Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

LA TOUR DE NESLE.. Les Films Fernand Rivers (France), 1955. Released in the UK as The Tower of Nesle and worldwide in English as Tower of Lust. Pierre Brassuer, Silvana Pampanini, Paul Guers, Jacques Toja, Marcel Raine, Constant Rémy, Lia Di Leo. Screenplay by Abel Gance, with dialogue by Fernand Rivers and E. Fuzellier, based on a play adapted by Frédérick Gallardet, based in turn on the novel and play La tour de Nesle by Alexandre Dumas pére. Director: Abel Gance.

   Once upon a time Alexandre Dumas pére was an obscure, if colorful, poet and playwright starving in Paris and dreaming of fame and literary glory. He had not written The Three Musketeers or heard the name d’Artagnan, and he had not conceived the greatest work on revenge ever written, The Count of Monte Cristo.

   There were no Corsican Brothers, no men in Iron Masks, no chevaliers de Harmental, Queen Margot, Queen’s necklace, Joseph Balsamo, no sign that he was to be anything but yet another striving figure in the French literary scene. He was unknown save for being the mulatto son of one of Napoleon’s great generals and outspoken in his politics and artistic designs. He was a physical but not a literary giant.

   That changed in 1832 on the opening night of his first play, La tour de Nesle, a tour de force of blood, murder, incest, and sex that would rocket its author to the stratosphere and lay the ground work for the six hundred plus plays and novels that followed and a virtual assembly line of literature that remains read and loved going on two hundred years later.

   His friend Victor Hugo proclaimed the play the greatest in French history, and it played to packed houses. Overnight Dumas went from obscurity to a hero of the French literary scene and one of the most celebrated men in Paris, having invented the genre that would make him rich and famous, cloak and dagger, in one fell swoop of the quill.

   Little wonder, because the play is a barn-burner. This is all dressed up on stage with red-hooded and cloaked men, graphic strangling, and enough gothic atmosphere to choke a horse. La tour de Nesle is pure gothic in the tradition of Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Monk Lewis’s The Monk, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. As a play it falls somewhere between those and the bloody Elizabethan theater of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, which Dumas most assuredly had in mind when he wrote it.

   Abel Gance is one of the great figures in French cinema. La roue, Le fin du monde, J’accuse, and his monumental film Napoleon are among the greatest works of the French cinema. In his own way Gance is to French cinema what Dumas was to its literature.

   You would think …

   You’d be wrong.

   La tour de Nesle is based on an actual incident in French history involving Quenn Marguerite de Bourlonge, one combining all he elements any nineteenth century playwright could ask for in a melodrama. The hero, Buridan (Pierre Brasseur), was the lover of Marguerite de Bourlogne (Silvanna Pampanini) as a youth. They had two children in secret, Phillipe (Jacques Toja) and Gautier (Paul Guers), and Princess Marguerite persuaded Buridan to rid her of her father making her queen at which point she tried to kill him and her sons, a latter day Medea. Young Buridan escapes, believing his children murdered, but Landry (Constant Remy), the man assigned to kill the boys, spares them an raises them, shades of Snow White and the Huntsman.

   Twenty years pass and Marguerite and her ladies in waiting have contrived a scheme to get their thrills with minimum risk. They have made a secret brothel of the tower of Nesle on the Seine where they lure young men for a night of passion after which their minions murder the handsome young men and dispose of them in the Seine (this is the historical part) so they can never expose what the women are doing or cause a scandal, though the number of bodies of young men washing up on shore is starting to get a bit suspicious looking.

   This nice little arrangement is about to get complicated though. Princess Blanche (Lea Di Leo) has fallen for Phillipe, and Marguerite has set her eye on handsome Gautier, unaware he is her own son. Enter the catalyst, Buridan, back from twenty years adventures as a soldier of France, a dashing Captain and early model for d’Artagnan, quick with a sword and his wits. When Marguerite realizes he is alive she determines to kill him, setting in motion her own downfall and a national scandal of epic proportions.

   Despite handsome filming, and considerable nudity, the film just doesn’t work, perhaps because it is never played as fully as it should be. Melodrama — and this is melodrama — must be played as melodrama, never half-heartedly, and this one is half-hearted at best. This kind of thing needs actors willing to take a huge bite out of the part. It needed Hammer and Terence Fisher, not art and genius.

   Should this plot sound familiar, it may be because it has been filmed before, in 1909, 1928, 1937, on French television in 1966, and the version you are most likely to be familiar with, a German fiasco called She Lost Her … You Know What better known on video as The Tower of Screaming Virgins (long available from Sinister Cinema) from 1968 in which Buridan is much more of a Dumas swashbuckler and the two titles should tell you all you need to know of the approach taken — think the nude Three Musketeers and Zorro films of the late sixties. A few minutes of the Gance film are available on YouTube to view and of course you can buy the 1968 version if you have a tolerance for films so bad they achieve a kind of stature all their own.

   Still, for me the Gance film was worth seeing despite the flaws, in part because it is a handsome film to look at, and in part because it is such a full blooded grand guignol plot. Depending on your tolerance for gothic atmosphere and melodrama, it’s worth a look even if you decide not to wade in all the way. Watching it you can at least get an idea what a more full-blooded attempt to tell the story might have been like and a glimpse of a bit of history, the play that launched one of the greatest literary careers of all time.