Monday, February 18, 2019

LA VERITE - #960

1960’s La vérité is a cracking courtroom drama. Directed by Henri Georges-Clouzot (Diabolique [review]) and starring Brigitte Bardot (Contempt [review]), La vérité builds itself around the testimonies in the case of one Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey, Band of Outsiders [review]), a music student and up-and-coming orchestra conductor, now deceased. The timeline bounces from the witness box to flashbacks of the real events and back again, creating two narratives: the trial activity and the interpersonal drama that led to the homicide. These dual tracks put the audience in the position of the ultra-jury, our macro view allowing us to judge all the participants and all sides in a way the film’s characters cannot.

Clouzot’s jam-packed courtroom is a living, breathing entity. There are prosecutors and defense attorneys, reporters and jurors, judges and witnesses. In Clouzot’s view, they are all equally important, and how the mass functions creates a miniature society within the larger whole, a shadow community that will make sense of what happens out in the world. The lawyers on both sides--prosecutor Eparvier (Paul Meurisse, Army of Shadows [review]) and defense attorney Guéri (Charles Vanel, the 1934 Les misérables [review])--have their roles and their relationships. The prosecution is stern, the defense disruptive and irreverent. We clock their machinations, and weigh the impact it has on others, including the victim’s mother.

But above all of them--quite literally, she is housed directly over her defense team--is the accused, Dominque Marceau, played with a remarkable emotional breadth by Bardot. Dominque is not contesting the fact that she killed Tellier, the only question is what drove her. Was this a premeditated slaying or a crime of passion? Though witnesses to their tumultuous, unhealthy love affair only really know what parts they were personally privy to, Clouzot’s camera is not bound by their words. The flashbacks form one linear narrative of a provincial girl who loses herself to the temptations of Paris, attracting the attention of many men, but only giving her full self to one. Yet, as the prosecution paints Dominique out to be a cruel hussy destroying a sensitive artist, we see how Tellier was jealous, possessive, and just as cruel himself.

In this day and age, there has been much debate over “victim shaming,” how women who have been victims of assault have their own lives put on trial, suggesting their own moral standards or life choices brought the attack on themselves. This tactic, as we see time and again, is wrong, excusing the criminal with facts that are irrelevant. It’s clear from La vérité that women have been subject to such double standards for a long time. Sure, Dominque is guilty, but is she less deserving of a defense because she is in touch with her sexuality? Her lawyer makes no bones about it: the answer is no. The compelling thing here, however, is that we also must reject the notion that Tellier deserved or asked to be killed. Life is not so clean-cut as that.

The fact that the woman in question is Brigitte Bardot makes it all the more interesting, since most audience members in 1960 came with their own preconceived notions of who she was. From the get-go, La vérité plays on her image as a sex symbol. With her hair up and wearing a black dress that essentially covers her from the neck on down, her first appearance in court still draws leers from the men in the gallery. Likewise, we are invited to gawk at her body in various scenes throughout La vérité. Is Clouzot merely seducing us alongside Tellier, or are we just as bad in demanding that the actress gives us a peek? After her sexy turn in And God Created Woman moviegoers expected to see more of Bardot than most other actresses, and I am sure studios were more than happy to oblige. One could even question if Clouzot is exposing her naked curves in service to the script...or the box office.

I’d like to think the former, because there is very little, if anything, in La vérité that the director has not considered through to the finest details, from the doodles on the defense lawyer’s legal pad to the posters on everyone’s bedroom walls to the layout of Tellier’s apartment building and how it allows Dominque to commit murder undetected (Panic Room-era David Fincher would nod in approval). As I mentioned, the courtroom is filled with spectators, and Clouzot regularly cuts to a wide shot just to remind us of what kind of circus Dominique is being subjected to. Yet, it’s those smaller details, the close-ups on observers and participants, that bring further life to the trial. There is never time to be bored, there is always something happening.

That also gives more evidence to Clouzot’s implication of the audience through decorative choices. As La vérité reaches its emotional crescendo, and Bardot is given an opportunity to tear into Monique’s breakdown, quieting the whole of the courtroom, I am sure that theatres showing La vérité in 1960 were also silent. The final outcome of the film, one could argue, is not the fault of the girl, but of a hypocritical society that fed on her shame and turned her pain into entertainment.

Fun Quiz: Which is more French, the ending of La vérité or the ending of yesterday’s review, Cold Water? Both rely on a note from a doomed young woman, but is one more romantically existential than the other?

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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