Directed by André Delvaux
How does one define obsession? Is it an overactive, consuming desire for something? Does it manifest itself in maniac behavior subjected to uncontrolled whims? Or is it something more diabolical? Does it seep into one’s mind in order to slowly grow over time only to subtlety influence the actions of weaker men? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s difficult to say, as the force of obsession has influenced mankind for millennia. But that hasn’t stopped the cinema from trying to define it.
Probably the most familiar form of obsession that we are familiar with is romantic obsession, that unstoppable urge to be with someone. We have seen it thousands of times. A boy/girl wants another boy/girl, hi-jinks and setbacks ensure, laugh, cry, rinse, dry, repeat. Sometimes if we are lucky we may get something special, like a vengeful murder or a tearful confession at the end. But for most of us, the idea of obsession has played itself out so many times that its stages are the epitome of cliché. But then there are other films that dare to explore the root of obsession itself.
Three films immediately come to mind. There is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) where James Stewart’s character becomes obsessed with a dead woman and tries to turn his lover into her by making her change her appearance. The other two are companion pieces, one having inspired the other. The first is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and the second is Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977). Both have to do with strong willed women having their identities (and possibly more) consumed by weaker women who desire to be like them. They are slow-moving, calculated films that dare to ask why we become obsessed with others and what that obsession can lead to. But I would like to include one more film among these as a penetrating study on the nature of obsession.
That film is André Delvaux’s The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short. A character study in the guise of a thriller, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short is a fascinating study of human behavior and motivations. The film’s central character is Govert Miereveld, a schoolteacher who has become entranced by one of his students named Fran. Over the course of the film we will watch Govert’s obsession lead him across the full specter of human emotions, and quite possibly to the brink of insanity.
When we first meet Govert, he is preparing to go to his school’s graduation ceremony. This will be the last chance that he has to see Fran. During the entire commute to school, Govert seems to be in a trance. He spends every second thinking about Fran and how much she loves her. Internal narration is provided by a voice over which fills us in to every thought and memory. But before he goes to school, he stops for a haircut.
The entire haircut scene is surreal. Govert, who is already in the advanced stages of balding, loves to get his hair cut. Just like his obsession with Fran, his love of haircuts is irrational. He doesn’t need them, but he still compulsively gets them. Here we see the one of the first glimpses into Govert’s psyche: he is ruled by obsessions that can provide him with no discernable benefit. Could it be that the obsessions provide a measure of comfort in a world that he is barely defined in? After all, we get the sense that he has a very ordinary life. He has a wife and child, but we see them so rarely that they might as well not be there at all. At school, he is just another teacher among the masses of educators. Could his obsessions provide him with a source of identity? Maybe, but perhaps I am getting off topic.
Anyway, he has a matter-of-fact conversation with the barber concerning his love of haircuts as his hair is trimmed, sideburns sculpted, and head massaged. Here, we see one of the most obvious uses of a technique that the director will use in order to emphasize internal turmoil or content: an extreme close-up. We don’t see that barber’s face. In fact, we can barely see his hands as they go about their skilled work. The shot is completely concerned with Govert. Time and time again, similar shots will fill the screen with faces. We sense an almost Bergmanesque obsession with the face. Perhaps it is because a shot that is consumed by a face represents a character consumed by internal passions or desires.
After the haircut, we see him attend the graduation ceremony. He takes his seats among the other teachers and stares uncontrollably at Fran, hoping that she will look at him. Afterward, he sneaks backstage when the graduating girls, including Fran, are performing a farewell show for the school. As Fran takes the center stage, Govert cannot help but be consumed by his passion for Fran. But nothing comes from it. The day ends and Fran leaves. The pain of separation is too much for Govert, so he quits his job as a teacher and becomes a member of the justice department. Staying at the school would have reminded him of Fran too much.
From here, the story becomes disjointed and allegorical. While the first half was content to dwell in realism, the second part leaves us confused as to what is real and what isn’t. It all begins with Govert being invited by a coroner to come along on a post mortem examination of a potential murder victim who has recently been dug up from his grave. The event is very disturbing for Govert. Different things that he encounters during the examination have unconscious links to different objects that he was in contact with during his obsession with Fran. A cranial saw is reminiscent of the scalp massager that was used on him during his haircut before the graduation ceremony. The cadaver is missing fingers, just like the gift of a hand sculpture given to a retiring teacher at the ceremony. The cadaver even reminds him of a mask on a covered table in the school storage room. In a brilliant essay on the film on the website filmref.com, we read, “Despite the imbalancing fragmentation of the narrative, Delvaux's subtle assimilation of recursive patterns that weave throughout the seemingly disconnected episodes in [Govert]'s life reflect an intrinsic cohesiveness within the singularity of [Govert]'s perspective and provide insight into the (a)logical structure of his seemingly fractured and aimless life.” Despite the changes made in his life, he cannot escape his connection to Fran.
Things get even worse when they stop at a hotel on their way home. In a bizarre twist of fate, he runs into none other than Fran herself at the hotel. Now a successful celebrity, she remembers Govert and accepts his invitation to talk to her. In a strangely detached scene, Govert confesses his love to her and she reveals that she has loved him since her school days.
Of course, whether or not this actually happened is up to the viewer to decide. I won’t give the ending away, but it calls the entire hotel scene into question along with the audience wondering at the state of Govert’s sanity. Has his obsession consumed him? Or maybe, just maybe, was the fulfillment of his obsession so alien to him that he could not handle it? Is it possible that his whole persona relied on his desires going unrequited? It is up to the audience to decide.
The nature of obsession is a tricky thing. But The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short makes a valiant attempt to decode it. By penetrating the inner world of its main character, we come to understand him more intimately than anybody else. We learn his motivations, his wants, and his reactions to forces outside of his control. Do they make sense? Are they supposed to make sense? Are we even supposed to know? Each viewer needs to answer these questions themselves. I just hope that they don’t become consumed by them.