Following publicity at the time of its release, many commentators took François Truffaut’s formally breathtaking The Bride Wore Black (La mariée était en noir) as an Hitchcockian exercise—a practical coda to Truffaut’s book of conversations with “the master of suspense.” Truffaut himself, though, described the film in terms incompatible with this, as his attempt, in fact, to reconcile the disparate influences on his work of Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. The result, based on a novel by William Irish, is a bold, intriguing film that is about matter quite different from what is generally attributed to it.
The plot is simple, and lethal. At her wedding Julie Kohler wore the white she was entitled to wear; but a stupid accident, involving a high-powered rifle and five carousing bachelors in a hotel room across the way and up, left Julie’s bridegroom, whom she had loved since childhood, dead on the church steps. Stopped from committing suicide, Julie opts for a definitive coping strategy: she tracks down the five men, insinuates herself into their lives (as Annette Insdorf has pointed out) as an object of desire (although she shifts gears to get at the last), and murders them one by one. Hers, then, is a grim mission of revenge and a sustained shout of pain.
The film unfolds as an elegant series of mildly described murders. It opens with a rapidly flipping succession of identical images of Julie naked, photographed from the studio wall where one of her victims had painted her—a witty visual APB disclosing from the start Truffaut’s interest in Julie’s sexual predicament. For hasn’t Julie rendered herself the mere image of a sexual person by her unRenoirian decision to postpone making love with her beloved until after the wedding? Her love and fidelity now hopelessly relegated to uninterrupted celibacy, she is consumed by her folly; the death of her would-have-been-lover incorporates her costly choice of maidenly virginity. That this choice of hers is the actual source of her suffering and anguish, which her killing spree merely attempts to hide from herself (a displacement of her thwarted suicide), The Bride Wore Black suggests along a number of different, converging tracks: narrative, rhythmic and visual.
Each of the murders that Julie commits—a push resulting in a deadly fall; a poisoning; a suffocation by lock-up in a tight space; the piercing with an arrow; a stabbing—constitutes an act of sublimated sex. Underscoring this in the first four instances, in fact, is the victim’s presumption that he and Julie are on the threshold of having sex. To be sure, this is partly the result of arrogance; but it is arrogance—male vanity—that Julie knowingly exploits. Thus we may say that Julie seduces her “intendeds” toward their demise, substituting for sex symbolic sex—the sublimated sex of killing them. Since Julie herself is implicated in this substitute sex, it follows that her killing each of the men is a substitute means of killing herself. The self-inflicted weapon is her constant awareness of the choice of virginity that she made. Every time Julie commits murder, then, she is punishing herself with her own choice to delay becoming sexually active. Why wouldn’t she crave and seek such punishment?; for, in her shattered soul, her unconscious, a nexus of causality has asserted itself: had she made the correct choice and made of her beloved her lover before the wedding, this would have reversed the outcome; there would have been no shooting, she and the bridegroom would have proceeded to their honeymoon and, as wife and husband, would have lived happily ever after. It is the irrational “logic” of overwhelming regret and guilt.
One aspect of the film’s (marvelous) structure clarifies this underlying theme; for Truffaut delays the full disclosure of Julie’s overt motivation for the string of murders—to take revenge on her bridegroom’s killers—until the third in the series, thereby allowing the crimes themselves, by their sexual reverberations and symbolism, to delineate more accurately what in fact drives Julie than does her own rationale for the crimes. Truffaut thus gives us time to bring to bear our own analytical skills; his delay of Julie’s “explanation” provides us with the means for better understanding Julie than Julie understands herself—and before her self-misunderstanding can cloud or confuse this better understanding of ours. Our active analysis of her motivation leads us away from passively accepting Julie’s self-analysis.
The flow of images—which comprises not just the images themselves but also the way they are cut into a continuous compound—likewise contributes to our search for a sexual motivation for the crimes. This flow determines the film’s rhythm; it is a rhythm suggesting a steadily proceeding distant train: persistent, low-keyed, electric. (Assisting Truffaut here is the unsung genius who also edited his Jules and Jim, 1961: Claudine Bouché.) This visual rhythm, combined with the rhythmic though often unharmonized strains of Bernard Herrmann’s quietly insistent music, reiterates the sexual underpinnings of Julie’s mission.
Two of the film’s images further help us in discerning Truffaut’s thematic concerns. One, in fact, is a series of images showing Julie, as an artist’s model, dressed in a white tunic as the Greek goddess Diana, the huntress; the white of the garment connects with the virginal white of Julie’s wedding gown (and of other of her garments besides). (The film is in color, but Julie’s wardrobe is mainly a matter of black and white.) But it is the indelible image of Julie in her sheer white wedding gown framed by the utterly, ominously black shadow of the church door that best discloses Truffaut’s intent and the reach of his argument. For we glean here, and from other consorting images already noted, the full context of Julie’s choice to ‘save herself’ for marriage: those traditional values, encapsulated in church doctrine, that dictate celibacy outside of marriage. It is this that Truffaut’s film passionately contests; for the insinuation of various forms of the image throughout the film cumulatively and ironically reveal that the ultimate cause of Julie’s grief—as it were, her canceled life—isn’t some blind fate executed by five reckless fools with a rifle but Julie herself and the guilt-generating traditional values she blindly adheres to. Guilt usually arises, of course, from deviating from these values and precepts; tragically, in Julie’s case, it arises from her failure to complete her adherence to them, and from her loss of her beloved and her consequent linkage of this loss—and of his loss—to her decision to adhere to them. Again, we must separate Julie’s perspective from Truffaut’s.
