François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black exudes a gripping aura of willed chilliness. One doesn’t have to be familiar with other characteristically warmer Truffaut films to sense this element of experimental contrivance. Something’s just always a little off, and it’s most explicitly signaled by the contrast between the images and Bernard Herrmann’s deep, resonant score, which, for the Alfred Hitchcock devotee, will be almost distractingly reminiscent of the music that the great composer provided for Vertigo.
Herrmann’s sound immediately suggests Hitchcock, but the images don’t exhibit the suspense master’s exactitude for blocking. Hitchcock’s images have an obsessive locked-in-place quality, with his characters often suggesting flies pinned to beautiful, unnerving compositions. Truffaut favors looseness of movement, and though he downplays this tendency in The Bride Wore Black, it nevertheless remains, and that looseness clashes with the music. It feels as if we’re seeing one movie and hearing another.
The camera pirouettes of this film are often so superfluous as to foster assumptions that they’re jokes—and maybe they are. Subjective tracking shots, from the point of view of Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), the wronged bride murdering her way through the morons who accidentally killed her husband on their wedding day, often appear to be in the film for the sake of it. These shots don’t carry the charge of the camera movements from Vertigo and Psycho that clearly inspired them. They’re flourishes, nearly playful, and freeing: They might precede a murder, but the movements, in themselves, connote grace and unfettered transportation—a theme commonplace to Truffaut’s art that’s considerably more unusual in the work of Hitchcock.
Truffaut and cinematographer Raoul Coutard achieve eerier effects when they’re working on their own aesthetic terms. There’s an image early in The Bride Wore Black that’s bone-chilling. Julie is staking out her first victim, a pampered ladies’ man named Bliss (Claude Rich), at his pre-wedding party, and we see her in the far right background of the frame while the groom and a friend discuss her from the vantage point of the left foreground. The men are ostensibly the subject of the shot, as it’s their conversation that’s setting up the scene’s punchline, but our eyes fixate on Julie’s own obvious fixation. She’s a ghost, a wraith who appears to be nearly translucent in her white gown (Julie will wear only variations of white and black throughout Truffaut’s film—a playfully blunt symbol of hatred poisoning optimism), and we know that these hounds are about to meddle in forces far beyond their understanding.
That’s what The Bride Wore Black really is: a ghost story of a woman living out a chameleonic cycle of death that’s forced upon her by oblivious male blowhards. Like many of Hitchcock’s late thrillers, this film is concerned with the tension between the genders, but Truffaut’s emphasis is markedly, sometimes self-consciously different. In Hitchcock’s films, the woman is an “other” that’s often regarded with longing, as well as with resentment of the powers that inspired the longing. Psycho is startling for how little authorial sympathy it extends toward Marion Crane, a woman who’s destroyed by various contradicting and hypocritical male forces. Truffaut is more politically correct: Our sympathies steadfastly belong to Julie, despite, or perhaps because of, Moreau’s bold inscrutability in the role. With one poignant semi-exception, the men are explicitly understood to be pigs who see women as conquests to be made while living up a bourgeoisie high life that divorces them from the pain they mindlessly wreak.
Truffaut’s sensibility might be, superficially at least, better socially adjusted, but it’s also a little pat in the context of The Bride Wore Black. Each of the five men who wronged Julie embody various, though barely differentiated, modes of insidious male manipulation: cocksure playfulness, entitlement, self-pity, passive-aggression, and so on. This narrative gambit is meant to tether the viewer to Julie’s plight, but plays mostly—again, with one semi-exception—as a fussily symbolic version of a typically dehumanizing revenge film trope.
Hitchcock’s view of the sexes might be uncomfortable, but it springs from an intensity of unprocessed emotion. There’s a sense of chaos and torment in his films that feels personal, and that speaks vividly to the differences between men and women that have been indoctrinated socially. Truffaut has no issue with drinking Moreau in with his camera, particularly her buttocks and legs (as in a sequence that cheekily finds her dressed as Diana the Huntress), but this objectification is couched in an evasive theme that excuses such proclivities by making a point of ruing objectification. Hitchcock was less resolved, but more direct, about his fetishes.
There’s always been something a little forcibly gallant in the way that Truffaut often reduces men to boobs, particularly in his Doinel films. Women are also “others” in his films, but they’re filtered through a scrim of perception that’s theoretically more positive than Hitchcock’s. Women are agents of freedom for Truffaut who challenge the smug privilege of men, which is to say that women destroy men in his films as well, but these destructions are offered as celebrations rather than as the tragedies that pervade in Hitchcock’s films.
Truffaut is a great artist and critic, but his work is too often thought of in simply “humanistic” terms that trivialize it by eliding the fact that he was also a director with contradictory sexual-political obsessions (his compassion is tinged with a sense of pandering distance that could be taken as patronizing). That preoccupation, at its basest, is Truffaut’s great commonality with Hitchcock. As a film, The Bride Wore Black is a beautiful, macabre art object that’s slightly dead inside, a thematically neat battle-of-the-sexes thriller that plays as a fusion of Jules and Jim and Vertigo. But it’s a fascinating starting point for discussions of Truffaut and Hitchcock, and of the affinity of sensibility that might have enabled them to create their 1967 book-length interview.
There are some mildly washed-out sequences near the beginning, but this transfer offers a generally crisp and detailed image. Grays and browns, which pervade the funereal color scheme, are robust and well-differentiated. Reds, which are used strategically and sparingly, are bold, and the whites and blacks that visually define the Jeanne Moreau character are creamy and velvety, respectively. Textures, most notably of skin and cloth, are specific and tactile. The French 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track offers a wonderfully rich audial tapestry, most obviously in presenting the memorably expressive Bernard Herrmann score. Smaller effects, though, such as the clinking of knives and locks, have been rendered with a similar amount of care.
The audio commentary featuring film historians Julie Kirgo, Steven C. Smith, and Nick Redman is engagingly detailed and conversational in the tradition of their other recordings. They make a good case for The Bride Wore Black as a work that possesses a sense of spontaneity and humanity that eluded this critic, and they fascinatingly map out the many creative disagreements that marred its production, most notably between director François Truffaut, cinematographer Raoul Cotard, and composer Bernard Herrmann. Also included is an English-language dubbed version of the film, which might be of interest for those who wish to hear different snatches of Herrmann’s score, or who’re curious as to how it might be pitched at those unfortunately wary of subtitles. An isolated score track and a CD with an 80-minute audio-only 1970 interview with Hermann render this edition an unusually composer-centric release, though the latter, which bolsters Hermann’s reputation as a difficult and bitter curmudgeon, will only be of interest to students of the art of interviewing, or to those willing to wade through the tedious vitriol to get to the occasional working revelation. Rounding out this engaging and unusual package are the theatrical trailer and a liner essay by Kirgo.
As a snapshot of a dialogue between two iconic filmmakers, The Bride Wore Black is fascinating. As a thriller divorced from the context of its inception, it’s formally accomplished, chilly, and a mite fussy. This beautiful and well-supplemented Twilight Time edition honors both facets.
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