Consensus has determined that La vérité is one of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s artistic failures, but it has its defenders, and it won a best picture Golden Globe and the directorial prize for Clouzot at Mar del Plata. Does it possess merit?
Set in Paris, the film revolves around the capital trial of twenty-year-old Dominique Marceau for the shooting death of musical conductor Gilbert Tellier—Dominique’s lover; her sister Annie’s fiancé. Reviewers generally contrast the misleading arguments of the chief prosecutor and defense counsel, on the one hand, and the “truth” revealed by the interspersed flashbacks, on the other. In truth, however, the film’s title is bleaker than this suggests; the flashbacks, themselves misleading, and often keyed to biased witness testimony, or Dominique’s own distortions and delusions, also obscure “the truth,” whatever that means—if, indeed, any such thing exists. “[Gilbert] loved me,” Dominique eventually concludes; “but we didn’t love each other at the same time.” Those who accept this assessment as honest and true may not know what I’m talking about. Those who feel that Dominique’s assessment is an insufficient concession to the truth may know precisely what I’m talking about.
The film opens in the dark, cold prison where Dominique, awaiting trial, shares a cell at night. In the morning, we join her in catching her reflection in a fragment of mirror; this anticipates a future suicide attempt with a bit of the glass (Dominique has already made other attempts at suicide), but it also connects with a visual motif and a formal strategy, both employed throughout the film. The motif consists of Clouzot’s use of mirrors into which characters, especially Dominique, glance or gaze—all ironical, because, Clouzot being Clouzot, no one, and certainly not Dominique, seems to possess sufficient self-awareness to “know” what she or he is looking at. Moreover, the sharp fragment of mirror introduces Clouzot’s formal strategy of cutting into the courtroom the “pieces” of flashback jarring the courtroom’s—and the law’s—steady, stable appearance. In this way and others (including the already noted mirror motif), La vérité is a carefully, intelligently thought-out piece of work.
Indeed, Clouzot’s steady directorial hand contrasts with the messiness of the Dominique-Gilbert relationship, which finds the ambitious musician merely dallying with Dominique, who either falls in love with him or comes to overly depend on him, to compensate for the insincerity of his that she unconsciously intuits, or both. When Dominique pushes Gilbert away upon his unexpected marriage proposal, this also may be a response to what she gleans, consciously or unconsciously, as his insincerity. In any case, Dominique’s separation from Gilbert results in her descent into abject poverty, reckless behavior, prostitution. He in no way helps her; nor does anyone else.
In a way, we may also say that Clouzot’s presentation of the film, with its poking-in of flashbacks, similarly lacerates Dominique’s integrity and at least semblance of self-determination. But more: the inserted flashbacks are (deliberately) selfconsciously cinematic, in the sense that they flaunt film editing techniques. For instance, whereas the dominant scene is the courtroom, in a single flashback the “scene,” the setting, may shift, sometimes fairly rapidly, one, two or more times. Someone’s voice may carry over from one scene to the next—or the voice we hear in a bit of the flashback may carry over to the courtroom, identifying the witness who is giving testimony. The idea arises that the trial participants, including the witnesses, are unconsciously collaborating on a film, a fiction—in context, a disturbing event since the defendant’s life is at stake. Of course, the defendant, herself, is among these participants; but keep in mind the suicidal tendency of hers, Dominique’s self-shattering, that comports with her participation in this “collaboration.”
The artificiality of this fragmented, unconscious film-within-the-film contrasts with the ebullience of the “youth scene” in which Dominique also participates. Ironically, the prosecutor chooses to condemn youth as part of his strategy to portray Dominique’s crime as premeditated murder rather than as a crime of passion, a sudden, overwhelming loss of self-control. It fits perfectly into the ambiguity of this fascinating film that, on this score, the prosecutor is wrong even if he is right.
Brigitte Bardot (best actress, David di Donatello Award) found her favorite role in Dominique Marceau. I adore Bardot three years hence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (Contempt, 1963), but I find her the principal weakness in Clouzot’s film, where she emotes rather than acts. Paul Meurisse and Charles Vanel are impressive, though, as the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Sami Frey is fine as the self-centered murder victim, but Jean-Paul Belmondo, who auditioned for the part, would have been better.
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