No success like failure – a natural history of the film maudit

A film maudit – literally a ‘cursed film’ – is one that is widely panned even as it is staunchly defended by a devoted minority. We trace the history of the term and the critical battles fought over such movies.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Krysta Kapowski aka Krysta Now in Southland Tales (2005)

Southland Tales is now re-released on a new Arrow Video Blu-ray.

Premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Richard Kelly’s bravely outlandish Southland Tales – his follow-up to Donnie Darko (2001) – trembled on the brink of unreleasability. Hoots shook the Palais des Festivals during the press screening and, although the audience was much depleted, the ending was greeted with a lusty round of boos. The first question at a singularly hostile press conference claimed the movie had set a new Cannes record for walkouts and asked Kelly how that made him feel.

A few critics praised Southland Tales (full disclosure, I was one). Most dismissed it, many found it laughable, and a few offensive. “A pretentious, overreaching, fatally unfocused fantasy about American fascism,” wrote Variety. “This wannabe visionary epic may find cult believers among gullible undergrads ready to embrace anything that projects the worst paranoid notions about America. But the fiasco at hand will be evident to everyone else, making commercial prospects exceedingly dicey.” Yikes!

Sight & Sound April 2021 issue

This feature appears in our April 2021 issue, alongside Adam Curtis on the world we've made (and can remake), Lee Isaac Chung on Minari, two new spy-thriller documentaries, a look back at Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express – and a look forward to the future of Studio Ghibli. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy

A movie with neither a recognisable genre nor a readymade demographic, Southland Tales struggled to find a distributor and, opening in a new version 18 months later, failed once more. A 2008 “explanatory” DVD didn’t do much to rehabilitate the film either.

As I recall, French critics at Cannes hated Southland Tales even more than their American colleagues, yet the French have a term for such movies: film maudit – a ‘damned’, ‘unlucky’, or ‘ill-favoured’ movie. Cursed with an unhappy destiny, a film maudit may have been ripped untimely from its director’s womb or mutilated by vengeful producers, it is often buried on release and always reviled by critics. Such a film is inevitably ruinous at the box office, at times a fiasco so absolute that it begs to be championed – although not if it is a hyped-up super-production like Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1964 boondoggle Cleopatra.

Wanda (1970)

A film maudit is not necessarily a bad movie even if some, like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), were initially so considered. Nor is a film maudit a cult movie although, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), it may attract a cult and is thus maudit no more. Films – Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), for example – suffering all manner of indignities before being hailed as national treasures are rehabilitated films maudits. Similarly, a film maudit like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923) forfeits maudit status once it becomes a cause célèbre. A film maudit is not just a titanic flop like Tom Hooper’s ridiculous Cats (2019), it’s a bomb that a vocal minority hails as a masterpiece.

A film maudit incorporates its curse. Bob Dylan, himself the director of the notorious 1978 disaster Renaldo & Clara, had it almost right when he sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” Oscar Micheaux’s lost swansong The Betrayal (1948), one such legendary film maudit, inspired one New York critic to write: “There is simply no point in trying to apply normal critical standards… or in trying to describe its monumental incompetence as movie-making.”

On the Silver Globe (1988)

Megalomaniacal persistence helps. Andrzej Zulawski’s all but indescribable science-fiction allegory On the Silver Globe (1988), a big-budget production begun in the 1970s, was shot on locations ranging from the Gobi Desert to the Crimea to the Baltic coast before being shut down, according to Zulawski, by Poland’s cultural commissars as excessively anti-clerical. A decade later Zulawski assembled the surviving material, restaged some scenes with new actors, and added documentary footage of late 80s Poland.

A true film maudit has a heroic saga. Terry Gilliam’s 2019 The Man Who Killed Don Quixotedescribed by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian as “a biblical ordeal of wrecked sets, collapsed funding and bad luck” that had already inspired its own meta maudit documentary, Lost in La Mancha (2001) – had to fight off an irate producer’s legal injunction on the eve of its world premiere as the closing night gala at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Myra Breckinridge (1970)

A great film maudit can derail or even terminate a career. Michael Powell never recovered from the scandal of Peeping Tom (1960). Michael Sarne was expelled from Hollywood after Myra Breckinridge (1970).

On the other hand, Sam Peckinpah bounced back from the debacle of his 1964 super-western Major Dundee – considered by its studio to be a runaway production with a lunatic at the helm – to make The Wild Bunch (1969). A few more films maudits followed that masterpiece, notably Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), but then, along with von Stroheim, Sam Fuller (after The Naked Kiss, 1964) and Elaine May (after Mikey and Nicky, 1975; and Ishtar, 1987), Peckinpah belongs among the ranks of cinéastes maudits.