Truffaut sees Julie’s predicament as resulting from the kind of “transference of guilt”—from the carousers to herself—that operates in Hitchcock’s films. The ultimate source of this guilt is Catholicism or, more generally, Christianity, which predisposes one to guilt through such precepts as Original Sin. But at the same time Truffaut expands the concept in a Romantic, Renoirian direction, which provides a moral rather than religious dogmatic basis for understanding Julie’s predicament; for Julie’s tragedy is that, adhering to traditional values, she has curbed, in fact aborted, her natural inclination to give and receive love, at least sexually. By postponing sex with her beloved she has set herself against nature—her own human nature, and Nature, that is to say, the nature of cosmos. Obviously, Truffaut is locating himself at a point where Hitchcock and Renoir, his intellectual and spiritual mentors, converge. He is the artist-critic at that point; Julie is his heroine at that point—a victim of traditional, dogmatic morality which has led her away from all that is natural towards much that is unnatural: self-hate; suicide; murder.
Nor do I think this exhausts the speculative range of Truffaut’s argument. For, while Julie feels that she has been robbed of her husband and of the life only he could have given her, Truffaut feels instead, and his film implies, that, had the boy lived, his and Julie’s marriage would have been compromised and corrupted by the inhuman idealization that traditional ‘values’ impose on human relationships. Why? Had her bridegroom lived, Julie inevitably would have felt ‘tainted’ by sex inside marriage for having so strenuously, and disastrously, avoided it outside marriage; for such avoidance, however unconsciously, would have enforced on her marriage the equation of sexuality and corruption, killing it. Julie’s murderous criminality, then, projects this ‘taint,’ an unnerving capacity to engage reality sordidly—this, the result of her parochial religious upbringing. What other sense is to be made of her single suicide attempt? Why did she not try again? Why not kill one soul—herself—rather than five souls? Insatiable in her need for punishment to satisfy the demands of her guilt, Julie finds herself in the unwholesome grip of a value system so inundated with negative injunctions that the derailing of one condemnable act, her suicide, leads to the commission of another condemnable act, and then another, and another, and another, and another—and with each murder nicely rationalized as demonstrating her obedience to the claims of justice. It’s frightening to consider: Julie’s training as a daughter of Eve requires that all other virtues, including the simple one of not killing other people, must fall before the maintenance of unmarried virginity. Thus is Julie able perversely to kill again and again, since, besides extending the term of her self-inflicted punishment, this series of murders testifies to her Christian upbringing; for, by promising and withholding sex as prelude to each (except the last) of her kills, Julie can reconfirm what she (unconsciously) regards as the paramount female virtue. Truffaut’s film, with considerable force, gives us the dreary result of this mind-set, adding some tenderness, in the sense of soreness, to the analytical point by showing how gracefully Julie relates—as a ruse!—to the child of one of her intended victims. We are thus able to glimpse here the human potential in Julie that has been routed out by a convergence of forces. At the last she is more husk than human—but still a virgin.
Nothing so underscores the absurdity of Julie’s holding onto her virginity as the casting of so mature an actress in the role as Jeanne Moreau. Moreau a virgin? We know that’s not right. Moreau’s look of “experience,” no matter what the script insists, lends Julie an aura contrary to her alleged sexual innocence, and this in turn reflects on Julie’s unyielding celibacy with great, pointed and beautiful irony. Therefore, Moreau is right for the part even as—because—she seems all wrong for it.
Too, this odd casting links Julie to Moreau’s most glorious role, as Catherine in Jules and Jim, Truffaut’s most fully Renoirian film. A charming, vibrant, volatile bohemian in the first half of the twentieth century, Catherine seeks to re-create herself but discovers her emancipation must contend with die-hard male prerogatives. Dressed as a guy, she joins pals Jules and Jim for a spirited race through Parisian air—a lark to her playmates, but expressing the recognition of her equality that she longs for. Truffaut doesn’t disparage the men; he implies, instead, that if any two men could embrace independent, unruly Catherine as their equal it would be Jules and Jim. But telling of the projective fantasy to which even this progressive pair are susceptible is the fact that both first fell in love with Catherine because she reminded them of a favorite statue; and, so, from the start, despite their sincere atmospherics of gender equality, Catherine is the adored creature of their desire—and this she cannot bear. In time, she marries Jules and takes Jim as a lover. At the last, having instructed her spouse to watch, she drives off a cliff, with passenger Jim, into the sea, hoping to drown herself, along with her husband’s behavioral mirror-image, Jim, in her husband’s consciousness. Her primary motive is poignant: Catherine feels she must alert Jules that his liberated self-image blocks him from seeing how gender-insensitive he remains, because she herself sees no other way of improving the lot of their little daughter, Sabine; nor can Catherine otherwise resolve her feeling that, despite her own progressivism, she remains tied to a variation on the traditional domestic scheme from which she wants desperately to be liberated. Truffaut, then, is reflecting on his own time, the 1960s, when he thus rues the failure of gender relations to match their rhetoric of equality. This is the reason why, a half-dozen years hence, he added to Jules and Jim a coda: The Bride Wore Black—a plea for gender equality as antidote to the destructive acts and behavior that in its absence both men and women are driven to.
The film’s expert script is by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard; the masterful lensing, by Raoul Coutard. The roles of the victims are only lightly sketched (compare Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960, or Frenzy, 1972, where the opposite is the case); but Michel Bouquet and Charles Denner in particular shine.
As for Truffaut’s blatant identification with the most satyric of the victims, Denner’s artist whose hands-on “molding” of his model prefigures scenes that Truffaut himself would play in his L’enfant sauvage (1969) and La nuit américaine (1973), probably the less said the better.
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