A few years ago I came to know the 1930s work of French filmmaker Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never heard of, through The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse set Presenting Sacha Guitry. What an enjoyable set of lightly comedic films — I especially loved The Story of a Cheat — and David and I talked about the four films in that set for an episode of The Eclispe Viewer (see here). I grew fond of Guitry’s confident, playful filmmaking. Prior to making films, he, like so many others of that time period, had his feet firmly in the theater, and the results of this experience can be seen in the films. For example, where other films of this period will have an opening credits scrawl, his films often begin with filmed introductions of the cast and crew (many who work with him again and again, like a theater troop), with him as the appreciative auteur thanking them for their time and talents. It’s almost like going to a small theater and having the cast and crew wander around the audience, telling jokes and building goodwill, reminding everyone that what they are about to see is a story, the characters fictional, putting into further relief the talents of those who work to create the illusion of reality.
Sadly, after those 1930s films were made, Guitry experienced a stark fall from grace. Following World War II, during which he still put on theatrical productions that made some uncomfortable, he was imprisoned straight away, accused of being a collaborator with the Nazis, or, at least, a collaborator with and sympathizer of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis. Guitry was eventually acquitted of all charges, but apparently this experience shook him up and certainly affected his ability to work.
However, there was a late, brief surge when he seemed to be in the process of regaining his earlier artistic success. At the end of the 1940s he started theater work and filmmaking again, remaining relatively prolific until his death in July 1957.
In this brief resurgence, Guitry began working with the great actor Michel Simon (I’ve sung his praises here before for his 1930s work, most recently with Criterion’s release of Jean Renoir’s La chienne; see my review here). I know nothing of the latter two films of their collaboration — 1953’s The Virtuous Scandal and 1957’s Les trois font la paire — but I have just enjoyed their first, 1951’s La poison, which Criterion released this week on home video. It was wonderful to see a director and actor I’m fond of coming together 15 – 20 years after they made the films for which I love them.
In fact, Guitry wrote La poison especially for the great Simon and even tried his hardest to utilize a filming process that Simon preferred — no reshoots. The result? A soft, black comedy that uses some of Simon’s greatest skills to make us laugh uncomfortably while it criticizes the criminal justice system and the society that loves a good scandal.
The film begins, as Guitry’s others did, with an introduction to the cast and crew that runs for nearly seven minutes, the longest being practically a dedication to Michel Simon, with Guitry extolling his virtues. If you’re in the mood, it’s charming. I was in the mood.
The film proper begins at the drugist’s. There a neighborhood woman likes to go and look through the prescription list, see what her neighbors are struggling with. This explains a lot about the community, she thinks. Certainly her nosiness explains a lot about the community. This is a rather poor community off the beaten track. It seems everyone is struggling to make ends meet, and the business owners are all hoping that something big will happen to bring in some attention. Who cares what kind of attention?
And so we see where this is going when we meet the Braconniers, husband and wife for thirty years. Paul (Michel Simon) cannot stand his wife, Blandine (Germaine Reuver), anymore. He doesn’t mind talking to the priest about his desire to be rid of her.
He’s harsh, calls her a barrel, is disappointed at how much she’s changed. But of course, he’s changed too in thirty years — and he agrees, but he hasn’t gotten bad like her. The priest says that he hopes Paul doesn’t talk to just anyone about his wife in this manner. We may think that this is because it’s harsh, unfair, unappealing, and immoral. Paul, though, takes the priest’s thought differently: yes, if something were to happen to her he doesn’t want to be a suspect.
There’s a good case to be made that Paul is misogynistic. Some will make the case that the film itself is misogynistic, but I’m not quite willing to go there. Neither Paul nor Blandine is presented as a saint. It turns out that she might just be the one who is thinking of poisoning him; after all, she did just buy ten pounds of rat poison and hide it in the cupboard.
When Paul and Blandine pass each other on the street, they do not even look at each other, let alone exchange a simple pleasantry. Yet they are married. They live together, sleep together, eat together. The dinner scenes are funny as they scowl at each other while listening to the radio, something to remind them of a world outside this wretched home. He cuts the bread, she drinks her wine, and together they dwell in misery.
One evening, the radio show includes an interview with a famous criminal defense attorney. He is trying to make a distinction between a murderer and a criminal. “Most murders are actually duels,” he says, meaning that once the victim is dead, the murderer is not going to kill again. He or she is not a true criminal. This certainly gives Paul an idea: perhaps he could murder his wife and escape the law and his conscience. If not, perhaps it’s still worth it to escape his wife.
Now, this is not a pure comedy of manners or a light bit of cozy crime. We aren’t about to witness a husband and wife concoct elaborate schemes to kill the other, maybe ending with each realizing that it’s all been fun and games and they actually have a great deal of love for the other. No, as light and soft as the humor often is — I’m thinking of Paul’s initial consult with that famous defense — this film doesn’t hedge: Paul and Blandine truly hate each other and are truly awful to each other. Their murderous thoughts are genuine and not at all quaint. It’s all just a show, of course — we remember that we met these actors before the show began — La poison goes to the depths, even showing just how horrifying murder treated lightly can be.