That outlaw band includes figures as varied as the self-destructive Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak, the underground filmmaker Jack Smith (who never completed another movie after his scandalous Flaming Creatures – a movie which received a special film maudit award when it was illegally shown at the 1963 Knokke-le-Zoute festival), the Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, whose movies were blocked for decades, and most famously Welles.

Birth of the damned

Indeed, Welles’s bargain-basement Republic soundstage Macbeth may have been the first movie understood as ‘film maudit’. Jean Cocteau used the term, albeit in retrospect, to describe the experience of Macbeth when, withdrawn from competition at the 1948 Venice Film Festival, it had its European theatrical premiere at the exclusive ciné-club Objectif 48, co-founded by André Bazin.

The original French poster for the Festival du film maudit

In the spring of 1949, Cocteau and Bazin began organising a Festival du Film Maudit to be held from 29 July to 5 August, in the Atlantic resort town of Biarritz. Its purpose, per Cocteau, was to showcase those unfashionable, non-commercial and hence invisible films that in “their indifference to censorship and the demands of exploitation were cursed like the books of certain poets”. (The reference is to Paul Verlaine’s 1888 collection of articles on such “damned” versifiers as Rimbaud, Mallarmé and himself, Les Poètes maudits. The festival poster, designed by Cocteau, resembles a Rorschach test.)

Bazin’s biographer Dudley Andrew would call the Festival du Film Maudit “the most important French film event of the immediate postwar era”, and it is sometimes credited with showing movies, most famously Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), that it was in fact unable to land.

A counter-festival to swank Cannes, the Festival du Film Maudit evoked another 19th-century French avant-garde tradition, the Salon des Refusés – an exhibition first mounted in 1863 with artworks rejected by the official Paris Salon, including paintings by Edouard Manet and Camille Pissarro. Scruffy young cinephiles – including future New Wave directors – swarmed into Biarritz, sleeping in a makeshift bunker and talking their way into the Grand Casino. The festival was highly organised. Seventeen-year-old François Truffaut was disappointed that it took place so calmly. There were three daily programmes – ‘amateur’ shorts in the morning, movies shunned by the public at four in the afternoon, and unreleased films in the evening.

The Manet of this cinematic Salon des Refusés was Jean Vigo. The ban on Zéro de conduite (1933) had been lifted in 1945 and L’Atalante (1934) was rereleased soon after, but Vigo’s reputation remained in flux. Making them the first screenings after the opening night attraction – Marcello Pagliero’s bizarre neorealist comedy Roma città libera (1946) – was a statement. Two years later, the annual Prix Jean Vigo was established.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Other notable presentations were wartime productions: Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), René Clair’s first Hollywood movie, The Flame of New Orleans (1941), both shown at 4pm, and, in the evening, another American movie by a French expat, Renoir’s The Southerner (1945).

Also shown at night: Time in the Sun (1939), fashioned by Marie Seton from Eisenstein’s abandoned ¡Que Viva Mexico! (establishing the tradition of meta-maudit documentaries fashioned from incompleted films maudits), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941), which would inspire the French Surrealist Group’s infamous exercise ‘Data Toward the Irrational Enlargement of a Film’.

Bazin seems to have been particularly taken with another ten o’clock show, Dudley Nichols’s expensive and poorly received 1947 adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play Mourning Becomes Electra, which he considered “the film maudit par excellence”, challenging audiences with “the uncompromising rigor of its mise-en-scène.” (The New York Times reviewer thought that “the careful pictorial precision” made for “monotony in three hours” and called the movie “a millstone upon the screen”.)

Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)

The most important of the avant-garde films was the teenage Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic psychodrama Fireworks (1947), sent to Cocteau unsolicited. Although Anger would maintain that the movie was given a prize, the award actually went to another 16mm film, Jean Rouch’s scarcely less outré Initiation à la danse des possédés (1948), a 22-minute account of a Songhay woman’s initiation into ritual possession, shot in the French colony of Niger.

The festival was a success. A second edition was held the following summer. Neither Bazin nor Cocteau were involved but King Farouk of Egypt made the scene. The term ‘film maudit’ was absent as well, although the festival cursed itself by honouring then imprisoned director Edward Dmytryk, who seven months later would give friendly testimony to the House Un-American Activities Commission.

In the 1950s, ‘film maudit’ was a term of praise bestowed by the young critics who wrote for Bazin’s publication Cahiers du cinéma. In 1953, Truffaut championed, as films maudits far superior to any “neorealist social pamphlet”, two poorly received Hollywood genre flicks: Richard Fleischer’s low-budget train-set noir The Narrow Margin (1952) and Bruce Humberstone’s 1950 South Sea Sinner (a remake of Seven Sinners, with Shelley Winters in the Marlene Dietrich role and Liberace as her piano-playing sidekick) – although his erudite colleague Jean Domarchi was more precise in his usage, praising Vincente Minnelli’s studio-mutilated psychiatric-hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955) as a film maudit.

