Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Bride Wore Black (1968, France/Italy. Francois Truffaut)

'The Bride Wore Black' was Truffaut's first adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel, preceding the very mediocre 'The Mississippi Mermaid' by a year or so. It's similarities with the latter continue; another tribute to both Hitchcock and Renoir, but falling considerably short of the standards of both directors. Both feature a femme fatale for whom murder is natural and men are simple pawns to be manipulated, and change identities and looks at the drop of a hat. 'The Bride Wore Black' even features a Bernard Hermann score that was obviously commissioned to sound like something he'd compose for Hitchcock, as well as referencing a number of Hitchcock's films; 'Foreign Correspondent', 'Notorious' and 'Rear Window' and perhaps 'Marnie' too, with the female protagonist changing name and hair colour as she moves from one identity to the next.

Since it's so slavishly indebted to the work of Hitchcock, it's really hard to judge the film on its own merits. Perhaps we should be able to overlook that as critics but it feels like a cut and paste job of other Hitchcock films, minus any substance of its own. We start with a young woman (Jeanne Moreau) attempting suicide, but stopped by her mother. We don't know why yet; Truffaut just presents this episode and then fills in the reasons later. Reinventing herself, she is looking for a man. Again, we don't know who he is, why she's visiting him, whether she knows him, whether he's involved in her suicide attempt - nothing! When he's not home, she tries again, arriving at his wedding. She's beautiful and enigmatic, and he's drawn to her (all the men in this film are stupid and blinded by her looks incidentally). She convinces him she knows him, but he doesn't know how. As she throws her scarf from a balcony and is stuck in an overhanging branch, she asks him to retrieve it. Revealing herself as Julie Kohler, she pushes the man over the balcony to his death, which neatly mirrors the aborted suicide attempt at the start of the film when she tried to jump from a window.

And so Julie continues her mission of murder; her reasons become apparent upon the increasing number and depths of flashbacks. Her husband was murdered on the steps of the church at which they were married, and these are the men she believes were responsible. There's a great degree of black humour at work here as Truffaut makes each murder more ingenious and well planned out than the last. She poisons one man and suffocates the next, having already meticulously assumed a role in each man's lives. She makes them fall in love with her, spots their weaknesses and goes for the kill. I've heard it mentioned how these deaths actually contrast to the death of her husband. He was killed by rifle from distance. These men are killed in a far more personal and well executed way. These are deaths inspired by pure revenge and hatred. Interestingly though, Truffaut never reveals why Julie's husband is killed, and towards the film's climax, he eventually sows the seeds of doubt in our mind as to whether these men were responsible for the death of Julie's husband and whether it was just something Julie believed in her fractured mental state rather than fact.

'The Bride Wore Black' is a more interesting and well thought out exercise than Truffaut's next Woolrich adaptation and Hitchcock tribute 'The Mississippi Mermaid'. The film clearly has a sense of (black) humour that the latter in my opinion lacked and Truffaut obviously understood that this was a prominent feature of many of Hitchcock's films. The problem of making such an accurate tribute is that it just becomes a pastiche or facsimile if the film has little ideas or substance of its own and that's where I think the two Woolrich adaptations have failed. As I said in the previous review, Truffaut was a gifted film maker but after the first three classics never recovered that sense of creativity, spontaneity or spirit. Many of his films were perfectly fine or competent, but I don't personally afford him the same respect as many of his contemporaries; Godard of course, but neither Resnais nor Chabrol. It seems so odd that he was the French New Wave director that influenced Hollywood the most. But then perhaps not. 3/5

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