Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Bride Wore Black (La mariée était en noir)



Hitchcock and Truffaut         

Truffaut on the set with Jeanne Moreau

THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (La mariée était en noir)        B+                                               France  Italy  (107 mi)  1968  d:  François Truffaut

After that, I wanted to make another movie with Jeanne Moreau, but I didn’t want a love story, so I thought of a book I had read when I was 14, called ‘The Bride Wore Black,’ about a woman who kills the five men responsible for the accidental shooting of her husband on their wedding day, and I wanted to film it like a fairy tale.  It was a story about fatality, about men who had done something in their youth, and this bride had the mission of vengeance to carry out.  I told Jeanne Moreau not to be tragic, to play it like a skilled worker with a job to do, conscientious and obstinate.                                                                                           —François Truffaut interview by Sanche de Gramont from The New York Times, April 18, 1999, Life Style of Homo Cinematicus - The New York Times 

A murder mystery largely inspired by Truffaut’s love of Hitchcock, the first movie made after publishing his 1966 book-length interview of Hitchcock, starring the incomparable Jeanne Moreau as Julie Kohler, a bride whose husband is accidentally killed on the steps of the church on her wedding day, spending the rest of the film tracking down each of the five men responsible to exact her own brand of punishment.  While her determination is cool and collected, remaining alarmingly precise, showing little hint of backing down, going to extreme means to befriend each of the men, using her feminine guile and allure to appeal to them before turning the tables, using sex as a weapon, only telling them her name at the moment of their death.  Adapted from a 1940 novel by Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), also known as the “master of suspense,” author of two dozen crime novels and more than 200 short stories, with 40 of them turning into films, mostly film noirs, with even more adapted into television dramas.  Woolrich also wrote the short story It Had to Be Murder that was adapted into Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), with Truffaut utilizing similar themes and visual motifs that are reminiscent of Hitchcock, conceived as a B-movie film noir, while also using his frequent composer, Bernard Herrmann, to write his musical score.  Despite this connection, the major flaw and missing ingredient is any hint of actual suspense, which essentially defined Hitchcock pictures, as viewers know early on that she will methodically carry out her murderous plan, where only the details remain uncertain.  Truffaut transformed the novel, however, which cleverly reveals a strange, subversive twist at the end revealing the men were innocent of the crime, but she murders them anyway, with the author demonstrating sympathy for the murdered victims.  There’s no sympathy here, as Truffaut turns each of the men into despicable characters, lecherous chauvinist pigs with no regard whatsoever for women, with Moreau a femme fatale protagonist, a precursor to the Charles Bronson DEATH WISH (1974) avenging angel role, yet also Quentin Tarantino’s female-centered revenge saga KILL BILL Pt’s 1 and 2 (2003, 2004) which also features a vengeful bride crossing names off a list, relishing each individual instance of revenge with carefully planned and carried out missions of mercy, where putting them out of their misery has an absurdly feminist sensibility to it, becoming a fully developed critique of sexism and male vanity, turning into the darkest of comedies, where the final shot is strangely appealing, as it’s likely to put a perverse smile on your face.  Slammed by American critics when it was released (yet celebrated in France), claiming it wasn’t sufficiently enough like Hitchcock, with others charging it was unlike Truffaut, it was largely misunderstood, as feminism and the women’s movement hadn’t yet caught on culturally, so it was a bit ahead of its times, probably deserving of a new contemporary reappraisal, where it may be viewed as a scornfully cruel, sardonic comedy.  But the opening is another story, clearly an homage to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as Moreau is about to throw herself out the window in a suicidal impulse, stopped by her pleading mother before packing her bags that include neatly stacked piles of money and leaving under mysterious circumstances (quickly escaping on the other side of the train), not revealing where she’s going or why, leaving no trace of herself.  Clearly, however, she’s determined, as demonstrated by her thwarted attempts to bribe the desk clerk to allow her into the room of her first victim, Claude Rich as Bliss, a contemptuous playboy who has a depraved habit of tape recording his fiancée crossing her legs, playing it back for his like-minded friend Corey (Jean-Claude Brialy).  Both men continue to hit on girls even at a party on the eve of his wedding, set in his high-rise apartment, with Moreau arriving unannounced, dressed all in white, with Bliss making a beeline towards her, simply unable to stop himself from flirting with an attractive woman.  This fatal flaw is what dooms him, as she lures him to an outer balcony, revealing her identity only at the moment she pushes him off the ledge, The Bride Wore Black (1968) - Murder on the Balcony scene YouTube (3:02).

