La Poison (1951)

La PoisonThis month’s screening is a deliciously malicious classic comedy of French cinema, from one of France’s greatest filmmakers – who should rank up there with Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Goddard. Sacha Guitry (1885 – 1957) is said to have inspired the French New Wave, but sadly today he seems to have been forgotten.

PLOT

A small-town nobody, M. Braconnier, (Michel Simon) and his wife, Blandine (Germaine Reuver) hate the sight each other. She has purchased rat poison to finish him off, while he has hatched the perfect plan after hearing a lawyer on the radio. Returning from a consultation with the lawyer, Braconnier discovers Blandine’s murderous scheme and, with his hard-up neighbours hailing him a hero for boosting the tourist trade, it takes an offbeat trial before justice, of sorts, is finally done.

CONTEXT

You may find this film a little self-indulgent (a theatrical opening introduces the cast and crew) and it has moments of typical 1950s misogyny, but it is slickly cinematic, using amusing sound and ironic editing to highlight tension. Note the contrast, for example, between pompous courtroom proceedings and a game, complete with toy guillotine, being played by children. If it seems familiar, this is because it was loosely remade in 1966 as the Jack Lemmon comedy, How to Murder Your Wife which, while perhaps being more well-known, lacks the wit, the charm and the bite of this original.

BACKGROUND

Born in St. Petersburg, the son of a well-known actor, Sasha Guitry (pictured below) was on stage from the age of 5 and became prolific in light comedies through the 1920s. He wrote 124 plays, more than 30 books and in 1935 his third wife, actress Jacqueline Delubac, encouraged him to document his stage performances on film. He would direct 33 movies in his career, appearing in most of them himself (and would have two more marriages).

GuitryHe deserves to be remembered because not even the crisis of the Nazi occupation could slow Guitry’s creative activities and, although he used his influence to save the lives of philosopher Henri Bergson and the Jewish husband of novelist Colette, he was later accused of accepting special favours – his confiscated villa was returned by the Germans, for instance, and he was given the rare privilege by being allowed to drive on Sunday. Hence, following liberation, Guitry was imprisoned for 60 days, while evidence of collaboration was sought. Despite adverts placed in the newspapers, no one came forward with evidence and he was released.

Dirt sticks, however, and Guitry spent three years furiously clearing his name. All charges were eventually dropped in 1947, but Guitry was indignant and didn’t forgive. Having been a joyful man, he spent his last years disillusioned and disaffected. This goes some way towards explaining his scathing attack on the legal system in La Poison, and its depiction of an impressionable populace ready to believe whatever it is told.

The drily ironic performance in La Poison of the popular Michel Simon (Boudu Saved from Drowning, L’Atalante), gives a fitting indication of why Guitry is sometimes considered the Gallic equal of Ernst Lubitsch. He and Simon made three pictures in which crime is seen to pay and, surprisingly, they found favour with the future denizens of the nouvelle vague.

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