“Curiouser and curiouser,” the famous phrase from the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland spoken by the heroine, could easily apply to Sérail aka Surreal Estate (1976), the directorial debut of Argentinian screenwriter Eduardo de Gregorio, who is better known as the co-writer of such films as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and several other movies by Rivette. The English title Surreal Estate gives you the impression that this movie (filmed in France) is not going to be a reality-based narrative but that depends on the viewer’s interpretation of what they are seeing. To be clear, Sérail functions on several levels. It might be a ghost story or an unsolved mystery or a writer’s fanciful account of an actual event that occurred during his house hunt for a second home in the French countryside.
The writer in question, who narrates part of the film, is Eric Sange (Corin Redgrave), a successful novelist who is looking for a second home, which he can use as a writer’s retreat and a tax write-off (according to his publisher). After an unsuccessful search, he comes upon his last option, a sprawling mansion in a forest glen that looks abandoned on first impressions. Even though it is located near a major airport, it seems secluded and unusually quiet to Eric. He knocks at the front door and is greeted by Ariane (Bulle Ogier), a petite blonde with dark eye makeup who doesn’t always respond to his questions about the house but allows him inside to look around.
As we can see the house is like a maze with dark interiors in need of light and rooms that could use repainting or some kind of renovation. Ariane isn’t very forthcoming about the availability of the house or whether she is the owner but her peculiar behavior intrigues Eric, especially after she begs him not to enter a locked room. When he tries to force the door without success, she disappears. The incident gives him the idea for a new book and he decides to return the following day to make an offer, remarking with some self-importance, “This pretty if bizarre young lady needed further investigation if she were to become the heroine in this sophisticated piece of fiction.”
The next day is even stranger when Eric returns to the house. He is greeted by Celeste (Leslie Caron), the housekeeper, who appears to know nothing about Ariane. Eric is then ushered into the parlor to meet Agathe (Marie-France Pisier), an attractive brunette who informs him a German businessman is also interested in buying the property. Like Celeste, she also thinks Eric is mistaken about the existence of Ariane but tells him to come back in an hour and Celeste will have returned from the market to answer his questions about the mystery woman. “Curiouser and curiouser,” Eric says to himself, “It’s clear they were up to something and we offering me bait. What was the joke? Would they imagine that all this mystery would induce me to buy this impossible house?”
As the narrative of Sérail unfolds, some mysteries are revealed – Ariane does indeed exist – while new ones are introduced such as who really owns the house and what is its history? Eric comes on like a brash master detective determined to solve the enigma of this strange household but he has met his match in these three formidable women. If he thinks Ariane and Agathe are sexual playthings for his amusement he is mistaken, but what about Celeste who appears to be a trustworthy confidante?
Once Eric purchases the estate and sets up residence there, his self-confidence slowly gives way to confusion and frustration. Admittedly, he is not that sympathetic since he is arrogant, condescending and somewhat bullying in his behavior but he is still the main protagonist. The three women are much harder to gauge. Are they involved in some kind of conspiracy or are they actresses playing a part in some avant-garde play? And why does Celeste bury the money from the house sale with other family heirlooms and valuables in the yard under a wooden board?
One thing that becomes increasingly evident as Sérail creeps toward its denouement is that the house seems to have a life of its own with a distinct personality that changes moods and appearances noted by strange lighting effects and constantly changing furnishings involving portraits on the walls and mirrors. In this sense, Sérail could be lumped into the haunted house film genre with more overt examples like the possessed mansions in The Haunting (1963), Burnt Offerings (1976) and The Evil (1978). But since de Gregorio’s tale features an unreliable narrator who isn’t privy to everything that happens plus alternate revelations shared by the three women, don’t expect a tidy, logical conclusion. Think of it more as a brain-teaser or a puzzle to be solved and you’ll be rewarded with a cinematic experience that is playful, seductive, sinister and claustrophobic in ways that make movies like this memorable.
The director enhances the literary aspects of the yarn with scenes that fade to black like chapter breaks and occasional reminders that Eric is using his experiences as inspiration for a new novel as evidenced by close-ups of his typewriter producing new text. There is even an amusing conversation between Eric and Ariane about the novels of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue which Eric dismisses as implausible, especially the killer’s identity.
It also must be said that the film’s Gothic sensibilities are superbly expressed through the baroque, decaying production design by Eric Simon, the mercurial mood-changing cinematography of Ricardo Aronovich (Murmur of the Heart, Providence) and an unnerving music score by Michel Portal that uses insect sounds, window shutters slamming shut, rain, and other natural noises with discordant bursts of music featuring a dramatic piano or hysterical string arrangements.
I first read about Sérail years ago in Cinefantastique magazine where David Bartholomew wrote a highly favorite review about it but the movie only played a few major U.S. cities and quickly vanished without a trace for years. Eduardo de Gregorio would go on to direct four more feature films which received scant, if any, distribution in America. Two of them, Short Memory (1979) and Aspern (1982) also starred Bulle Ogier, and, on the basis of Sérail, I would love to track them all down because his debut feature is a compelling if enigmatic entertainment that possesses some of the complexity and literary qualities of Juan Luis Borges’ supernatural short stories. This is no coincidence since de Gregorio had been a student of Borges in Argentina but left for Rome in 1967 and ended up moving to France in 1970 where he lived for the rest of his life (he died in Paris in October 2012).
Sérail is not currently available in the U.S. as an analog disc. At one time you could stream it on Amazon Prime and maybe still can on Youtube but the film is currently missing in action in a DVD/Blu-ray format. You might be able to purchase a DVD-R of it from European Trash Cinema but de Gregorio’s movie deserves to be given the spotlight treatment from some distributor like The Criterion Collection or Arrow Films.
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