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Juste avant la nuit
cast: Michel Bouquet, Stéphane Audran, and François Périer

director: Claude Chabrol

106 minutes (15) 1971
Fremantle / Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) is having an affair with the wife of his best friend. She favours sadomasochistic role-play sessions, and he strangles her at the beginning of the film after she goads him to do so. It's never completely clear whether this is an accident or is in some way intentional, and the ambiguity of Masson's guilt permeates the rest of the movie as he struggles to come to terms with what he has done.

Masson's homelife appears idyllic. He has a good job in advertising, a modern house, a beautiful wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and two intelligent young children. There seems to be no reason for the affair other than opportunity for it to happen (it is made clear during the movie that he was sought after). His feelings of unrelenting remorse after the murder stem from the burden of guilt he feels towards his wife and friend, François Tellier (François Périer), rather than for the death of the woman. Eventually, he confesses: first to Hélène, and then to François. When both of them forgive him, and beg him to remain silent, he feels even more despicable and resolves to turn himself in to the police.

Mostly a psychological drama, the success of the Juste avant la nuit (aka: Just Before Nightfall) hangs on Bouquet's ability to make us feel the anguish that Masson is experiencing. However, this never quite works. Masson is played as a slow, deliberate character, and his lack of visible emotion makes it difficult for us to empathise with him. As both Hélène and François forgive him, then there is no conflict to be resolved other than his internal conflict. This is compounded by the fact that there is no real likelihood of the police solving the crime. Naturally, this is exactly the moral dilemma that Chabrol places before us. What would we do in similar circumstances? Masson is trapped by his own morality after having committed an immoral act. He is torn between secrecy and truth.

It is also interesting to explore the film as a test of morality itself. The dead woman is largely regarded as loose. François admits that they both had affairs, Masson's mother has never liked her for her overt flirtatiousness, and Hélène's opinion is evident from her reaction to Masson's confession. Even Masson himself appears not to have greatly enjoyed the affair, and found that whilst he was forced to humiliate her she was enjoying his humiliation at doing so. The word, 'forced', is used a significant number of times by Masson, as if he had no control over the affair, and this emphases the sense of fate which runs through the film. Masson feels compelled towards confession despite the certainty that he is unsuspected, and despite the furore that he imagines will erupt in the loving family home. Under the surface, his life runs out of control.

The movie is well filmed and nicely structured, but despite the psychology, the intriguing premise, and the overwhelming sense of entrapment I found it also quite flat and emotionless. Chabrol completists will welcome its appearance on DVD, but I wasn't sufficiently satisfied to consider this an example of classic moviemaking.

This DVD is part of a new four-disc collection including some of Chabrol's movies made between 1969-74.
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