Young Theresa (Cristina Galbo) is carted off to Mademoiselle Fourneau’s (Lilli Palmer) private school for wayward girls (even though she seems like the most normal person in the place), where hard discipline is the order of the day. There, Theresa has to contend with the likes of the cruel, manipulative Irene (Mary Maude) as well as learning the politics of the academy. All this and a mysterious killer who intermittently takes out the occasional girl for diabolical reasons which will soon be made clear in a manner most ghastly.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s La Residencia (aka The House That Screamed, the version I watched for this review via Elvira’s Movie Macabre release, so I’m fairly confident that the film was heavily edited, but it still packs a hell of a punch) is a film which is simultaneously semi-classy melodrama and sleazy exploitation/psychothriller. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the camera moves fluidly throughout scenes, following characters and accentuating the gothic, harsh confines of the school’s estate. The editing is smooth as silk and on point (maybe just a little too on-the-nose with its metaphoric usage but not distractingly or offputtingly so, in fact quite the opposite). It’s odd (but somehow fitting for how the film’s scenes form a cumulative effect rather than a singular narrative; it might have been interesting to see this film as directed by the late, great Robert Altman) in how characters who we expect to have some long term significance in the film don’t, and things happen offscreen (but again this could be from the version of the film I saw) only to be referenced later on as if we were given this information (a common enough occurrence in European genre fare).
There is a heavy focus on the interactions between the characters rather than on the murders, and I believe this is because the killings are a symptom of the twisted environment of the school’s interior community. On its exterior, the school is portrayed as a very proper, very orderly place for “troubled girls” to be molded (by force) to fit back into society. Naturally, the dark underbelly lying beneath this façade of civilization is more akin to a prison than a school. Fourneau posits that the activities in which the girls partake (like dance and needlework) “prevent them from indulging in morbid thought” (i.e. sex), but the inner world of the academy revolves around sex and perhaps even moreso around control. The two go hand-in-hand. Fourneau sends an obstinate girl to “the Seclusion Room” where she will later be stripped and whipped. Fourneau’s teenaged son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) spies on the girls at every possible opportunity, but his mother tells him that “none of these girls are any good,” and he needs to be with a woman like her. She is over-protective to the point of smothering, and her domination combined with the libidinous temptations of all the young female flesh flitting about is toxic. Irene is a predatory lesbian who blackmails and inveigles girls into doing her bidding (“all you have to do is obey me”) and orchestrates the release of the girls’ pent up sexual energy with regularly scheduled trips to the shed with Henry (Clovis Dave), the strapping wood delivery (in more ways than one) guy. She abuses the authority granted her by Fourneau in the same way that Fourneau abuses the authority granted her by the people who placed her in charge of their daughters. As in a prison, these abuses are common knowledge to the “inmates” yet are not spoken of in public.
While La Residencia is a Women in Prison film in spirit, it is also about the curiosity of young people, both sexually and in regards to life in general. The most obvious example of this is Luis’ antics around the school. He wants to see the girls shower so badly, that he puts his life at risk to get an eyeful. He plays boyfriend to some of the young ladies, but it’s with the seeming naiveté of a boy in the throes of puppy love. This can be seen as a result of how his sexuality is repressed and twisted by his mother (he knows nothing about the physical act of sex, but he desires the bodies of the girls) as well as being an act of defiance (just covertly). Another prominently defiant character is Catherine (Pauline Challoner) who openly flouts Fourneau’s authority, even though she knows the punishment that will be visited upon her. Catherine’s actions are those of a self-discovery of her independence, no matter the cost. And yet, this is not truly viewed as a positive in this cinematic world, more like the nail that sticks up getting hammered down. Upon her arrival at the school, Theresa notices the signs of Luis following her (a knocked over plant, doors that are left ajar, and so on), and she approaches these with the natural inquisitiveness of a young person investigating the world with both wonder and trepidation (in the same way that she begins to investigate her sexuality). Nevertheless, the discoveries that Theresa makes about sexuality in general are not ones that could be considered healthy. Instead, she is shown only about how sex is used as a weapon, a tool, and about how the gaze of people falls on her and other young women without their consent or desire. Inquisitiveness is not rewarded in this film; it is punished, with murder being arguably the worst of the sanctions.
I think there are parallels to be drawn between this film and Serrador’s other feature length theatrical film, Who Can Kill a Child?, and the predominant of these lies in the mentality of children/young people that have been twisted and perverted by the actions of the adults around them. These kids learn from the poor examples they have witnessed, but more than that, they take the lessons learned and go several steps further, turning things around on the adults in an augmented, disproportionately appropriate fashion. In this sense, both of these movies are in the vein of “as you sow, so shall you reap” morality tales. Even with our sympathies lying with the kids, however, their actions are still terrifying. After all, these are monsters that we, that adults, created. And they are worse than us.
MVT: The creeping, skanky, gothic atmosphere of the film maintains interest, even during the more talkative sections, and it aids greatly in delivering some powerful moments throughout.
Make or Break: The first onscreen murder is expertly handled in every way from the moment the killer’s black figure pops up into frame, the use of dissolves, and the lyrical piano score to the fantastic final sonic effect of a record (like a life) winding down.