The highly theatrical murder gives one pause, stretching the bounds of credibility, but she’s soon on the quest for another, where the degree of artifice on display is particularly pronounced, foregoing the stark naturalism of his earlier films, instead creating the visual look of a fairy tale.  The second victim is Coral (Michel Bouquet), a lonely bachelor in a dingy one-roomed apartment with photos of pin-up girls on the walls, notably behind on his rent, with Truffaut ingeniously introducing him through the room only, as Moreau accidentally on purpose wanders in while the female landlord is cleaning up, stealing a drink from his hidden stock, refilling it with water.  Moreau meticulously describes the man who lives in the apartment simply by observing minute details, doing a first-rate psychological exposé of the man, revealing a pathetic display of an uneventful life, yet doing it in a playful manner so as not to draw attention to herself, avoiding any and all suspicion.  She anonymously sends him a ticket to a musical performance, meeting him there, dressed in formal black with a white overcoat, avoiding names and motives, but basically dangles him on a string where he’ll do anything she asks, inviting herself into his apartment the next evening, providing a syringe-injected poison-filled bottle of Arak for appetizers, bringing along her own record for musical entertainment, Vivaldi - Mandolin Concerto in C Major, RV 425, I. Allegro ... YouTube (2:48), with his murder becoming the main course as he collapses on the floor, begging for mercy, identifying herself by name just prior to his demise.  A flashback to her wedding day reveals an odd assortment of Friday night friends, five single bachelors who comprise an informal hunting party, also playing cards to relieve their boredom, drinking together in a hotel overlooking the church, where a loaded rifle accidentally goes off killing the groom, leaving Moreau the distraught widow, where each of them vows to never speak of it or see one another again, going their separate ways.  Even after her arrest, carefully calculated between the fourth and fifth murders, fully confessing to the earlier four murders, the police are scratching their heads to uncover a motive, which is revealed only to viewers.  Free of fear or remorse, Moreau has a workmanlike obsession with carrying out her mission, which requires a great deal of flexibility on her part, as she has to lull these men into feeling perfectly safe with an utter stranger, using deception along with her feminine intuition to understand the men’s mindset, staying one step ahead of them, making them feel at ease before blindsiding them with something they never anticipate.  None require greater improvisational skills than ensaring victim number three, Rene Morane (Michael Lonsdale), first coddling up to their young child after school, ensuring his trust, before luring the wife out of the home with an alarmist telegram suggesting illness in the family, then sweeping into the family home, filling the maternal void under the pretenses she’s the child’s teacher, cooking a family meal, allowing the husband to read the nightly newspaper and fulfill his patriarchal duty, as he’s a politican running for office, creating a smokescreen of bourgeois contentment, then playing a game of hide and seek before putting the unsuspecting young child to bed.  Only then does she proceed, sending Morane into an enclosed hiding space under the stairs searching for her supposedly missing ring before locking him in, sealing the air vents with duct tape, effectively recreating Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado. 

Shot by the legendary Raoul Coutard, who also shot Godard’s 60’s films through WEEKEND (1967), apparently there were problems on the set, where Coutard and Truffaut had endless fights about how the film should be shot, disillusioned apparently by the lighting and choices in color, and by all indications Moreau simply ignored Truffaut’s instructions and worked on her own, literally transforming the film, elevating her performance to a different stratosphere, a picture of detached emotions and utter disregard, yet Truffaut nearly disowned the film afterwards, dissatisfied with the results, coming at a particularly difficult time in his life, ending an 8-year marriage to Madeleine Morgenstern, developing an intimate relationship with Jeanne Moreau, who was ending her own distraught relationship with ex-lover Pierre Cardin, who designed all her costumes, dressing her only in black or white (in a color film).  Ingeniously, Truffaut makes her appear, as if out of nowhere, like an apparition, a Hitchcockian device stolen from the Mrs. Danver character of Rebecca (1940), as you never see her knock on a door or enter a room, she’s just mysteriously there, where the dark subject matter of the film stands in stark contrast to the sun-drenched colors of the Riviera in southern France, becoming one of the ultimate revenge films, right alongside Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS: WHITE (1994), both steeped in a perverse absurdity.  Even though Moreau idealizes her deceased husband, friends since childhood, as evidenced by a flashback sequence showing them playing bride and groom, viewing him as the only decent man on earth, her world crumbles down after his loss, where the only thing holding her life together is the excrutiating detail needed to carry out her master plan in secrecy.  The masculine boorishness of the victims is a key underlying factor, as it allows viewers to sympathize with a cold-blooded killer on the loose, totally assured that these men really did murder her husband.  When the actual schoolteacher is wrongfully charged with Morane’s murder, Moreau reveals she does have a moral conscience (at least when it comes to women) by telephoning the police with precise details only the killer would know, while urging them to release the innocent teacher.  The police arrest the next victim on theft charges, Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), the man who actually pulled the trigger on her wedding day, at the exact moment she’s about to shoot him, discreetly retreating safely out of sight, moving on to the next victim, Fergus (Charles Denner), spending the most time with a bohemian artist and self-proclaimed connoisseur of women, a condescending gallery painter who is also a cavalier skirt chaser, objectively viewing women for their precise body measurements, arrogantly proud of his accuracy simply by sight.  He’s a man who can’t stop talking about his sexual conquests, blabbing nonstop while he paints, while he has a bathroom floor carpeted by falsies, a gift from an overstocked salesman.  Presumably sent from a modeling agency, she’s the wrong type, but perfectly fits an unfinished earlier period where he has her posing as Diana, goddess of the hunt, decked out in a skimpy white tunic, armed with a bow and arrow.  Her sensual allure catches him offguard, yet he’s completely captivated, so psychologically obsessed that he paints a nude painting of her on the wall of his bedside in the middle of the night.  Jean-Claude Brialy visits the studio as a friend of Fergus, noticing some familiarity with the model, but he can’t place it.  By the time he figures it out it’s too late.  Manipulating her body into position, the artist himself actually sets the pose, aiming the arrow straight at him, where it’s only a matter of time before she strikes, stealing away before she is caught.  Surprisingly, she allows herself to be caught, where her open confession of four murders confounds the police, intrigued by her intelligence and lack of remorse, showing no signs whatsoever of contrition. The final episiode is the shortest, yet also the most exacting, startlingly assured, as it has a way of punctuating everything that comes before, deliciously dark and morbid, following her pursuits even inside prison, where she wordlessly goes about her business with the severity and calm assurance of a contemplative monk serving their monastic vows to perfection.        

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