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Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Director: François Truffaut
Star: Jeanne Moreau
I can't think of too many better ways to start a film than with a printing machine churning out picture after picture of a topless Jeanne Moreau, which is what François Truffaut gives us here, in his most obvious Alfred Hitchcock homage with its sweeping voyeuristic camera, its story from a novel by William Irish (a pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich, who wrote Rear Window), and its score by Bernard Herrmann who had so memorably scored seven of Hitch's films, including those memorable shrieking strings in Psycho.

Moreau is the bride of the title, Julie Kohler by name, though we know nothing about her husband David. She's a mysterious bird from moment one, being rescued from suicide by her mother as she tries to leap out of her window. Saved from death, she leaves town, or at least she pretends to, as she gets off the train again before it leaves the station. She has a purpose that she follows singlemindedly: she promptly tracks down five men, one by one, to kill them, beginning with Mr Bliss. After setting herself up as a mysterious admirer, she turns up at his wedding reception, entices him out on the balcony and pushes him over the edge to his death. The only explanation she gives before he dies is simply, 'I am Julie Kohler.' There's not even a following, 'you killed my father, prepare to die!'

Just as Hitchcock played around with the concept of the perfect crime in many of his films, not least Strangers on a Train, Truffaut does the same here. These five men are connected but not in any way that can be easily ascertained because by necessity, they've hidden their own connections. She doesn't take anything to connect her back to them. She doesn't care about being seen though she does make a perfunctory attempt to hide her trail. She knows precisely who she's looking for but she only knows their names, not their faces, so she has to set up ways to be introduced to them.

To meet her second target, Robert Coral, she sets him up with a ticket to a private box at a concert, then turns up late to meet him. Once introduced, she obtains an invitation back to his place where she poisons him with a bottle of liquor that she's brought with her. For the third, Clement Morane, she follows his son home from school, then has his wife summoned out of town and turns up at the door pretending to be his son's teacher. She kills him by locking him in a cupboard under the stairs, that she seals with duct tape, thus proving the maxim that 'if it moves, WD40; if it doesn't move, duct tape'.
Truffaut wasn't happy with how this film turned out but it works very well to my mind. While there's an underlying theme that all these men are womanisers, that really has nothing to do with the price of fish in Denmark, the story unfolds cleverly though inevitably. After all, to these men, this woman comes out of the blue without any apparent motive to do anything and they have no reason to suspect her, so they let her into their lives, trusting her far more than they soon find out that they should. Coral calls her 'his impossible dream', but he's thanking God for the impossible rather than questioning it.

Beyond the story, which unfolds to its natural conclusion without having to pander to a Hollywood ending, there's one scene of cinematic brilliance. Obviously fascinated to discover what's driving Julie Kohler to hunt down these men, we're finally let in on the necessary background in a scene told entirely with visuals and Bernard Herrmann's score. There's no dialogue to help us, but we don't need it. It's as clear as if it were in mime, wonderfully told with perfect accompaniment. It's easy to forget the contributions of a composer, though we immediately notice the absence of a score in those early thirties films like Dracula that had no music at all. Yet Bernard Herrmann's work always stands out, and to both aptly underpin the action and yet still stand out is a powerful achievement.

Jeanne Moreau is excellent as Julie Kohler, so down to earth that she doesn't even appear to be even acting. Being a French film, all the men she kills are played by actors well established in French cinema but without being name stars like Moreau. Most widely known is the bilingual Michel Lonsdale who has played in a number of important films, both in French and English, up to and including Hugo Drax in Moonraker. Charles Denner would follow this up with a role in Costa-Gavras's highly renowned political drama Z. Jean-Claude Brialy, who plays Corey, the most important character in the film who isn't on Kohler's hitlist, has appeared in a lot of French films that I've seen. Sometimes it's films like this with casts like this that highlight just how much I've only scratched the surface of French cinema.

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