Sometimes a casual remark can be enough to track down a movie. In the British film magazine Sight and Sound Director Sofia Coppola recently touted a film that has a cult following only in modest circles: L’année des méduses (‘The Year of the Jellyfish’) from 1984 by Christopher Frank. Although Coppola first describes the film as “just another film” of which her French husband Thomas Mars and his friends happen to be fans. But she adds: “It’s weird and I love it.”
That makes curious. Frank turns out to be an Anglo-French novelist and filmmaker, who died in 1993 at the age of 50. Since then, he has more or less been forgotten. L’année des méduses was his most successful film, although that is probably mainly due to the young lead actress Valerie Kaprisky. In those years she caused a furore in France with her many nude roles; she was a sort of French variant of Sylvia Kristel.
Also in L’année des méduses she has been stripped many times. The film is set during a summer on the beach of Saint-Tropez and Frank makes maximum use of the era of topless sunbathing. Kaprisky plays the amoral 18-year-old Chris, who winds lovers around her finger with her sexual magnetism and then casually plunges into ruin. Local pimp Romain (Bernard Giraudeau) is the only one who sees the danger. He therefore focuses his erotic attention exclusively on her beautiful mother Claude (Caroline Cellier). Chris can’t stand that.
The viewer sometimes has to work pretty hard to figure out what Frank is actually saying; quite a few scenes are richly blurred and rudderless. Suddenly a thunderous voice-over pops up to give some text and explanation, but that doesn’t help much. The film is close to what has been called a ‘good bad film’: a film that gets a cult following precisely because the film is bad and therefore viewers can have a good laugh about it. In France this is called a ‘nanar’.
Such a film must have been made with serious intentions. Just putting together a quick movie with as much nude as possible to make money is not enough. Only serious intentions that are subsequently not fulfilled produce the unintended comic effect. Frank had such serious intentions for his film, which he based on a novel of his own. He wanted to show something of the emptiness and boredom in the hedonistic existence of the upper class of society. It is probably no coincidence that this is also a beloved and recurring theme of Sofia Coppola in her own films.
Yet L’année des méduses nor is it simply a movie that is so bad that it becomes good again. That would be too rude. A failed scene can suddenly be followed by a very exciting and atmospheric one. This ambiguity ensures that L’année des méduses still remains a film that people never stop talking about.
Peter de Bruijn is a film critic.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of October 6, 2021