The obscure and mesmerizingly strange ‘Diary of a Suicide’

A French-language film by a Yugoslavian director, Diary of a Suicide deserves to be much more widely known. Yet the movie is like a fascinating test case: when is a movie too unfathomably weird even to become a cult film?

Partly financed through a French grant, which Francois Truffaut signed off on with heady praise, Diary of a Suicide was shot in 1971 and screened at Cannes and Venice in 1972. The Internet Movie Database lists an oddly precise release date for France: March 22, 1973 (on a single screen in Paris, I wonder?), but there’s no info for any other countries, and there was never a U.S. release of any kind until the 2009 DVD from Facets.

The film’s 40th anniversary went unremarked, to say the least. But I’d love to see Diary of a Suicide gain a wider audience and reputation. Maybe then it will seem less like something I experienced in a dream, the film from decades ago that flickered mysteriously across my TV screen one weekend, leaving only a teasing series of enigmas in its wake.

Like no cruise you've ever been on: Delphine Seyrig and Sami Frey. © Copyright Facets, Inc.

You would think a movie so obscure would have been shot on the fly, with no one you ever heard of in it. But the first surprise of Diary of a Suicide is the extensive location filming around the Mediterranean, with a detour to what appears to be a North African city. And for cinephiles the leads are welcome familiar faces: Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois, for starters) and Sami Frey (Band of Outsiders). Thanks to that Godard movie, Frey is an icon of French New Wave cool, so at first it’s a shock to see him here, looking like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel with his long Fabio-like locks.

Delphine Seyrig as the Interpreter.

Diary of a Suicide opens with a framing story shot in high-contrast black-and-white: Frey plays a tour guide on a cruise ship that’s putting in at various Mediterranean destinations. Between ports the Tour Guide (no character names here; writer-director Stanislav Stanojevic would rather keep his scenario abstract and elusive) is himself at sea, restlessly pacing the decks as Seyrig’s Interpreter coolly rebuffs his overtures. In response to the Tour Guide’s goading she finally puts down her book, but never takes off her enormous sunglasses, and says, “Tell me something beautiful.”

He responds to her challenge with stories that are anything but beautiful. Each disquieting scenario he tells her is tinted a single color the way silent movies used single-color tints, which has the effect of being startlingly mod, almost psychedelic, after the B&W opening.

Pressed by the Interpreter for something more, the Tour Guide offers a story within a story within a flashback. Stanojevic’s storytelling gamesmanship here could be taking a cue from Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1964), where stories tunnel into each other for a mind-bending three hours. And here we get to the heart of Diary of a Suicide, the final doll nesting inside its matryoshka-like structure and the source of its title.

Marie-France Pisier as the young anarchist.

We see the Tour Guide a few years earlier (a much less glamorous Frey), working as an unsuccessful salesman in a French-speaking province. After failing to make a sale, he slips into a theatre where a comically egotistical actor tells a story onstage. The narrative he recounts took place 34 years earlier: a fiery-eyed young revolutionary (Marie-France Pisier) is thrown into a rather unique jail, where she has her own personal guard, a tall, gaunt fellow (Sacha Pitoeff) who is both impeccably dignified and memorably creepy. He patiently explains to the young radical that she’ll never escape, because he never sleeps.

A flashback within a story within a story: Sacha Pitoeff as the Jailer.

Typical of the movie’s perverse approach to narrative, the Jailer has his own story to tell his captive. In full-color flashbacks, we see him as a young soldier. The movie has now worked its way back to WWI, but it’s WWI with an overlay of 1960s absurdity; the war scenes could almost be outtakes from the Beatles’ Help! We learn why the Jailer is unable to sleep ever again. Then the movie returns to the cell where the young radical sits listening, and then back to the theatre where the salesman Sami Frey has been listening to an actor onstage narrate the preceding story — only director Stanojevic exits each layer of the narrative on a disturbing, ambiguous note.

Adventurous viewers who enjoyed piecing together the dream layers of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and who are ready to venture into even more oneiric territory should put Diary of a Suicide at the top of their queues. I felt compelled to watch the movie again a couple days after my first viewing, plus the ability to revisit certain chapters came in handy. I’m sure the movie would be even more like a sustained hallucination on the big screen of a movie theatre, but it’s also the kind of puzzle-film that DVD was made for.

A most peculiar courtship: Delphine Seyrig and Sami Frey. © Copyright Facets, Inc.

Back on the cruise ship, the Interpreter presses the Tour Guide for answers, but he provides no closure. The tension between them continues as the ship makes another stop, at a mausoleum in an unspecified tourist destination. Director Stanojevic unnerves us further with a series of full-color stills from the crypts, showing a series of ghastly mummies — think atrocity victims, not Boris Karloff. There are also shots of statues and gargoyles that evoke ancient myths.

In the movie’s final moments, the Interpreter warms to the Tour Guide, and in the dark of her cabin, relents. Stanojevic has one last surprise in store when the Tour Guide turns a light on, and the movie ends on an unsettling freeze-frame. The ending is jarring and initially unsatisfying. But I don’t know how you would end a movie as cryptic as Diary of a Suicide; Stanojevic is clearly not interested in the norms of movie storytelling. The second time I watched the film, the disquiet the ending provokes felt entirely appropriate to the movie’s enigmatic, self-effacing nature.

I could describe Diary of a Suicide as a hidden treasure from a long-gone era in filmmaking, the heyday of the uncompromising European art film. (It’s fitting that two of the leads, Seyrig and Sacha Pitoeff, both starred in the most famous of arthouse puzzles, Last Year at Marienbad.) But the movie is even more bravely, deliriously noncommercial than that. Stanojevic is the Tour Guide here, but he leaves it to us to be the Interpreter. He doesn’t plant any lines of dialogue that might explicate the rest of the narrative, the one line or two that a viewer might cling to afterward.

Anarchist on trial: Marie-France Pisier.

On many levels, Stanojevic seems to have tapped into 1920s Surrealism and updated it for the early ‘70s. While much about the movie is relevant to its cultural moment (in particular, the fact that the bomb-throwing radical is a beautiful young woman feels very 1968), the vignettes of political violence it depicts could also be from the 1920s or ‘30s. The film’s surfaces suggest French New Wave, but the presiding sensibility feels much more Central or Eastern European — not surprising, given the Yugoslavian director.

We begin in a milieu that feels very Western, the cruise ship touring the Mediterranean, everything redolent of affluence and leisure, only to have that atmosphere disrupted by stories of political violence and dissidents, stories with no beginning or end, and no hope of resolution. And then there are the shots of the statues, and the grotesquely unpleasant, real-life mummies untethered to any of the scenarios that the Tour Guide tells to the Interpreter.

Stanojevic seems to be drawing from a vast storehouse of European cultural memory from throughout the 20th century and even further back, everything buried or half-suppressed that people would rather not have to consider, and certainly not when they’re on a cruise ship. The Tour Guide’s ominous stories evoke the fault lines running through polite liberal society. And for all the ways Stanojevic harks back to earlier decades, in many respects the stories don’t seem dated at all.

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