HARPYA (Raoul Servais, 1979)

Sinister, frightening and fiercely beautiful, Harpya—that is to say, Harpy—fuses animation and live action in a surreal fable about the destructive nature of egoism, the tendency to experience life antisocially as a solitudinous dream. Nine minutes long, packed and precise, it won for Belgian writer-director Raoul Servais the Palme d’Or at Cannes as best short film.

It is set in an unidentified city that might as well be a lunar landscape. Taking, alone, a nocturnal walk, an unidentified man is all that is visible to us; the one thing we hear is the squeak of his shoes. All of a sudden there’s another sound, one that seems to grow out of the squeak: the cries of a woman under attack. Having sharpened his sense of aural detection, the man points his body in a definite direction and rushes unswervingly in its course. Another man is trying to strangle the woman in a public fountain. Our self-styled Good Samaritan assaults this other man, releasing the “woman” from the danger of “her” predicament. It turns out she isn’t a woman but some fabulous creature, a fusion of woman and bird of prey. The next thing we know the man is escorting this harpy into his domain—a way of basking in the glow of his having “rescued” “her.”

Indoors, it turns out, is like the outdoors: both being projections of the anonymous urban man’s solitudinous ego, the dwelling is as vacant as the streets. Whereas the latter are absent cars, either parked or in motion, there is hardly any furniture—just a bed and a dining table—inside the man’s roomy abode. The man does have a single companion, however: a bird. But the harpy gobbles up the pet in no time. Its nature, apparently, is to devour everything it can get its mouth into, including whatever the man tries to eat for his own benefit. In effect, the man becomes his “new” pet’s slave. When he tries escaping to a nearby restaurant, the harpy hobbles him by chowing down his legs. A silent contest of wills emerges as the two housemates sit across from each other, facing each other. Using a phonograph, though, the cripple does eventually effect his escape, taking to the nighttime streets and getting some food. However, the woman-breasted enormous bird gets out after him. When he tries to escape his frustration by strangling “her,” another Good Samaritan comes to “her” rescue. Will he also take “her” home?

This wonderful film is one to remember for next Halloween.

 

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