If Agnes Varda’s films were often years, if not decades, ahead of the cinema itself, then The Creatures can be seen as an early predecessor to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Here, a science-fiction writer (Michel Piccoli) living with his mute wife (Catherine Deneuve) on an island off the coast of France writes himself into his latest story (which also happens to take place on the island). Like Adaptation, this is a consideration of the creative process, and how real-life turmoil can express itself in dramatic fiction.
Mind control plays a key role in the writer’s story, and Varda has constructed the film in such a way that it feels like a subliminal experience. There are frequent, unexpected insert shots, particularly of crabs who have been flipped on their backs and are struggling to regain composure. Time-lapse photography eerily captures the way the tide washes in each night to isolate the island, while piercing violins on the soundtrack (the music is by Pierre Barbaud) slice up the movie in rhythm with its visual edits. Add instances when the entire screen turns red (for reasons I won’t reveal) and watching The Creatures can feel like being the subject of a media-exposure experiment.
The movie isn’t exactly pleasant, then, but it is intriguing, especially after the construct has been revealed and Varda pursues her theme—an author’s responsibility to their characters, or creatures—more directly. The climax involves a special-effects driven showdown in which the author moves his characters on a literal chessboard, followed by a finale that eerily merges his real life and his imagined narrative. The Creatures may have been little more than a curiosity upon its release, but that’s likely because the movie was so far ahead of its time as to mostly incur puzzlement. After all, it’s still somewhat quizzical today.