Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot / Screenplay: HGC, Simone Drieu + 3 others / Editing: Albert Jurgenson / DP: Armand Thirard / Music: Selection of Classics
Cast: Brigitte Bardot / Paul Meurisse / Charles Vanel / Sami Frey / Marie-José Nat / Jean-Loup Reynold
Such Sweet Sorrow...
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is best remembered today for his seminal French thriller The Wages of Fear (1953) and one of the bleakest, most nihilistic pictures to have emerged during the Fifties: Diabolique (1955).
In a career punctuated by ill health, he only completed ten or so movies, beginning with 1942’s The Murderer Lives at 21. Filmed in Occupied France under the auspices of the German administration, this clever debut presented a whodunnit in the mould of Hitchcock; albeit one free of any comedic ‘light relief’. The result? 21 would set the tone for Clouzot’s patchy career-to-come, in that it pushed characters into various corners, from which they’d emerge different changed people.
Much like Clouzot himself, by the sound of things. A spiky, diffident character, Clouzot only found love late in life, with wife and muse Vera; a happiness cut-short, following her own sudden death from illness, as if Fate had him destined for a life that mirrored his art.
La Vérité (‘The Truth’) follows that pattern. A seldom-seen entry in Clouzot’s filmography, this now-restored picture is a treat for the senses and The Criterion Collection is to be congratulated, for unearthing what is universally agreed to be the greatest performance of Brigitte Bardot’s career.
What can one say, that hasn’t already been written ad-nauseum?
For those late to the party, Brigitte Bardot was, for a time, the epitome of ‘the Starlet’. That vanishing breed of beautiful young women, exploited for their looks above everything else and paraded for the adoring press, as adornments to films in-need of glamour. Usually glimpsed amongst thronging crowds at the Cannes Festival, such girls became fodder for gossip & film magazines the world over and, like so many fireworks, their stars would burn brightly before fizzling-out; dimmed by the light of the next ‘bright young thing’. Occasionally however, a name would come along with real staying-power and transcend their cheesy origins, to become iconic.
Monroe. Loren. Welch. Just three names from the Fifties & Sixties, yet Bardot was every bit their equal. Terrorising French society with her dangerous pout (often with an artfully-balanced cigarette), flawless skin and hourglass figure, the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ exploded a sexual hypocrisy then-prevalent in the country. A ‘poster-child’ for France’s post-war generation, Bardot represented sexual freedom & liberation, in opposition to a moralistic majority who saw her (and, by extension, ‘them’) as nothing less than a threat to the Establishment. Little wonder then, that she was embraced as an icon by her generation worldwide; living as she did, a life many could aspire to, if seldom follow. In addition, her au-naturel brand of glamour was fresh and authentic. Bardot was unafraid of nudity in her near-fifty films, further distancing her public image from rivals, for whom coy titilation was the norm. European cinema was always braver than Hollywood, when it came to matters of the flesh, especially in the wake of the Hays Code, McCarthyism and the deep, moral conservatism at the country’s heart; a conservatism that’s never gone away.
One only has to imagine the impact that a ‘new Bardot’ might have on American cinema today, let alone that of Europe. Then again, the internet has made all things possible. Immediate. Any taboos left unexplored today are illegal, which brings us back to Clouzot’s La Vérité.
In a nutshell, it’s the story of Bardot’s Dominique Marceau and how, listless and bored with her Provincial life as the younger of two daughters in a moralistic family, she listlessly follows her musically talented sister to Paris, for lack of anything better. Trouble is, the city’s student quarter and the whole ‘Left Bank’ scene merely gives her licence to behave without moral constraint.
Things don’t work-out quite the way Dominique intends: after a string of equally jaded lovers, she settles on Gilbert Tellier, played by Sami Frey (Bardot reputedly having an affair with him during the shoot). Tellier is jealous, possessive and obsessive towards her; an attitude that both try to overcome with mixed results. Tellier ends-up engaged to Dominique’s sister Annie (Marie-José Nat) and shows signs of moving on, though Annie represents a tenuous link to his lustful weakness and will doubtless present a festering source of tension in the Marceau family, should their union proceed.
Dominique, on the other hand, struggles to put Tellier behind her. After one last night together, in which she invests hope of a future that will never be, she turns-up at his flat with a pistol. Intending to kill both Tellier and herself, she ends-up botching the job (in-keeping with her general ineptitude); running out of bullets before her turn, leaves Dominique attempting asphyxiation via the kitchen’s gas-pipe. Fate has her spared, revived and put on-trial for Tellier’s death.
If that sounds too spoilery, know this: Clouzot’s film is structured as a series of revealing flashbacks from a packed courtroom. Furthermore, it begins with a beautifully-constructed & photographed jail, one cell of which, holds Bardot and two other women. Prior to his directorial career and the war, Clouzot had spent a decade as a playwright with time in the German film industry and one only has to see the stark angles and languid shadows in these initial shots, to see the impact German Expressionism had on his film-making. As the Judge and his two Counsels in Dominique’s case make arguments and examine witnesses, so Clouzot gives us relevant flashbacks. As they play-out in chronological sequence, it’s fascinating to see what conspired to drive Dominique to such drastic ends:
Maybe neither of us knows how to love and that’s why we get along.
That she killed Tellier isn’t in-doubt yet, as we follow her journey, there’s clearly more to the story. When she finds what she hopes will be stability with Tellier, she struggles both to contain her libido (old habits die hard) and fulfil his expectations… Exhaustion leads her to run out of options and embrace its own, dramatic end.
Through it all, I was thinking about Clouzot’s intentions for the film. After all, Bardot was arguably the biggest female movie star at the time, certainly in Europe, so he was offering her a chance to play against-type, in a part more notably ‘real’ than anything previously. The gamble paid off, with Bardot turning-in a career-best performance that lent credibility to her claims of being a legitimate screen actress first and a model, second.
Yet I wonder, if there wasn’t also a little ‘impishness’ in Clouzot?
This picture revolves around a libidinous, free-spirited character played by an equally libidinous, free-spirited Bardot, who’s put on trial as much for that, as her crime. Right? It makes me think Clouzot’s film is, in some way, a form of ‘wish-fulfilment’; a chance for the Old Guard to view her destruction on-screen, if not in real-life?
And yet… Bardot, I believe, possessed sufficient self-awareness to see how she was perceived by a wider French (conservative) society and, along with Clouzot, was using the film as a warning about prejudging a person in the court of public opinion. To quote novelist & theorist Andre Malraux: ‘To judge is clearly not to understand, because if one understood, one could not judge’. I’d go further and say that, if anything, contemporary society is little more enlightened that it was back in 1960 when La Vérité was released. Having gone through the ‘Sexual Revolution’ offered by the late Sixties & Seventies, we’ve now returned to the age-old hypocrisy in which promiscuous women are seen as ‘trouble’ and their male equivalents as ‘heroic’. Viewed in this context, Clouzot’s film is timeless, if not relevant in the way it speaks truths across the decades.
Yes, it’s laughably dated in-places, but that’s to be expected: hell, the kids are playing Salsa LPs for crying out loud: Rock & Roll had yet to make an impact on French youth! It’s also a little thin in its scope (Dissolute Girl meets Ambitious Boy. They frolic. They fight. She kills him and faces the music). But step back from the period detailing and you have a film that could be re-interpreted today by Mike Leigh and hailed a masterpiece; its flaws, not insurmountable.
And Bardot? In a canny move, she retired from movies (before they retired her) as much to preserve her mystique, as her sanity; her legend, untarnished.
He loved me. We just didn’t love each other at the same time.