Lola Montès (1955)

By the early 1960s, the sobriquet had been adopted by Cahiers’s Anglo-American acolytes. Writing in the Guardian, Richard Roud called Jacques Rivette’s hand-to-mouth feature Paris Belongs to Us (1961) as “the film maudit of the French new wave”. Andrew Sarris, meanwhile, had extolled Max Ophuls’s swansong Lola Montès (1955) as his personal film maudit and, in characterising Edgar G. Ulmer in his book The New American Cinema, would joke that “the French call him un cineaste maudit, and directors certainly don’t come any more maudit”.

Ulmer had made his swansong, an Italian-West German English-language wartime cheapster, The Cavern (1964), by the time Sarris’s book was published. Still, as presaged by Hitchcock’s misappreciated Marnie (Robin Wood called the British critical reception for this 1964 flop “staggeringly obtuse”), the Twilight of the Auteurs saw a number of geriatric films maudits. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) was the easiest to defend, but Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000 (1965), John Ford’s 7 Women (1965), and even Jacques Tourneur’s City Under the Sea (aka War Gods of the Deep, 1965) had their auteurist apostles. Not so Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), an insane, pro-LSD mock gangster film, which helped usher in the late 1960s golden age of Hollywood film maudit.

The cursed amok

“A great film is an accident, a banana skin under the feet of dogma,” Cocteau had declared in the catalogue of the Festival du Film Maudit. The films to defend are “those that despise rules”.

Skidoo (1968)

The confusion of the late 1960s and early 1970s provided a fertile field for such anarchy. Studios tottered, standards collapsed, allowing well-publicised disasters such as Myra Breckinridge and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), along with eccentric, countercultural one-offs – Robert Downey’s Pound (1970), Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), Floyd Mutrux’s Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), Ivan Passer’s Born to Win (1971), James Frawley’s Kid Blue (1973) – that were panned, dumped and consigned to oblivion, and remain ripe for rediscovery to this day.

The post ’68 period also brought a subcategory of political films maudits. Jean-Luc Godard’s elusive Un film comme les autres (1968), which triggered a small riot at its world premiere at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, might be one, as is his unfinished One American Movie (1968-69). Taken from and later restored to its director, Marcel Ophuls’s epic documentary The Memory of Justice (1976) was a blend of film maudit and cause célèbre.

But in the main, political films maudits are movies banned in their home countries. The Prague Spring produced a dozen or so; Yugoslavia banned Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Films by Péter Bacsó and Gyula Gazdag were banned in Hungary, as were films by Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland. The 1969 Soviet film The Color of Pomegranates is a special case in that it was not only banned but its director, Sergei Parajanov, was jailed.

From a North American perspective, the political film maudit du jour is Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (2019), a movie shunned by North American distributors in penance for the director’s sins.

The era ended with hubristic movie-brat fiascos like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) and the cosmic bummer that was Heaven’s Gate (1980), credited with destroying not only director Michael Cimino but the studio United Artists. Ishtar may be considered a straggler.

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Yet Paul Verhoeven’s maligned Showgirls (1995) was almost instantly recuperated on the home video market. Times had changed. In the 15 years that followed, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate were critically rehabilitated.

Decline and fall

Some 60s fiascos (notably Myra Breckinridge) remain unredeemed, but in 2021, the film maudit seems a historical concept. The Man Who Killed Quixote is a white whale. Southland Tales is a black swan.

Southland Tales (2005)

From that, several things may be deduced. The first is that film maudit belongs to the great age of cinephilia (1945-2000) and, perhaps more crucially, thrives on a hostile audience. The latter is crucial. To paraphrase a 1917 avant-garde manifesto, a film maudit was understood as a slap in the face of public taste or, as another Russian avant-gardist put it, “to lay bare the device”. While not necessarily self-reflexive, many if not most of the great films maudits broke the rules in holding up a funhouse mirror to the worlds of movies, stardom, spectatorship and the media system itself. It was a reflection many did not wish to see.

As the mass audience eroded, social media has rendered film maudit superfluous. In simultaneously undermining a critical establishment to react against and elevating the opinions of unaffiliated cinephiles, the net has fostered a cinematic counterculture capable of embracing, defending and blessing nearly anything. Is Southland Tales, a movie Richard Kelly declared was about “the end of Western civilisation as we know it”, the last of its kind?

The movie has now been relaunched once more on a deluxe Blu-ray that includes the fateful Cannes version. “There’s a line in the final moments of the film where [Sarah Michelle Gellar] says to [Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson] that ‘it had to be this way,’ and [he] responds, ‘I know,’” Kelly told Filmmaker magazine. “That’s kind of how I feel about Southland Tales, that it had to be this way. I know that and I’ve always known that.”

Further reading