ocean and Terence’s response to this is to jump on a motorcycle and flee the television crew.
Eventually he is pulled back into the reality show and thrust into other extreme environments including an arctic wilderness complete with a glacier avalanche, a visit inside the trippy “Time Dome,” and a journey across a volcanic landscape with bubbling lava and steaming rocks.
You can probably tell by the above description that Hu-Man is more of a sensory mood piece than a tightly plotted sci-fi action adventure. In fact, it is much more in the wheelhouse of art cinema masterworks like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), which may have influenced Laperrousaz’s film with its suicidal protagonist (Claude Rich) who attempts to travel back in time to reunite with his dead wife.
Hu-Man might not match the artistry of those two heady futuristic dramas but it does convey a zen-like contemplation of life, death, memory and the four elements of matter: earth, water, air and fire. Some viewers may find it pretentious or a boring artifact of hippie new age culture. Taken on its own terms, however, Hu-Man works best as an elaborate music video made to be seen on the big screen. With an experimental score by Tim Blake, David Horowitz, Patrick Vian and singer Eric Burton (of The Animals), the film’s eerie aural design of ambient noise, nature sounds, bluesy rock ‘n roll and distorted electronic vocals is the perfect accompaniment for Stamp’s wanderings across a variety of surreal natural settings. (The film was nominated for Best Sound at the Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscar).
The cinematography by Jimmy Glasberg, who photographed Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust documentary Shoan (1985), also has a hypnotic quality thanks to the amazing locations on display – Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, Chamonix in the French Alps, the Afar Region in Ethiopia (volcano sequences) and other destinations.
It might seem strange that Terence Stamp chose to work with the relatively unknown 27-year-old director Jerome Laperrousaz after collaborating with such world renowned masters as William Wyler (The Collector), Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise), John Schlesinger (Far from the Madding Crowd), Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini but he was obviously ready for a change after not working for almost five years.
In his interview with Mark Cousins from 1998, Stamp stated, “Work dried up after The Mind of Mr. Soames in 1969. Hu-Man (1975) was the only serious film I did [during those years], and that was really independent. We’d get some money, shoot for a few days, use the money, “See you a few months later!” – it was that kind of thing. So I travelled. I thought I’m not going to stay around here facing this day-in-day-out rejection and the phone not ringing. I wound up in India and that opened a whole new world to me – that was an amazing thing to happen to a young performer. It’s quite widespread now, but to go there as a very young man and to meet great thinkers and great sages and to learn about breathing and movement and the whole canvas of mysticism…”
In a way, Hu-Man was the perfect film for Stamp at the time as he was just beginning his exploration of alternate lifestyles, religions, philosophies and spirituality. His path on this road would eventually lead to his participation in Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979), Peter Brook’s film adaptation of G.I. Gurdjieff’s second volume in his All and Everything trilogy which explored the beliefs and experiences of the Russian mystic.
Stamp already seems to be channeling the soul of a sufi in Hu-Man with his wardrobe of white clothes, scuba suit and long flowing robes plus a physical presence which changes like a chameleon – one minute he has a mustache, beard and long hair, the next he is clean shaven with a man bun. Sometimes he appears to be striking poses like a male model and, in one scene, he gazes lovingly at his own image in a floor mirror like the Greek god Narcissus. Most remarkable of all is the fact that Stamp was plunked down into several exotic landscapes that presented their own dangers but he appears relatively unfazed as he wanders among the lava fields of Erta Ale, Ethiopia or the base of a giant glacier.
Jerome Laperrousaz would never make another movie quite like Hu-Man. In fact, his only other feature film, Third World (1980) is a reggae musical, and the rest of his filmography consists of documentaries such as Continental Circus (1972) and Made in Jamaica (2006).
Hu-Man is currently not available on any format in the U.S. European Trash Cinema has an acceptable DVD-R copy of it but it will only make you long to see the film in a beautiful big screen restoration. Will it ever happen? Let’s ask the Oracle.
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