November 8, 2016
When inspiration failed Francois Truffaut, he would look at a 1957 photo of Sacha Guitry sitting on his deathbed, working on a moviola. Truffaut said looking at the image made him “recover my good mood, bravery, and every courage in the world.” An indefatigable playwright, performer, and filmmaker, Guitry was a model of a complete director for Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who advocated for Guitry’s work in the early years of Cahiers du Cinema. Godard included Guitry in a “gang of four” French filmmakers (along with Pagnol, Cocteau and Duras) who demonstrated a “grandeur and power” which enabled him and the other New Wave filmmakers to believe in cinema as an art form (Guitry appears multiple times in Godard’s Histoire du Cinema). Like Orson Welles (another Guitry fan), Guitry was raised in the theater, and used his command of theatrical effects to experimental uses on film, especially in his teasing, self-reflexive use of voice-over. Though there was a flurry of appreciations when Criterion released their essential box set in 2010, he has never gained the same level of recognition in the States as his peers. One of his late masterpieces, La Poison (1951), is available for streaming on FilmStruck – it was previously unavailable in any format in the U.S. A gleefully black comedy about dueling spouses who both dream of killing the other, it features a savagely funny performance by Michel Simon as a self-justifying murderer.
The film’s opening credits are an elaborate Guitry performance in which the director walks from set-to-set introducing the actors, and explaining why they were ideal for their role. Dressed to the nines in a pinstripe suit and fedora, and smoking a cigarette–he begins the film speaking to Michel Simon: “Since you kindly asked me for a dedication, here it is. Michel Simon, this film offers me one of my greatest joys from the theater, because I can’t keep from calling it theater. You’d never acted for me before. You’re exceptional, even unique. Between the moments where you’re you and when you start to act, it’s impossible to find the bridge. It’s the same when you stop acting and become yourself to such a degree that there’s no reason to stop shooting. You belong among the greats: Frederic Lemaitre, Sarah Bernhardt, my father, Zacconi, and Chaliapin.” He goes on to Simon, who sits nervously next to him absorbing the compliments. This is an extraordinary opening– the director reviewing his own movie before you’ve had the chance to see it! Welles said that these elements were the inspiration for his essay films, and their fourth-wall breaking informality and shocking disregard for tradition are both bracing and often very funny.
For after his homage to Simon, he tours the rest of the cast and crew, charming the pants of his composers, carpenters, stars and anyone else who happened to be around (“If you had less talent, I’d still be your friend.”). He even thanks voice actors over the phone (“We only hear you in the film, so we won’t see you in the credits.”) and the sound engineer (“You recorded everything, so add my gratitude to it.”). By the time he’s finished joking around with his whole crew nearly seven minutes have past. The credits are a short film unto themselves, a marvel of self-reflexive sweet talking that emphasizes the artificiality and communality of the filmmaking process.
La Poison was the 23rd feature Guitry directed, and that after a prolific career in theater, having written 128 plays, starting in 1918. His father Lucien was considered to be one of the finest stage actors of fin de siécle France, and Sacha traveled with the theater, and sat at the knee of Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France, Sarah Bernhardt and an endless cast of theater folk. He grew up in the theater, it was the air he breathed. As in the notes he read to Michel Simon, he still considered his films to be part of his theatrical life. Dave Kehr wrote that he only started in the film business to preserve the history of his theatrical productions, he was convinced by his then-wife Jacqueline Delubac that film would “allow him to preserve stage productions that would otherwise be lost.” And within four years of entering the movie business (1934 – 1938) he directed twelve films.
La Poison is about the battling Braconniers, a doubly exhausted small-town couple whose lives were constructed around avoiding each other as much as possible. Paul (Michel Simon) confesses to the local vicar that he has fantasized about killing her. His wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver) buys rat poison and stashes it up high in a cupboard for future use. One evening, with Blandine passed out on dinner wine, Paul hears a radio interview with defense lawyer Aubanel (Jean Debucourt), famous for 100 straight acquittals, claiming his sympathy for wife and husband killers. Paul immediately makes up an excuse to go to Paris to meet his new hero, and falsely claims to have already killed Blandine, just to hear how he should react should he ever go through with it. Emboldened by his new high-powered knowledge, Paul attempts to kill his wife in a manner that will guarantee his acquittal. That is, unless Blandine can poison him first
The town is desperate for any attention that will attract business (local leaders earlier asked the vicar to fake a miracle for publicity), and the trial becomes a circus of self-promotion and capitalist enterprise. Their house becomes a true crime museum, while Aubanel becomes wary of the monsters his little publicity stunt created. Michel Simon plays Paul as an amiable sad sack given license by the law to become a loudmouthed demagogue. Paul takes up his defense, often drowning out Aubanel, by running down his wife’s looks and telling the court his murder was a preventive one. The whole film feels like an anticipation of Trumpism. Apologies to Alec Baldwin, but after watching La Poison Michel Simon is the only actor who could have done justice to Trump’s media-friendly fool, a jester who believes unthinkingly in his own infallibility. Simon’s entreaty to the court, a harrumphingly hilarious and horrifying justification of murder, is remarkably similar to the offhanded misogyny of Trump’s debate performances.
Unlike those lumbering debates, however, the movie moves with aplomb (it’s a speedy 85 minutes), and Guitry does remarkable things with sound. One of the protagonists is the radio. In this town of gossips and eavesdroppers, one neighbor mistakes a radio play argument for one between Paul and Blandine. He stands next the shutters, aghast at the violently flung insults. Soon he spreads the word that they are in a murderous rage, when in fact they are having their wordless blackout drunk dinner as per usual. So the neighborhood grapevine is spreading lines which turn out to be true – as after Paul hears Aubanel’s interview he stages what he believes to be a perfect murder. Later on during the trial, the local children begin mockingly re-enacting Paul and Blandine’s crimes, the murder now entering local folklore. So what started as a radio play ends as a children’s farce, all playing off of the fungible morality displayed by all members of this modern French society. From Aubanel on down, everyone is in it for themselves. As Truffaut put it in his introduction to Guitry’s memoir Le Cinema et Moi, his characters display “a morality which doesn’t offer itself as such but which consists simply in protecting oneself from the moralities of others.” In La Poison morality is a weapon that turns a sleepy small town against itself.