As befits a director who rarely failed to trigger ink ejaculations on the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock would loom heavily over the works of the young critics who took up cameras and formed the French New Wave. Whether direct or circuitous, traces of Hitch can be felt in Godard’s insistence on filmic technique visibly and violently manifesting itself, Chabrol’s fascination with human duality and repressed beastliness, Rohmer’s Catholic examinations of private moralities, and even Rivette’s view of a world precariously suspended over various trap doors. Curiously, the upstart who related most ardently to the older auteur was also the one with the least in common stylistically and spiritually: François Truffaut, whose freewheeling camera and affection for hypersensitive characters put him at the opposite side of the spectrum from the implacable visual exactitude and jaundiced worldview which characterized the Master of Suspense. Though it’s of course absurd to criticize one artist’s admiration of another, no matter how divergent their sensibilities may appear, the perils of hero worship swiftly come to the fore once that admiration starts to take the form of strained acts of reverence. Often with Truffaut and Hitchcock, the alliance gave the impression of a perversely mismatched date where both parties were too polite to admit how wrong they were for each other.
Think of Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black as the lumpiest fruit borne out of that union, a frigid and oddly static procession of Hitchcockian shout-outs that plays like an affected sequel to the two filmmakers’ celebrated interview book. Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) is the bride of the title, who, consumed by grief after her groom is gunned down on the steps of the church following the ceremony, transforms herself into a half-lidded avenging angel. Julie’s targets are the five men responsible for her sweetheart’s death, whose names are checked off a list she carries along with a seemingly bottomless supply of weapons and disguises: A skirt-chaser about to get hitched (Claude Rich), a meek bachelor willing to be seduced (Michel Bouquet), a politician and family man with a roving eye (Michael Lonsdale), a womanizing painter (Charles Denner), and a brutish auto-shop swindler (Daniel Boulanger). As the heroine methodically, ruthlessly tracks down each culprit, Truffaut goes through his own name-checking list of cinematic titles: an emblematic valise out of Marnie, a body plunging a la Foreign Correspondent, a visit to the concert hall shot to resemble The Man Who Knew Too Much, a remembrance of the Notorious poisoned drink. By the time the bride works her way into prison for the film’s sardonic punchline, the references have come to speckle the narrative like blobs of paint on glass.
It’s not that Truffaut doesn’t understand Hitchcock. Indeed, there are sequences in films before and after The Bride Wore Black (the shotgun irony of The Soft Skin, the vertiginous illusionist effects of Fahrenheit 451, the private-eye voyeurism of Stolen Kisses) that reveal an overlapping of mutual interests in which homage is deftly balanced with personal investment. It’s when he directly mimics the directorial qualities he doesn’t quite share, however, that Truffaut threatens to turn his mentor’s work into caricature. Take the film’s aping of Hitchcockian storyboarded montage, which comes off as visual hiccups that regularly mar the flow. Or the leaden use of Bernard Herrmann, whose orchestrations for Hitchcock become an almost visual element (you can just about see every bar stab and throb), but here are so insistent and cranked-up that they suggest nothing so much as a barge full of shrieking musical instruments going over a waterfall. And take the theme of obsession, which is integral not only to the classics the film quotes fragrantly from but also to the Cornell Woolrich novel on which the story is based. Truffaut’s melodic, soft-centered, utterly balanced tenderness shows little taste for the gnawing folly of obsessive characters, so that, even in a tale of a madwoman, he stands safely outside as an engrossed, sympathetic observer rather than letting the film itself embody her madness.
Denied a tragic dimension, Moreau’s Julie Kohler becomes an abstraction of enigmatic femininity, a deadpan slate on which a variety of costumes are pinned. And yet, it’s during her interactions with the doomed men, who almost always see her as a mythical object of desire (a white-draped “apparition” to one, Diana the Huntress to another), that The Bride Wore Black turns most interesting. The way the dourly sexless heroine employs penetrative tools (knifes, arrows, syringes) throughout her vengeful rampage lends an erotic charge to the murders that’s far closer to later horror films than to classic Hitchcock, creating a feeling of unspoken complicity between predator and prey that draws intriguingly on the audience’s memory of Moreau as a volatile force for Truffaut (in Jules and Jim). It’s also during her scenes with Denner’s lecherous yet melancholy artiste that the filmmaker unveils his knowing self-portrait as a gentle, compulsive girl-watcher who poses his mysterious muse and falls for her, only to expire at her feet. (A self-portrait later reprised, with less mischief and more rue, in the underrated The Man Who Loved Women.) But such flashes of resonance merely rattle inside Truffaut’s eye-grabbing but hollow pastiche, which aims to bring together pupil and master but instead serves up the ungainly spectacle of two auteurs canceling each other out.