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August 2014

La Poison

cast: Michel Simon, Germaine Reuver, Jean Debucourt, and Georges Bever

director: Sacha Guitry

85 minutes (12) 1951
Eureka blu-ray region B

RATING: 5/10
review by J.C. Hartley

La Poison

The last French comedy I watched was probably Buffet Froid, that's if we're not counting Peter Sellers as Inspector Closeau, or Pierrot le Fou. Here's another black comedy from a little earlier, 1951, and from a French director I'm unfamiliar with, Sacha Guitry.

The film starts after some whimsical credits. They're not as whimsical as the credits at the beginning of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, but they set the scene for what follows. We see the director Sacha Guitry penning a eulogy to his star Michel Simon, saying what a great guy he is and how he'd be happy to work with him again. Guitry then promenades through his cast introducing them, and dispensing similar praise, eventually getting to the set designers, and location managers, many of whom look uncomfortable on this side of the camera. Guitry ends up sharing a drink with a horde of extras and 'un-credited' performers. This would be a novel and touching alternative to the usually ignored credits and cast lists if it wasn't for the pompous and self-congratulatory air of the director, and the feeling that the whole exercise is holding up the film; apparently it was his trademark. If you want to do this sort of thing stick it at the end.

La Poison begins properly in the village of Remonville. M. Paul Bracconier (Michel Simon) visits the local priest to complain about Mme. Bracconier, his overweight drunken wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver), and her unwashed feet. Bracconier is obviously wishing something would happen to free him from his entanglement, and the priest and the parishioner circle each other metaphorically about what Bracconier can do in the eyes of God and indeed the law. Next, we see Mme. Bracconier buying rat poison at the apothecary and hiding it in her kitchen cupboard; clearly she harbours similar feelings about her marriage as does her spouse. The priest is visited by a committee of villagers asking if he cannot collude with them in inventing a 'miracle' that might put Remonville on the map, and drum up passing trade for the village's struggling businesses. The stage is set; one thinks of a version of Clochemerle made by Ealing Studios at its most sardonic.

By supper time Blandine is on her third litre of red wine, the angry silence is only made bearable by Paul playing the wireless. He hears an interview with the renowned advocate Aubanel (Jean Debucourt) who has won his 100th acquittal in court. Aubanel makes some controversial remarks upon the distinction between assassins, and murderers who will never kill again and pose no public danger. The next day Bracconier visits Aubanel in Paris claiming to have murdered Blandine and wishing to hire Aubanel as his attorney.

Aubanel interviews Paul and, in the best scene in the film, it rapidly becomes apparent that Bracconier, far from having murdered Blandine, is picking Aubanel's brains as to the circumstances, and method of despatch, most likely to secure his eventual acquittal. Paul returns to Remonville to find Blandine prostrate upon the kitchen floor, not dead but drunk. He contrives an argument about her supposed infidelity in earshot of one of his neighbours and then sets the scene for her murder. Blandine, however, has laced Paul's wine with rat poison. Paul stabs his wife then smashes the soup tureen to make it appear as if she has attacked him. He ventures outside to where a crowd has gathered and surrenders to the gendarmes. The chemist, hearing that there has been a killing presumes that Blandine has poisoned Paul, he rushes to the house but seeing Blandine stabbed he faints, and when revived with the poisoned wine he dies.

Aubanel visits Bracconier in prison and accuses him of premeditation, but Paul threatens to implicate Aubanel as an accessory if he does not defend him. At the trial, Paul dominates his own defence declaring that as Blandine was preparing to murder him he has simply acted in self-defence, if he had not murdered her she would have been standing trial in his place, so he has simply pre-empted the State's role as executioner. One of the witnesses from the village claims that all married couples harbour murderous intentions towards their spouses and calls upon the priest to back her up. There is a temptation to see this film inspiring the slicker George Axelrod-penned movie How To Murder Your Wife, starring the altogether more attractive Jack Lemmon, and Verna Lisi. Inevitably, Bracconier is acquitted and returns in glory to Remonville, and the adulation of his friends and neighbours who have seen their businesses boom while tourists visited the 'murder house'.

The film is slight and cynical, and not particularly amusing, although Simon is a terrific actor and very watchable. Guitry was accused of collaboration during the war and detained, before being found not guilty. His imprisonment affected his health and may have inspired his disillusionment, evident here, with notions of guilt and justice. At one point during his defence, Paul confides to his counsel that the act of murder appears to have made him more intelligent, and he would not have been able to argue so articulately prior to murdering his wife. This seems to be toying superficially at least with Nietzschean notions of superiority, and casting Bracconier as a more successful version of Dostoyevsky's Raskalnikov.

The blu-ray disc includes a documentary on director Guitry's life and work for those, like me, unfamiliar with his career.

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