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Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité on Criterion Blu-ray

Brigitte Bardot’s sultry persona pulls double duty as both an individual character and a capital-W woman.

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La Vérité

The opening of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité suggests something out a Dreyer film about women placed on trial by men for heresy. The film depicts how French society still retains its fear of women and their bodies from centuries past, only now that fear is better disguised by a justice system claiming secular, democratic interests. La Vérité unfolds as an autopsy of postwar French culture, with Brigitte Bardot’s sultry persona pulling double duty as both an individual character and a capital-W woman.

In fact, the least compelling component of Clouzot’s film is the specificity of the case at hand, which concerns a rudimentary question at its core: Did Dominique (Bardot) murder her boyfriend, Gilbert (Sami Frey), out of passion, self-defense, or some other form of self-interest? That question alludes, in a superficial way, to the film’s title, in a crosscutting narrative that cycles from the courtroom to the past and back, piecing together testimonies to assemble an agreed-upon account of innocence or guilt. The real truth, though, concerns the very question of veracity within a legal system predicated on prejudgments of those carrying out the terms of, in this case, institutional misogyny.

By extension, Clouzot uses Dominique’s case file to interrogate France’s obsession with Bardot, making La Vérité a metatextual work that thrives on blending the two threads together in often imperceptible ways. Indeed, much of the film places Bardot in positions—naked under a bed sheet, in a vaguely concealing shower, in a state of undress—that echo those of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, the film that created Bardot’s “sex kitten” persona. The difference here is the camera’s somewhat distanced treatment of the actress’s body, gesturing to the desire to look at Bardot as much as to her body itself.

Clouzot activates a Hitchcockian awareness of looking that goes even further than, say, 1954’s Rear Window, by employing Bardot’s commodified body as the object of attraction. That is, viewers are made even more aware that they’re looking at Bardot than ever before, and that the film’s story is more or less just an excuse to do so. By the time Contempt opened three years later with Bardot’s derrière on full, almost clinical display, the moment suggested yet another stage in a treatise about how filmmakers have treated Bardot’s nudity on screen.

La Vérité, released in 1960, grapples with similar questions as 1957’s 12 Angry Men and 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, two films that pore over a male defendant’s potential guilt—amid blatant displays of racism in the former and “she was asking for it” sexism in the latter. La Vérité’s screenplay, however, forgoes constructing a good citizen as a voice of reason. Instead, while the inner workings of the court system reveal voices in modest dissent, none are so powerful, or even determined, as to tip the developing narrative in a direction that would allow Dominique to be genuinely heard and understood.

The closest thing to a voice of reason in Clouzot’s film is Guérin (Charles Vanel), Dominique’s defense attorney, who believes that the death penalty should be out of the question. Yet even he’s hardly engaged in mounting an argument for her defense beyond a certain compulsive, professional level, as La Vérité shows him doodling on his notepad while the prosecution makes its opening case. It’s no wonder, then, that Guérin merely shrugs off the case’s inevitably tragic outcome as “hazards of the profession,” before retreating, hand on back, with the lead prosecutor (Paul Meurisse) to their quarters.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of a recent 4K digital restoration—co-funded by Sony Pictures Entertainment in partnership with the Film Foundation and RT Features—gleams with chiaroscuro glory, bringing to life cinematographer Armand Thirard’s luminous images in ways that at least match, if not surpass, other high-definition presentations of his and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s prior collaborations. Shadows remain balanced throughout, and depth of field is consistently remarkable, allowing the smallest of details in the frame to emerge with clarity and precision. Grain hasn’t been unduly scrubbed away, and is especially—and pleasingly—evident in close-ups. The monaural soundtrack is full and impressive in its range, with dialogue and music clearly mixed together.

Extras

The disc’s meatiest supplement is the hour-long documentary Le scandale Clouzot, made in 2017, which compresses both Clouzot’s biography and filmography into a digestible, if somewhat perfunctory, reel of clips and interviews. (Viewers looking for a more provocative take on the period of French filmmaking before the New Wave should seek out Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema.) A brief archival interview with Clouzot from 1960 mostly sees the fimmaker explaining why he chose to cast Brigitte Bardot rather than Sophia Loren as Dominique. A 1982 documentary entitled Brigitte Bardot telle qu’elle features Bardot reflecting on her career and romantic relationships during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Finally, an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau considers, among other things, why La Vérité qualifies as Clouzot’s “last masterpiece.”

Overall

An essential and atypical contribution to “Bardomania,” La Vérité receives a first-rate Blu-ray restoration, with a few intriguing extras, from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Sami Frey, Marie-José Nat, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean-Loup Reynold Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Screenwriter: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Simone Drieu, Michèle Perrein, Jérôme Géronimi, Christiane Rochefort, Véra Clouzot Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 1960 Buy: Video

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