Symptoms (1974)

EDITOR’S NOTE: For another point of view on this movie, check out this article.

It feels like nearly every movie José Ramón Larraz had made up until this point was getting him ready to get this one right. While similar to Repulsion, it has Larraz explore the territory that he loved so much: haunted heroines who may not be so heroic, houses filled with dread in the midst of the London countryside, forbidden sapphic relationships and an atmosphere of looming menace.

Starting with flashes of love and death — and always a lake with Larraz, this time filled with the floating dead body of some female body — we meet Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasence) and Anne Weston (Lorna Heilbron). Helen has just returned to England after working as a translator overseas, Anne has just broken up with her boyfriend and they spend an evening in Anne’s ancestral manor deep in the British woods, a place overtaken by nature. Before they go to bed, Helen asks what happens after death.

There was once another woman named Cora Porter, there is also a mysterious man named Brady (Peter Vaughan) who Helen says disgusts her even as she spies on him, there’s also a lake that a woman drowned herself in. These are moments that feel like Larraz has explored before, but never with this level of care or craft. As good as his movies have been, Symptoms is where they come together. Helen is not well; an understatement; but the way the movie takes her on as its lead and then inverts her into becoming the antagonist is masterful.

Jean Seberg was originally cast in the role of Helen — I don’t know if I could have handled this, my joy would have been too immense! — but as she was not part of the British Actors’ Equity Association, she had to drop out. However, Pleasence is astounding. She referred to Larraz as controlling and she was hospitalized after an accident on set with a falling light, but she’s the strong center of this incredible film. She and Heilbron remained close personal friends after making this.

This is the slowest of slow burns, a movie made really about two people and a house and that’s all it needs. Pleasence is that most perfect of doomed women, unsure of where she is in space and time, only assured that no matter the love she tries to bring into hers, she will lose it, she will destroy it and the cycle will begin again.

A masterwork.

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