From Simenon, Pierre Granier-Deferre’s La veuve Couderc is an engrossing, finely realistic, naturalistic drama set in rural France in 1934. Commenting on the rise of fascism in France, the film isolates the strain in the French personality that would lead some to collaborate with Germans during the Occupation up ahead; it culminates in a massive police assault on a lone, sympathetic figure, a drifter, Jean Lavigne, who has escaped from prison and settled into the role of farmhand, hired by the owner’s widow, a middle-aged woman who is proud and defiant, like Jean, and ostrasized. The widow Couderc had been in the employ of her deceased husband’s father, with both father and son raping her; with a difference of several years between them, the widow and Jean become actual lovers.
The film remarkably marries simplicity and complication; the elemental nature of the drama accounts for the former, while the schemings of the widow’s relations-by-marriage account for the latter. Granier-Deferre takes aim at the dark nature of “family,” a form without feeling, and folds this into a sign of anti-Semitism: a “no trespassing” message handwritten on the side of a church. “Outsiders,” the widow and Jean end up the victims of storm-trooping police, with the Jewish face of the actress who plays the widow contributing to the resonant connection.
Granier-Deferre once said this: “What interests me in Simenon is the ambiguity and ordinary madness of his characters which manifests itself at the least disturbance.”
A central image of the film attests to blighted life: the widow’s incubator, on which Jean has patiently labored to make operative, that police bullets turn into an incinerator: a ghastly, haunting image.
Utterly convincing and affecting are the strong lead performances: Simone Signoret as the widow; Alain Delon as Jean Lavigne.
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