Plot: two teen girls, one hot summer, a lifetime of blasphemy and heresy.
It was really Jean Rollin who paved the way for the French fantastique. Not by some grand design or clever promotion but rather the accident of circumstance. When The Rape of the Vampire (1968) hit cineplexes across the country it did so during the student riots, general - and worker strikes opposing the Charles de Gaulle administration. In other words, it was the only thing in town. However, It was the follow-up The Nude Vampire (1970) that would consolidate Rollin’s oneiric visual style. Suddenly every two-bit producer and director with a few spare francs and some croissants was scrambling to launch their own fantastique, erotic and otherwise, and follow Rollin’s lead. Of all the imitators that inevitably followed only three have stood the test of time: Mario Mercier, Bruno Gantillon and Joël Séria.
Whereas Mercier was a real-life shaman whose Erotic Witchcraft (1972) and A Woman Possessed (1975) felt more like occult rituals captured on celluloid rather than formal narratives; in contrast the careers of Gantillon and Séria followed a similar trajectory after a single horror outing. Both men transitioned into other more marketable genres before graduating into television. Gantillon had his mesmerizing Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) and Séria had his iconoclastic and irreverent Don’t Deliver Us From Evil. Also not unimportant was that that year saw the release of offerings as diverse as Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins Of Evil (1971), Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), the Belgian-Canadian co-production Daughters Of Darkness (1971), and the El Hombre Lobo breastacular The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971). If there ever was a year to premiere this sort of erotic horror, 1971 was the year of choice.
Coinciding with the witchcraft and Satanic Panic cycle of the seventies Joël Séria’s irreverent coming of age tale Mais nous ne délivrez pas du mal (or Don’t Deliver Us From Evil, internationally) isn’t merely a tale of the sexual awakening of two impressionable young girls under the guise of an occult horror. More than anything else it is a scathing and damning indictment of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, the laissez-faire attitude of the bourgeoisie and the injustices of the French social hierarchal system. Loosely inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder from New Zealand in 1954 and Séria’s memories of his own Catholic upbringing Don’t Deliver Us From Evil was banned in the Fifth Republic on charges of blasphemy and heresy. Séria’s debut feature was a fairytale that remains little seen outside of Eurocult circles and that’s a pity. Even 50 years after its original release it has lost none of its power. More importantly it was the French precursor to Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1977) and Fernando Di Leo’s widely misunderstood and incendiary satire To Be Twenty (1978) with commedia sexy all’Italiana lolitas Gloria Guida and Lili Carati. That Séria abhors Catholicism (who in the right mind could disagree with him?) should be fairly obvious as the title is a slight alteration from a line of the Pater Noster prayer.
Anne (Jeanne Goupil) and Lore (Catherine Wagener) are two post-pubescent Catholic schoolgirls living in the rural province of Anjou. Both are 14, neighbors and best friends, and both come from affluent, conservative, aristocratic families. Both are bored and confused with the hypocrisy they witness at their convent boarding school and within their own families. Anne’s parents are the Count de Boissy (Jean-Pierre Helbert) and the Countess (Véronique Silver) who have their own interests and leave her in the care of gardener Gustave (René Berthier). One night Anne reads erotic literature she stole from one of the nuns and the two girls solemnly vow that they will live their life together, in service of Satan, from now on. After a particular gloomy sermon from the local priest (Serge Frédéric) at mass the two denounce their faith, mock the clergyman, and begin their journey into wanton depravity. When Anne’s parents leave for a two-month holiday they sent her to live with Lore’s parents, monsieur Fournier (Henri Poirier, as Henry Poirier) and madame Fournier (Nicole Mérouze). United for the summer, the two are free to commit as much mischief as they could possibly want.
Anne reads the misanthropic, misotheistic poetic novel The Songs of Maldoror from Comte de Lautréamont and les filles initiate themselves in the dark arts. Anne begins torturing small animals, commencing with her pet cat and graduating into canary-poisoning and sparrow-strangulation. In those lazy, hazy days of summer the two girls explore their own sexuality, experiment with lesbianism, and the all-too-easy seduction of mentally challenged cowherd Émile (Gérard Darrieu). In lieu of getting what they want the two commit arson and when a motorist (Bernard Dhéran) turns the tables on them during a game of seduction the two take to cold blooded murder. Anne and Lore consecrate their union in a Black Mass ceremony wherein church artefacts are desecrated. When a commissioner (Jean-Daniel Ehrmann, as Jean Daniel Ehrmann) is assigned to investigate the case the girls fear that they will be separated. The two decide to commit one final act of defiance during the fall term school play. To a wildly enthusiastic audience the girls dramatically recite part of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil before committing self-immolation in the ultimate act of mockery.
Understated. If there’s one to describe Don’t Deliver Us From Evil it’s that. Joël Séria is content to merely observe as the girls descent from youthful mischief into full-blown profanation and cold blooded murder. That Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is irreverent and iconoclastic is evident. The detached, documentary-like camerawork and quiet, folkish score serve brilliantly to create a false sense of security. It starts out like every other French coming of age feature and only the subtle hint here and there provide clues that not everything is what is it seems. There’s a whole lot more boiling beneath the surface, some of which becomes only clear upon multiple viewings. It dabbles in the general territory of Jean Rollin and Bruno Gantillon’s Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971), but Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is wholly its own beast. The enduring ability of Don’t Deliver Us From Evil to shock audiences doesn’t lie so much in what it shows (it’s surprisingly low on both blood and gratuitous nudity) but rather in the profundity of its implications. Suggestion, when wielded in the right hands, is probably the most formidable weapon. Adding immensely to the overall ick and sleaze factor is that Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener (21 and 19, respectively, at the time of filming) truly do look like unspoilt minors. The brunt of the nudity falls on Wagener, but Séria would have Goupil in a state of constant undress in his oddball romance Marie, the Doll (1975).
By 1971 France had been pervaded by existentialism by philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir. In a post-World War II the movement rose to prominence as a response against Nazi despotism. Don’t Deliver Us From Evil arrived at just the right time to benefit from the lesbian hysterionics following Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, the advent of erotic vampire horror in continental Europe, the women’s liberation movement as well as the looser, permissive mores following the Summer of Love. The societal circumstances and socio-political climate were right for something like this to materialize. Joël Séria was a proverbial crusader hellbent on dismantling the French church and state.
We would be remiss to mention that Don’t Deliver Us From Evil immediately found its place in cult cinema history by being presented at the Directors' Fortnight, in parallel selection of the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and allegedly being banned the land of ‘Liberté‘ on grounds of blasphemy. The banning remains somewhat contentious as we weren’t able to find any substantial evidence to support said claim. Exposing the hypocrisy of the church is never a good idea anyway. With his following features Séria took to thoroughly dismantling the state and the French national identity. To do that with silly comedies of all things makes it all the more poignant. Obviously Séria had an axe to grind with his country, culture and traditions. If anything, without Don’t Deliver Us From Evil there would be no Vampyres (1974), no Satánico Pandemonium (1975) and certainly no Alucarda (1977). Not bad for a little shocker over half a century old.