Take me to school, Criterion
One of the foundations of Cinapse is film exploration and discovery. We often write about offbeat titles that we hope you, the readers, will discover for yourselves. But often it’s us, the writers, who by virtue of regularly writing about cinema get a chance to explore new territory and discover things we otherwise never would.
Henri-George Clouzot is a filmmaker so renowned he’s primarily known simply as Clouzot. You hear his name mentioned right alongside the other French master filmmakers like Goddard, Truffaut, or Melville. Yet as a cinephile, I’ve personally only skimmed the surface of the work of these masters, and I’m pleased that Criterion and Cinapse give me a chance to push myself and be challenged by work such as this. Clouzot’s Diabolique is so very famous and influential that I had previously checked that film out and crossed it off my list. And somehow, despite being an enormous fan of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, I’ve never seen Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear, which is widely regarded as a masterpiece of tension. So I’ve still got plenty of work to do.
But La Verite might not have been that high on my list of titles to check out, and I’m quite glad I did. A truly complex, tragic, and scandalous tale, the moral ambiguity of La Verite is challenging to discuss even by today’s standards. I could imagine it being quite controversial in 1960.
The most enduring and striking image of the entire picture, and one that resonates today amidst the #MeToo movement, is the young and gorgeous Dominique (Brigitte Bardot in a captivating turn) standing alone in a courtroom on trial with dozens if not a hundred men picking apart her life in a very public manner. It feels shockingly relevant to the ways in which our society today will pick apart accusers of sexual misconduct, analyzing their sex lives, the outfits they wear, or the choices they’ve made in order to somehow justify why a man would have assaulted them. Only here, Dominique’s life is being laid bare because it is she who is on trial, for murder.
Switching back and forth between the trial in the present and vignettes from her life in the past, Dominique, we come to understand, is a very complicated woman who is not portrayed in any kind of heroic fashion. In a way we as the audience become a part of her trial, judging her actions and assessing her character as her various dalliances are revealed. Rebelling against her parents, moving to Paris, dancing and partying, falling in and out of love, and even occasionally being forced to sell herself to find places to sleep at night, Dominique is no saint. Of course, neither are any of us, and neither are her prosecutors, but it remains that Dominque’s life is the one under the very public microscope in La Verite.
In order to really dig into the themes and the ambiguity of the film, I’m going to discuss the ending and outcome of the trial. So consider this a spoiler warning for a black and white film from 1960. Early in the film we’re told that Dominique is on trial for the murder of her lover Gilbert (Sami Frey). What I found shocking was that ultimately the flashbacks lead up to the actual act of murder and show us that indeed Dominique did pull the trigger, and then empty the gun, into Gilbert. A less morally complex film would have given Dominique more of an “out.” It turns out the trial really isn’t about whether or not she committed the crime, but about whether it was premeditated or a crime of passion. And that really is somewhat hard to determine even when we get to see the act with our god-like powers as the audience. On the one hand, Dominique is a creature of passion, almost enslaved by her youthful desires. So perhaps the first bullet might explain that. But all the other bullets, which come rather slowly and painfully, force the audience to question Dominique as well.
Ultimately Dominique takes her own life after the star-crossed tragedy has been played out publicly for all to see. She’s been scandalous in life, sure… but she’s also been laid bare and hollowed out. And regardless of whether her crime was vindictive or borne of passion… it seems clear to us in in the audience that she did indeed love Gilbert. And by the end of the film, she is truly, utterly alone. It’s fairly gut-wrenching stuff with a human potency made all the more gripping by the thriller-like structure of the film’s alternating timelines.
La Verite (“the truth”) is a hard watch. Tragedies often are. But they’re often eternally relevant as well. Dominique is a complicated character and not easy to like. But it is quite easy to empathize with her as she’s publicly broken down to a molecular level and literally judged for her every action. Guilty of causing the death of another human being, she certainly deserves punishment for her actions. But we’ve all known a Dominique, or been one ourselves, and Clouzot wrings much humanity out of this tragedy.
Of course the film looks fantastic with its stark black and white making it feel a little older than it actually is. There’s an hour long documentary about Clouzot that I soaked in and enjoyed as a part of the process of allowing Criterion to take me to school and enrich my filmic experience every time I engage with one of their titles. There are other bonus features to explore as well, making La Verite a valuable package for any cinephile.
And I’m Out.
La Verite is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.