THE JUDGE AND THE ASSASSIN (Bertrand Tavernier, 1976)

By collaborating with the writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Bertrand Tavernier announced his intention to revive the literate mainstream of French cinema that the nouvelle vague had presumably vanquished. His first, The Clockmaker (L’horloger de Saint-Paul, 1973), adapted Georges Simenon. His second and best film, Le juge et l’assassin (best screenplay César), plays as though it were the adaptation of some novel. Here is an outstanding example of, at best, a mediocre kind of filmmaking: visual storytelling.
     Politically ambitious, Judge Rousseau (Philippe Noiret, superb) manipulates press, public and Joseph Bouvier (best actor César, but very broad), a former soldier who, precipitously released from a mental asylum, has been raping and killing across the French countryside in the 1890s, feeling justified because a dog, he insists, bit him. (It is hinted that Bouvier was set on his course of sodomizing rapes by a priest’s raping him.) It is a game of who is “playing” whom, with Bouvier, “God’s Anarchist,” once caught, also manipulating press and public, associating himself with Jesus and Joan of Arc. Officially called sane, Bouvier is guillotined; Rousseau, who had become too absorbed by him, and whom Bouvier confronted with a knife, rapes girlfriend Rose, who becomes a socialist activist.
     Witty, sometimes hilarious, Tavernier’s film portrays France in upheaval. Widespread vagrancy, labor strikes, anarchy, a rash of suicides: all these weigh in, and society’s publicly Church-“condemned” includes Jews, Masons, socialists and Protestants. In the shadow of France’s recent adoption of it, a priest rails against secular education.
     Jean-Claude Brialy, brilliant, gives the best performance, as Villedieu, a wry, acute former judge—and a Royalist who decries the people of France: “Republican riffraff.”
     Tavernier had dedicated The Clockmaker to scenarist Jacques Prévert (Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné, 1945).

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