NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for my old website, UNEXAMINED/ESSENTIALS, in 2009.
As a writer who is often compared to Ernst Lubitsch, French playwright/filmmaker Sacha Guitry’s wit seems at once simple and sophisticated, making direct and plainspoken observations about words, the world, politics, emotions, and most of all, the relationships between men and women, with poise and style that would place him in a very high tier above most screenwriters and playwrights, alongside Lubitsch, Sturges, and a few others. It is unlikely, however, that many writers in his class would have found it in their hearts to make a film as black as La poison.
Sprinkled with his customary bon mots but equally concerned with absence of dialogue, as well as mistakes and misinterpretations in communication, La poison begins with a blunt depiction of a malignant tumor of a marriage, held together only by the last remnants of routine, made radioactive by mutual homicidal fantasies. It’s a vision of holy matrimony through the lens of Renoir’s La chienne, or Fritz Lang’s 1945 remake, Scarlet Street – or, following the associative path via Edward G. Robinson, the hysterically angry Two Seconds (1932). It is not where we figured Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald would end up.
La poison, however, is shocking not for its horror or its gloomy worldview, but for precisely the opposite: in spite of its premise (a man confesses to murdering his wife as he interviews a lawyer to defend him, before he kills her) and where it goes with it (nowhere rosy), it has the high, positive energy of a Lubitsch sex comedy. Further than that, it builds an argument that the murder at the center of the story was not only justified by self-defense (in a rather after-the-facts-were-learned manner), but also it was good for the community, and quite right with the world as well. It actualizes in a positive framework the worst impulses of mankind. Gleefully, it sees the desire for mariticide as the natural byproduct of an insoluble marriage. With unironic pride and delight, it declares that the world’s social and political systems are complicit with, or unable to stop, a perfectly executed criminal act. Guitry was an imaginative writer with a sober view of mankind, but it’s reasonable to say that before the rise of Fascism in Europe, La poison (a companion piece to Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and Clouzot’s Le corbeau) would not have been as fully realized a work of satire. Clouzot’s parable of Vichy France virtually drips with an all-consuming, acidic fury. Guitry’s comedy, on the other hand, is a grotesque affirmation of life and success that frustrates one’s urge to denounce it. You have no choice but to join the party – Guitry is saying, look: it’s 1951, you weren’t snuffed out, enjoy the time you have left.
“Killing is so vile.”
“Yes, but it means a living for so many people.”
After we take all that into consideration, Guitry is hardly finished: he makes certain to include himself in the portrait. Aubanel, the lawyer who defends Braconnier (Michel Simon) is played by Jean Debucourt, and he is made to look like Guitry’s stunt double: about the same height and frame, a pair of thick black glasses, combed-back hair, and fedora. (Guitry does not appear in the film proper, but plays himself in the prologue.) The character is a celebrity criminal defense lawyer, and he has only recently and publicly celebrated one hundred acquittals over a twenty-year career. It is established that anyone who is defended by Aubanel is assured an acquittal: no room for doubt may enter here, it is an axiom of the narrative. There is, however, the matter of Aubanel’s professional discretion, which allows him to decline his services to any client whose case, attitude, or circumstances might lead him to violate his ethical code. Without spoiling the story’s complications (which are more enriched by surprise than their conclusions), Guitry sets up his onscreen surrogate first as the film’s moral barometer (such as it is), then as its near-speechless bystander, and, finally allows him to get lost in the noise, last seen with his head jutting into the bottom of the frame.
While Guitry’s work was often dismissed for making “uncinematic” movies – a verdict he didn’t necessarily campaign against (as he wrote, early in his career, of the superiority of the theater over the movies) – the evidence points in the other direction. It’s understandable that viewers would agree with these charges, even today. Guitry’s films are highly verbal, and although the same could be said about Lubitsch, Rohmer, Cassavetes, Stillman, or Linklater, Guitry’s films do not make a secret of their use of the proscenium to enshrine the words he’s written or the blocking he and his cast have rehearsed. Within a scene, Guitry will employ “invisible” cutting and camera movement in order not to distract our eyes from the performers. During the scene between Braconnier and his lawyer, for example, there’s a cut to reframe Simon as he leans closer to discuss his “confession” with Aubanel – nothing you’d notice unless you were deliberately looking for it. But this is not less than cinema – perhaps a difference in kind rather than degree from more conspicuous examples. Guitry does not let his high esteem for theater keep him from composing his frames elegantly to reflect his urbane manner, nor does it prevent him from using actors who can work wonders with the camera lens.
Besides, the latticework of editing employed by Guitry in La poison complicates his objectives of conveying, unilaterally and without obstruction, the actors delivering his dialogue. With Raymond Lamy (who would work with Guitry on five other pictures during the 1950s; he would also cut five of Bresson’s features, from A Man Escaped through Une femme douce), Guitry uses crosscutting to fracture single narrative threads, but also to build associations between spaces, encouraging, for example, the impression that all of the town’s interiors have somehow meshed together. He will also produce in our minds an overlap between a crowd of busybodies outside the Braconniers in the evening across a similar image of a crowd of children visiting the parish priest the following morning. (It’s not done with a traditional match cut, but with a bit more subtlety, relying on editing tempo and camera distance.)
Guitry parses out whole sections of La poison using a series of matched pairs of parallel-edited sequences. In one set, which opens the film (not counting the prologue), Guitry crosscuts between a pharmacy and the parish priest’s house. At the former, a busybody rifles through the town’s prescription history and broadcasts the dirty secrets of each of her neighbors, dose by dose, merrily revealing malice and excess in every corner; after a few minutes, Ms. Braconnier (Germaine Reuver) enters to buy some rat poison. At the priest’s, Mr. Braconnier shares – in a visual parody of confession – his thirty-year-long compilation of complaints against his wife: she’s an alcoholic, she nags, she never washes her feet, that sort of thing. Their respective errands complete, the tracks of the husband and wife intersect in a dead space in the middle of town. They approach each other on opposing vectors, but pass each other without exchanging a word or a glance. Following this, the next crosscutting set seems to move at an accelerated pace, as he marks time at the local cafe, and she prepares supper. The cafe’s patrons begin to file out, as if they’re fleeing before an impending attack. It becomes clear that, like Braconnier, they’re due back home for supper with their families, but he is in no hurry whatsoever. (The tone of these sequences is hard to get a fix on, and when I made notes during the screening, I wrote down “Preston Sturges” and “Mouchette“: not a direct hit, but suggestive of Guitry’s spirit (the former) and texture (the latter).)
These duels (a word the lawyer Aubanel will use in a radio broadcast, with unknowing significance) are used to dizzying effect throughout most of the film, most memorably during the final reel: as Braconnier regales the court with his (mis)deeds, motivations, and rationalizations (a talk that is, with a few shrewd omissions, open and honest), Guitry cuts the sequence, with short temporal ellipses and the stepped-up pace of a traditional Greek dance, against scenes of the town’s children, who are left in the charge of the town’s florist while the other adults attend the trial. A woman from the town, the same one who dished gossip at the pharmacy, takes the stand and observes that all married people toy with the idea of, or plan, killing their spouses, and obliges the priest to join her on the witness stand to corroborate. He attempts, meekly, to abjure, but with some prodding, and without naming names, he concedes that a handful of his parishioners have confessed as much. “The scrupulous ones,” she observes, without missing a beat. Under scarce and harried supervision, the children put on a show – a parody – concerning the subject of marriage; Guitry either suggests that they have inherited the idea of marriage that is consummated finally by one partner offing the other, or that we are ourselves a lot of children, play-acting our way through moral and social structures that are just make-believe. Just theater.