La Vérité (The Truth) (France, 1960)
Criterion's blu-ray does justice with late-career Clouzot triumph starring a great Brigette Bardot.
Sometimes while watching a film the perception towards it shifts repeatedly. The same thing happened to me while watching La Verite on Criterion's new blu-ray.
It is a courtroom drama about a murder trial of a woman Dominique Marceau (Brigette Bardot) who is supposed to have shot and killed her lover Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). I say 'supposed to have' but there is not much doubt about what happened.
Though she tries to commit suicide after the shooting, the prosecutor Maitre Eparvier (Paul Meurisse) considers that attempt fake and wants to prove that it was a cold, pre-mediated act born of sibling rivalry and the general 'loose morals' of the accused.
The judgemental pre-decided treatment Dominique gets in the court is reminiscent of the trial in Dreyer's classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. Times have changed, but the attitudes have stayed the same. The religious attire has been replaced with government-sanctioned uniforms, and if a free-spirited woman was called a witch then, she could be called a 'slut' today.
All this becomes painfully apparent right from the start: The way people discuss her and the judge, later, scrutinizes every decision she has taken in her life.
It is established that Dominique was something of a troubled child and her sister Ann was almost perfect. Not only a good student but a good daughter with natural talents. As it is depicted, there may be some truth to Dominique being rather unimaginative and lazy
The only person who stands with Dominique is her counsel Guerin (Charles Vanel). His defense. of her is passionate and shot through with genuine empathy.
It is when Dominique moves to Paris that one of these shifts, that I talked earlier about, occurs.
After having established the themes of societal codes imposed on women, it seems that La Verite is trying to go deeper into examining attitudes towards Bardot and "sex symbols" in general. But in a few key scenes, the focus is very pointedly on Bardot's body and it starts to starts looking like one is looking at Bardot from Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman, a film that gave her the name "sex kitten". Dominique becomes a seductress and I started having doubts if the themes introduced were merely window dressing to once again exploit Bardot's well-established image.
There is a prominent scene where the focus is on Bardot's (covered) derriere. She is trying to seduce Gilbert, an upcoming musician whom Ann likes. This is just one of the exchanges where Bardot's body is the main focus. These scenes follow until Gilbert has consummated his desires. Post this, Gilbert starts hating the same vivaciousness that he had fallen for. It is here that another shift occurs.
One realizes that the intention of the film as perceived initially is more believable (though one could say that Clouzot was having his cake and eating it too). But by deliberately bringing our attention to her body, he is making us question our attitude towards female nudity on screen. We can feel some of the tension that Gilbert feels when he is vying for her attention and we can understand, if not sympathize, with his stance later. It is a mirroring technique that is verbalized by all the sharp arguments at the court.
The film is taking place in the present but each time an accusation of immorality is leveled against Dominique, we are shown flashbacks of her life leading up to the culmination of the incident that she is being scrutinized blamed for.
This structure literalizes the argument at the court - of blame and exoneration - or at least, a possible understanding of Dominique's position.
Unfortunately, such understanding does not extend to the men passing the judgment in the film. We as the audience are watching both the stories, but the law in general is only privy to and values the facts. It does not matter that the decision that is arrived through these facts is through a filter of prejudice.
Clouzot keeps Dominique's final betrayal for the very end when her defense lawyer, who seemed like the only support dismisses her fate as "Hazards of the profession..."
Bardot makes us feel every moment she is on screen and the film is beautifully shot by Armand Thirard.
La Verite is a must-watch not just for the fans of the actress and the director, but anyone interested in the depiction of women on screen and courtroom dramas.
This was the first time that I watched this film so I cannot say what conditions it was available on home video earlier but this is a recent 4K restoration and Criterion, as usual, does a great job of presenting it. (For comparison one can visit www.dvdbeaver.com ) The black and white images are sharp with great contrasts. Thankfully, they have preserved some of the grain
The sound is rich and well-mixed.
The Extras are not really plentiful, the best being a one-hour documentary on the director Le scandale Clouzot. It should serve as an introduction to Henri-Georges Clouzot (those looking for a deeper look at his cinema might want to hunt out Bertrand Tavernier's excellent My Journey Through French Cinema.
There is a documentary on Bardot where she talks about her career and life. This is interesting if rather, perfunctory. There is also an essay by film scholar Ginette Vicendeau who argues for the film's status as a "masterpiece".