Saturday 19 February 2011

Truffaut The Matter

The Bride Wore Black
1968 France
Directed by
Fran├žois Truffaut
BFI Screen 2 screening on 5th February 2011

Warning: There is a slight spoiler for the final scene of this movie... although if you see this film you will see it coming a mile off anyway.

I think there are a fair few problems... or at least an unusual amount of disbelief to be jarringly suspended... when it come’s to Truffaut’s 1968 “thriller” The Bride Wore Black. First though, I have to own up myself about two things which make this review a little more suspect than a bunch of my usual ones. For starters, I haven’t read Cornell Woolrich’s original, hard boiled noir novel on which this was based (although I believe I’ve read some short stories by him in the past).

Secondly, and possibly more importantly in this case, I was in such an extreme state of both depression and exhaustion by the time I arrived at the cinema to see this movie, that I did catch myself drifting off on occasion... make of that what you will.

I’ve never been the worlds greatest fan of Truffuat, I have to say. Sure, I like his movies well enough but when it gets to my appreciation of the French nouvelle vague in general, I have to say that although I like a lot of what’s on offer... I probably gravitate towards Godard more than his peers when it comes right down to it. I like seeing the technique and style as being held up as an equal or more important process of the engagement with the viewer as opposed to passive storytelling. I haven’t seen that many Truffaut movies but I think the majority of the ones I’ve seen have been based on books so he’s obviously not a director who was going to shy away from “getting his hands dirty” with an adaptation should that be necessary.

The Bride Wore Black is only his second movie shot in colour (his first being the astonishing Fahrenheit 451 which he made directly before this one) and also his second and final collaboration with master composer Bernard Herrmann (again, the first being Fahrenheit 451) and it was to hear this second Truffaut/Herrmann collaboration that was, I have to say, the main factor in me deciding to trek up to the NFT to see this one screened.

This movie is a revenge thriller but it’s status is perhaps elevated by Truffaut's flare for haunting imagery and evocation of the sense of loss found in lead actress Jeanne Moreau’s "very much in type” take on her role which is both nonchalant and deadpan... the way she is in pretty much every film I’ve seen her in, it has to be said. I’m not denying that her acting ability, or at the very least the strength of her personality, is a very powerful asset to whatever movie she is in, and her typical icy inscrutability is perfect here for the bride who’s lover lies dead in her arms from a gunshot wound as they are posing outside a church on her wedding day for photos.

This sequence is repeated from different angles at regular moments during the film as both more clarification as to the precise nature of the “assassination” and an indication of the sense of all-consuming grief it brings to Moreau’s bride is expounded upon and, if the film can be said to have any nods to the artificial made flesh kind of sensibilities of the New Wave, then it is the use of repeat motifs such as this and the constant referencing of Mendelson’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Herrmann's, perhaps overly lush score, that may give voice to the history of the particular auteur at the helm of this movie.

I said there were some problems (for me) with suspension of disbelief on this film and the main one for me is the degree of good fortune and coincidence that plays out to enable our embittered heroine to easily kill her list of five men who she sees as guilty of her husbands murder (this film is obviously an influential one and as the bride sits on a plane and crosses off another name from her handwritten death list of five people, one can’t help but think of the debt owed to this movie from another “The Bride” who does exactly the same thing in Tarantino’s Kill Bill). People are absent when needed to be absent or present when required and this even goes so far that when the police finally catch up with her and put her in jail, it is precisely where she needs to be to ensure she is able to kill the last person left alive on her list.

Another big problem for me was Bernard Herrmann’s excellent score which is really great but way too overpowering for the images they are supposed to be supporting. I remember a story told by Elmer Bernstein about how he’d been discussing Richard Rodney Bennett’s whimsical score for Murder on the Orient Express with its tongue-in-cheek waltz and how he’d really liked it but Benny (Bernard Herrmann) had complained, saying that it should have been scored for what it was - a train of death! This film, for me, is a good example of Herrmann’s score being way too powerful and expressive for the images to really be able to breathe on their own merit. And I say that painfully... Herrmann is my favourite composer.

All in all though it has to be said that The Bride Wore Black is a charming little movie worth some of your time and that, if it does lack a certain something of the Hitchcock films it was trying to emulate and assimilate (Truffaut’s famous series of interviews with Hitchcock were apparently completed just before this) it certainly has a good go at it and I’ll certainly be taking another look at it when my head is in a better position to take on all the nuances that this movie no doubt has hidden within the carefully built layers of its execution.

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