French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is nowadays best known for a pair of thrillers from the early 1950s, Les Diaboliques and the incredibly tense The Wages of Fear. By contrast, La Vérité (The Truth) is almost forgotten despite a hugely successful release in France and showing the world that sex-kitten Brigitte Bardot can really act.
A new restoration, shown at the 2017 London Film Festival, will hopefully reintroduce this excellent drama to a wider audience.
La Vérité is a courtroom drama: Dominique Marceau (Bardot) is a young French woman accused of murdering her lover Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). She has admitted her guilt – she shot him and then tried to kill herself – so the question is whether it was a pre-meditated murder or a ‘crime of passion’. Much like Mildred Pierce, we start with the discovery of the murder and then jump back in time to see their tale unfold chronologically; the story is told in leisurely flashbacks as each witness in turn is called to the stand.
In effect, both Dominique and the late Gilbert are each being tried for the truthfulness of their love. Using the trial as a structural device, Clouzot alternates segments of the couple’s story with scenes where the prosecution and defense each offer commentary as they build their respective cases. It’s all about how things appear: the trial is a game and an entertainment for the lawyers and for the packed public galleries who revel in the salacious scandal.
This is a barbed and cynical examination of morality. Dominique is a party girl. In contrast to her conscientious and driven older sister, Anne (Marie-José Nat), Dominique is lazy, hedonistic, thoughtless and selfish. She is also a sex-bomb and she takes full advantage of her charms – at one point Gilbert admiringly asks whether all men want to sleep with her. She enjoys a fun-loving life of Parisienne cafes, juke-box rhythms and casual flirting. Her loose morals and promiscuity – and the jealousy that this provokes in Gilbert – are at the centre of this film. And the prosecution revels in it.
La Vérité is surprisingly frank for its time. It doesn’t shy away from depicting Dominique’s confident sexuality, casual affairs and predilection for friends-with-benefits. Intimacy is given away for next to nothing; after sleeping with a friend she claims his shirt as a reward. Later as Dominique falls into prostitution she isn’t condemned, she merely becomes the subject of sympathy for her economic misfortune.
By contrast, Gilbert and his world is morally upright and pretentious. His is a world of classical music, lofty ideals, a love of high arts and strong morals. Gilbert is ambitious and wants to be a conductor, a role that feeds his serious ego and sense of superiority over Dominique. They are an odd couple.
Gilbert is an interesting character. Although it’s never quite clear what Dominique sees in him – aside from being so very different to her – he clearly values her, at least at first. There’s a magnificent scene when Gilbert waits for the absent Dominique. He knows she’s probably spending the night with another man, some casual fling, yet he waits outside all night, pacing and distraught. Nevertheless, much of the time he treats her with a dismissive contempt, only valuing her for her body.
La Vérité is a curious mix of classic drama and New Wave lightness, the flashbacks depict the life and amorality of the youth of the day, all existential disaffection and cool authenticity. It’s a contrast to the staid, square and hypocritical courtroom society.
Bardot’s performance has been rightly celebrated. True, there’s the requisite coquettish nudity and teasing, but she brings a touching charisma and an emotional intensity to the role that wins over the audience’s sympathies, which is quite remarkable as she plays a character who is far from sympathetic. It’s a shame that her opposite, Sami Frey, is unimpressive and bland and that he fails to ignite what could be a complex, interesting character.
The film doesn’t take sides; it treats its main characters with equal cynicism and there’s no heavy moralising here. I feel the central theme of truthfulness in love is a little underdeveloped, but it’s still effective as Dominique’s redeeming characteristic when appealing to our sympathies.
The film is well directed and filmed; it’s solid rather than showy. At over two hours, it does risk becoming a little too drawn out, the alternating court scenes and flashbacks become a little repetitive and could have been tightened up. However, its freshness and the performances keep the interest and momentum.
This new restoration is a 4K scan taken from original negative. The black and white picture is clean and the sound clear. There’s no sign yet of a UK release or blu-ray, but hopefully it will be available soon so this excellent, forgotten movie gets the audience it deserves.