Toxic Theatre: Sacha Guitry’s La Poison (1951) – Blu-rau review
Not cinematic enough for the official history of French cinema, maybe, but the locals knew all along that Guitry’s barbed theatrics still sting.
(Sacha Guitry, 1951)
Confession: I’d never heard of Sacha Guitry before Masters Of Cinema announced the Blu-ray release of La Poison. That probably sounds like sacrilege to anyone from France, where Guitry is a huge deal: a polymath who wrote, directed and starred in plays or movies, often described as a Gallic equivalent to Noel Coward. Yet I’m sure there are foreigners who don’t really know Coward, who might have been a significant player to British eyes (from Brief Encounter to The Italian Job) but is probably not that well known to international film geeks raised on Hitchcock, Powell and Lean.
Likewise, Guitry is rather overshadowed by his peers in French cinema: Renoir, Carne, Bresson and Clouzot amongst them. In other words, it is hardly surprising that Guitry has fallen into international anonymity. Judging from La Poison, this is a very theatrical type of storytelling, a far cry from the more cinematic language of the above list. So this Blu-ray offers something of a reclamation.
The first thing to note is one of the weirdest openings to any film – a five-minute prologue in which, in lieu of conventional written credits, the director wanders through the sets, congratulating cast and crew as they wait self-consciously for his patronage. This is apparently a common motif in Guitry’s film, and one that the French New Wave would have fun rewriting (Godard in Le Mepris, Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451), but here it feels as formal and old-fashioned as it is radical. Much like the film that follows, really.
La Poison is a jet-black comedy about a husband (Michel Simon as Paul Balconnier) who hates his wife so much he desperately wants to bump her off but can’t work out how to get away with it. Oh, and she feels much the same way about him, so it’s just a matter of who will get the deed done first. The story is corrosive, acidic and entirely without moral judgement, with no motive beyond pure loathing. And yet Guitry shoots with a casual ease, with simple camera placements in a daintily picturesque backwater village, sugar to sweeten the poison.
The contrast is the thing. The location is is nowheresville, a place so boring its inhabitants form committees to think of ways to make their home famous and so bring in cosmopolitan tourists. Yet such is the lack of imagination that, perhaps, only murder might get them noticed. The film is full of elegantly turned ironies like that, notably when Paul lies to a reputed defence lawyer that he’s already killed his wife, just to get his counsel to talk him through what he should have done. (That’s a joke that’s improved with age, after OJ Simpson and other high-profile cases where fast-talking lawyers have snatched acquittals from near-certain losses.)
You can’t imagine Coward writing like that (although it’s not a million miles away from Ealing’s dark classics) but then Coward never lived through Vichy France. The pettiness and moral torpor of the village, with its Greek chorus of gossips lurking in the shadows, listening for signs of scandal, takes on the iconography of a Resistance-era noir. And Simon, who grows from dishevelled, jaded wreck to a mischievous imp positively revelling in the freedom that comes from murder, is a startling anti-hero. When you read up on Guitry’s career – he was actually imprisoned briefly for accepting bribes from the Petain government – a lot of the film’s unusual atmosphere snaps into focus.
The end result is thoroughly modern in so many ways, and yet its pacing is off – a film of only 85 minutes long that labours certain scenes (the meeting with the lawyer) and rushes through more obvious set-pieces. It’s not a particularly cinematic piece of work but it is an influential one. Guitry pumped the poison into the system, and future French cinema from Godard and Bunuel through to Jeunet and Haneke would spread it further in their own tales of cultural and moral malaise.