La Poison (1951, Sacha Guitry)

La Poison represents Sacha Guitry condemning a perfidious public, and then gifting that condemnation to them in form of the bleakest, the sourest of comedies. This is not the sort of dark comedy which relies on infantilism, the adolescent or the easy expression (ironic or not) of bigotries and predjudices to make its effect, in the process making itself easier to dismiss for all its cheap ignorance and base exploitations. No, this is the sort of dark comedy which takes society as a whole and holds up the famous reflective mirror of art to display all of that society’s people’s hypocrisy, their amorality, their selfish and destructive principles. Guitry, in telling the story of an old married couple who wish to kill each other, the husband (Michel Simon) who finally kills the wife (Germaine Reuver) and the public who protect and refuse to convict him, presents both the rural Provence village and the urban metropole as almost Sartrean landscapes, inescapable and intertwined moral and social voids that are the domain of little virtue, but rather the home of the sort of solipsism, hostility, projected bitterness, toxic relationships and interactions, faded dreams that have given rise to fantasies of violence and constant surveillance and judgement by neighbours and fellows that proves the truth of the maxim “hell is other people”. The village children, at the end of the film, hold their own trial which is cross-cut with the riotous real trial of the husband; the children’s trial is better behaved, more orderly and ends in a condemnation and punishment for their version of the murder (whether one believes in the death penalty decision symbolised by the amusing shot of the children’s mock-guillotine, it is inarguable that more law and justice has been upheld in this game of pretend than in the genuine article), and the insinuation of clear- the children are more logical, more clear-headed than the adults that surround them. This is comedy teetering on the edge of the abyss; Guitry, the flaneur, the boulevardier, the supposed maker of light and frothy fancies, has watched the population long enough to grow immensely, irretrievably cynical of them and aware of the overwhelming absence of sense and reason. One can imagine the world portrayed by La Poison as ultimately self-destructing, or continuing forever as some invincible, inexplicable mess.

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Michel Simon is perfect as the emblem of all this chaos and savagery; he is, as the lawyer in the film describes him, “both the chimera and the clown”. No-one else was better at portraying a truly natural, human monster, and here he feels as if he is rooted in and bears all the muck of the soil of the earth of the film. His eccentric but perfectly fitting gestures and gesticulations, his rapid switches in tone and his raw and unvarnished veracity often leaves one wishing the film could be projected at half-speed so that every fleeting wrinkle and movement of the performance can be seen and savoured. And Simon understands the film; he so often looks into the camera that he seems to be suggesting some mutual, incriminating understanding and interaction with the character/film on the part of the audience, making us question why we so easily wish for the escape from justice of this murderer and leading us to see the truth in some of Guitry’s mocking conclusions on our communal susceptibility to manipulation, the weakness of our moral convictions and principles, our aggressive self-interest.
Guitry, as with his compatriot of the theatre and the cinema Marcel Pagnol, is capable of crafting compositions in the exterior scenes that feel full of air, light and space, his awareness of and seeming appreciation for such qualities both proof of his experience with theatrical staging and superb cinematic eye. In the village interiors, particularly the central home of our hateful couple, inky shadows fall in patterns across the usually arguing characters, the darkest, slimiest flotsam and jetsam of life bought up to and slathered across the surface.
There are however some formal weaknesses; for a director who so mastered techniques of editing and cross-cutting in Le Roman d’un Tricheur, a film which constructed an expansive narrative out of the collected fragments and splinters of a life, there’s a surprising awkwardness to the almost-patchwork assemblage of portions of the film, and there’s sometimes signs of a sloppiness in handling and shooting that may well be a result of either Guitry’s failing health or Michel Simon’s stipulation that the vast majority of the scenes be completed in only one take. There was often an exciting rawness and directness to Guitry’s method (which influenced the New Wave), but there appears to be at times here less of a sureness, less of an energy and joy in the act of filming (and thus capturing performances and fleeting, telling moments of reality) than before. Indeed, the cynicism and the sourness of the film and its world-view may well prove a bridge too far for the viewer who comes in expecting something less derisive, something more in the tradition of light French farce (as I must admit I was lead to expect, and thus I found myself thrown for something of a loop as the film progressed). But, excusing some of the flaws of the final product, there is much of value in Guitry’s truly corrosive film, in his renunciation of the fantasy of comfy, cuddly traditional provincial life, and in his exposure of the combination of violent amorality and uncontrolled and uncontrollable frustration that frequently underscores and sometimes guides the behaviour of our modern society and it’s individuals. La Poison is Guitry taking enough of a step back from his audience that he can truly look at us and laugh.

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