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Belphegor

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Published on Jan 23, 2010

A short but pivotal sequence from "Belphegor, ou le Fantome du Louvre", the wildly popular French TV miniseries (directed by Claude Barma) which, when first aired in 1965, generated one of the very first case of mass hysteria in the history of TV.

Besides the plot itself, who nailed for five nights the French viewers to their TV screen, what made "Belphegor" an instant phenomenon (and the subject of heated debate) was the fearsome appearer of Belphegor itself. Reportedly, millions of French (then Italian, then German) kids started having nightmares, with more of few cases of genuine psychosis.

While normally claims of such deep effect of TV shows on people psyche are dubious (or exaggerated), "Belphegor" was the real thing. In fact, it's very easy, for anyone born in the early 60's in Western Europe, to identify "fear" in its most primal form with the tall, veiled figure of the "Phantom of the Louvre".

All this brouhaha unfortunately tends to make people forget about the brilliance of the miniseries itself, a (rare) instance of mystery, horror, vague scifi and crime story threads well mixed all together in the same unsettling plot. Barma was a specialist of well crafted TV narrative, and in 1971 he was responsible for another landmark of great TV (and not cinema passing for great TV!): "Le Rois Maudites" (The Cursed Kings), the story of the bloody demise of the royal house of Capet (not to be confused with the dreadful 2004 remake, whose only notable features were Philippe Druillet scenery)

1965 "Belphegor" (there was also an interesting silent movie version of the same story done in 1927) had also the additional bonus of a terrific cast, whose most notable element was Juliette Greco, the epitome of 60's cool (singer, actress, writer and for a while lover of Jean Paul Sartre). The interesting thing was that Greco had absolutely no problem looking sophisticate and at the same time vulnerable and haunted, and she definitely gave the convoluted (but actually not nonsensical) storyline an added layer of depth. Supporting cast was very solid too, with the suave but at the same time hardened René Dary as Commissioner Ménardier, handsome Yves Renier as the nominal hero of the story, André Bellegarde, and the very sinister François Chaumette as Boris Williams.

In 2000 Belphergor was remade as a full feature movie starrieng Sophie Marceau, but that one is best avoided. As they say, they don't do it like this any more, and the huge quality gap between the 1965 and the 2000 version is one of the rare true instances of this cliché.

There are various video release of "Belphegor", but the best one is from Yamato Video (Italy) and includes the 1927 version, Arthur Bernaude's novel who originated the story (a good read) and of course the full 1965 version, restored and subtitled.

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