Watching this film feels like putting together a puzzle that has a few extra pieces thrown into the mix. There’s no way to make all of them fit together at once, but it’s instructive to try, in turn, setting different pieces to work with and against one another.
Max Nelson sums up the basic plot in this review and situates Les Créatures within a broader, French New Wave-adjacent cycle of sci-fi films: http://reverseshot.org/archive/entry/2241/creatures
Nelson cannily observes the aesthetic and thematic connections between this film and Le Bonheur (1964), its immediate predecessor in Varda’s filmography: the flashes of vivid color, fading into colors other than black, the focus on heterosexual coupling and power dynamics between men and women. Nelson cites Varda’s own explanation of the film, emphasizing how it shows the “disorder” of creative inspiration. The point of focus in her explanation is the author character, named Piccoli in the film and played by Michel Piccoli, and the fluid boundary between real and imagined experience.
But this is a limited presentation of how the film understands the act of creation. Underscored first in the film’s title, the dialogue includes a rather curious insistence on the term créatures, whose meaning here encompasses both the suggestion of animality (a meaning also evident in its English usage) and the designation as an object of creation.
What I found most intriguing is the film’s juxtaposition of literary creation with the pregnancy of Mylène (Catherine Deneuve), and the eventual confounding of one with the other. When the doctor arrives to attend Mylène’s birth at the end of the film, he asks, “Are you happy? Your work is almost finished!” The writer Piccoli replies “Yes, I’m happy, I’ve almost finished my novel,” but the doctor retorts, “I wasn’t talking to you, but to your wife.” The animal reality of birth aligns explicitly with the more abstract creativity of writing–and it heals both Piccoli and Mylène of the different trauma they suffered in the car accident that started the film. There’s a whole essay in this, especially the gender essentialism that this plot suggests, but that is for another time.
A strong current of sexual abuse also runs through the film: Monsieur Quellec, the old and infirm proprietor of the local hotel, is a dirty old man who abused local girls in his (and their) younger days, and in the film finds a new victim to prolong the cycle. And Varda does not unequivocally condemn this behavior. Henriette–now a middle aged woman–first confronts Quellec about his past abuse while under a spell to do evil to others. She throws invective at him for the abuse (which he does not deny), then escalates to physical violence, pushing over his chair and refusing to help him back up. The same “evil” framing pushes Quellec to trap Henriette’s daughter in his room and molest her, but Henriette’s revenge and Quellec’s offense are literally painted with the same red-tinted brush in the film.
The end of the film also hints obliquely at the possibility that his daughter, Michèle Quellec, who looks after him and runs the hotel, has taken her teenage employee Simon as a lover—though this is not shown as openly as the old man’s assaults. The older woman + younger man/boy romantic pairing would be treated again in Varda’s later films, but it’s interesting to see this suggestion come through in Les Créatures. The patterns of abuse are made clear, but the film offers no map of a way out.
Les Créatures is now showing on MUBI: https://mubi.com/films/the-creatures