Among the countless pioneers who revolutionised French cinema during the 20th century, one of the most interesting artistic voices belonged to Georges Franju. Known for his seminal 1960 masterpiece Eyes Without a Face, Franju’s impact on the extensive history of the horror genre is still widely discussed by film fans and scholars, but his entire filmography deserves more attention. The greatest auteurs have always been able to use the medium to create magic, and Franju is no exception.
Before embarking on his directorial journey, the future filmmaker worked all kinds of jobs before he found himself unmistakably drawn to the art form. Working on several documentaries toward the end of the 1940s, Franju’s output started to gain impressive artistic momentum in the ’50s before he worked his way to Eyes Without a Face. The latter has become the crowning jewel of his oeuvre, having inspired other great artists like Billy Idol and John Carpenter.
One of the most interesting works that emerged from Franju’s run in the ’50s is a film called The First Night, following the escapades of a boy who manages to get away from his chauffeur and descends into the labyrinthine Parisian subway network. Chasing after abstract ideas like liberation and love, he discovers a new world that hides its secrets in its innumerable shadows and whispers tempting promises into his ears.
“It only requires a little imagination for the most ordinary gestures to suddenly take on a disturbing significance and for our everyday surroundings to engender a fantastic world. It is up to each of us to awaken the monsters and the fairies,” Franju writes in the prologue. He insists: “The film is dedicated to all those who have not disowned their childhood and who, at the age of ten, discovered love and separation at the same time.”
The First Night is a perfect example of the French director’s incredible talent because he effortlessly transforms the painfully mundane environment of subway stations into a little boy’s dark fantasy. With stunning shots, such as the one featuring him in a state of limbo while walking down an escalator going up, the film somehow projects the tumultuous psyche of the frightened child onto the walls of the Parisian metro.
The result is both fascinating and terrifying, showcasing precursors to Franju’s future experiments with horror. There’s one particular scene where the little boy watches trains go by in quick succession without stopping at the deserted station, each one carrying the girl he has fallen in love with. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the fears that are so typical of youth, filmed in a visual language that amplifies the pain.
Made at the precipice of the New Wave, the strange quest for freedom in The First Night may also have been an influence for other more well-known works like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Although it’s not always associated with the movement, Franju’s 1958 project perfectly demonstrates French cinema’s limitless potential before the inevitable explosion.