18th Mar2019

‘La Verite’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Brigitte Bardot, Sami Frey, Paul Meaurisse, Charles Vanel, Marie-José Nat | Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Véra Clouzot, Simone Drieu, Jérôme Géronimi, Michèle Perrein, Christiane Rochefort | Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

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A mighty success at the time, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1960 thriller La Vérité was the film to make a serious actor of Brigitte Bardot. A big part of the hype may have been Bardot’s fling with co-star Sami Frey, which led to her attempted suicide just before the film’s release. Clouzot’s heart attack during filming, and the death of his wife not long after, only adds to the film’s grisly impact.

It’s 1959, and a court in Paris convenes to decide the fate of Dominique Marceau (Bardot). She admits to shooting her lover, Gilbert (Frey); but her defence, led by the wearied Guérin (Charles Vanel), are arguing that she was driven to madness by her victim. They’re up against a fearsome prosecutor, Éparvier (Paul Meaurisse), who insists that Dominique’s crime was premeditated and driven by jealousy.

As the story is told we see flashbacks, starting with teenage Dominique’s journey from relative nothingness in Rennes to the bustling cafes and dancehalls of Paris. She falls in with a bunch of hip young things, who enjoy a “depraved” life of smoking, talking about suicide, and sleeping with each other. Dominique takes numerous lovers, all too bohemian to care about her flakiness. Then, through her sister Annie (Marie-José Nat), she meets Gilbert, an ambitious student of classical music, who is training to be a conductor.

Gilbert is infatuated with Dominique from the start. He has to “have” her – in more ways than one. Intense and sexually aggressive, Gilbert wears Dominique down. Their love is passionate. Toxic, even. Though not as toxic as the relationship between Dominique and Annie. Was Dominique’s crime really driven by a madness brought about by abuse, or could she simply not cope with the idea of her sister taking her man?

The relationship between Gilbert and Dominique seems especially relevant in the age of #MeToo. Gilbert’s brand of love is possessive and entitled to the extreme, and the justice system is clearly on his side from the start. After we see the overture of a rape, the judge at the trial attacks Dominique for her refusal to “give in”. She’s a tease, you see, so Gilbert sexual frustration is only reasonable, apparently.

When Gilbert talks of the future, it’s a command: “We’ll get married.” Then, “You’re mine now.” Gilbert’s lack of interest in Dominique’s desires, beyond the sexual, is debilitating and tragic. We see the life and the hope drained from this young woman – a woman who was always going to belong to a man, once her father chose to give her away. Her response to Gilbert’s suffocating monogamy is defiant: she’ll find respect and affection elsewhere.

While Dominique isn’t blameless, her behaviour is far more excusable when you swap the genders in your mind. The expectations of women’s roles are evident not just in the subtly misogynistic dinosaurs in the courtroom, but in the attitudes of her mother and sister, who are complicit in perpetuating the patriarchy. At one point, when her father dies, Dominique tactlessly but truthfully reminds her wailing mother that she coped just fine without him for years.

Clouzot is almost directing two films in one here. The courtroom scenes are handsome, formal and static, and the direction is about the swirling mass of people, all here to hoot at the histrionics. The flashbacks to Dominique’s days of freedom are entirely different, with an ever-moving camera sliding through mouldy apartments and noirish streets, always finding the unpredictable, always finding life.

Then there’s the amazing editing. There are a number of stunning montages which depict the development of character relationships with remarkable efficiency. These sequences are almost musical in their rhythm – literally so in the scene where Dominique approaches Gilbert’s door for the last time, her movements cut to the time of the musical piece he’s just conducted.

Just as Frey makes for an ideal embodiment of toxic masculinity, Bardot is perfectly cast as the poor girl with movie star looks. Bardot’s face is custom-built to smile, and Dominique’s lust for life is natural and infectious, so the fact that she spends so much time in a stricken state is harrowing. That we believe Dominique is broken is vital to the film’s central theme, and Bardot nails it.

La Vérité is, in the end, a heartbreaking retort to the misogynistic notion that men know women’s feelings better than women. Dominique is a woman so desperate to be loved that it threatens to kill her. To her, love is like food or air: a matter of life or death. La Vérité is not about the plotting or the facts of the case, it’s about the higher concepts of humanity and dignity. And once the courtroom is finally cleared, that’s what resonates.

Special Edition Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Le scandale Clouzot, a sixty-minute documentary from 2017 on director Henri-Georges Clouzot
  • Interview from 1960 with Clouzot
  • Interview with actor Brigitte Bardot from the 1982 documentary Brigitte Bardot telle qu’elle
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau

La Vérité is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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