La poison

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The misdirection starts early in the superb dark French farce from 1951 La poison (no prizes for guessing it translates as Poison). Right with the title, in fact, which suggests that poison, or a poisoning, is what the film is going to be about. It isn’t. Or it is, but not in the way the title might suggest.

But first – more sleight of hand – writer/director Sacha Guitry, a boulevardier of the old school, introduces his cast, by their real names, starting with his star, Michel Simon, a big bear of a man Guitry praises effusively before moving on to Simon’s co-stars, all of whom get the buckets-of-praise treatment. Then on to the crew, the set decorator, the guy who wrote the soundtrack, the “script lady”. We can see Guitry’s lighting set-up. He makes a remark about how good the sets are.

It’s a meta moment and another way of directing us away from the matter at hand, which turns out to be the fraught relationship between Paul (Simon), a genial but defeated 53-year-old man, and Blandine, his sour, invariably drunk wife, played with real comic flair by Germaine Reuver.

Unbeknown to our “hero”, Blandine has had enough of Paul and plans to kill him, with poison she has bought from the local pharmacist. What Blandine doesn’t know is that her husband has decided to kill her too. Is she going to get to him first or he to her?

Two things. Guitry’s portrait of a small French town is done in broad but effective strokes. The men at the cafe, the flower seller in the square, the pharmacist and his busybody assistant, who discuss the hidden meaning of every single purchase – Migraines? Constipation? Syphillis? The entire town runs on gossip. Buying a big batch of rat poison cannot go unremarked upon.

And his portrait of Paul’s home life with Blandine is also brilliantly effective. Every day the simple lunch of soup, some ham, a hunk of bread, the radio blaring away because neither person can stand to hear the other talk. Blandine pouring wine down her gullet at a hell of a rate.

Blandine: dead or dead drunk?
Blandine: dead or dead drunk?

There are also two key scenes in this film, the first a towering edifice of misdirection, when Paul goes to visit Maître Aubanel (Jean Debucourt, superb), a lawyer who’s become nationally known for getting guilty men off any sort of charge. And the second when the lawyer and Paul meet again, in the jail where Aubanel tells Paul he cannot represent him and Paul reveals the true purpose of his earlier visit. Aubanel is smart but he’s been entirely outwitted by the natively sly Paul.

It all culminates in one of those court scenes where everything looks like it’s about to collapse only for Guitry to perform a magician’s reveal of what’s really going on.

I’m not revealing much about the plot because the plot and its many feints are what the whole thing is about. It is an exquisitely turned piece of work in which tangled human motivation, flawed personalities and unexpected turns of events are all trumped by a piercing intellect – though Simon’s big, Charles Laughton-faced exterior suggests anything but.

This was remade by Jean Becker in 2001 as A Crime in Paradise (Un Crime au Paradis) but more famously as the Jack Lemmon/Virna Lisi/Terry-Thomas comedy How to Murder Your Wife in 1965. Not having seen Becker’s film, I cannot compare, but this trumps the 1965 movie, good though it is. There is also, in this original, a satirical take on justice and how it can be perverted, perhaps by a silver-tongued lawyer or a smart murderer.

I’d not come across Guitry before but saw this film recommended by Ari Aster (director of Beau Is Afraid) as he worked his way along the shelves picking his faves from the Criterion Collection (loads more Closet Picks available on YouTube – they’re always interesting). What a great steer. What a great film. You should buy the Criterion one if you’re interested. It looks as good as the film itself is.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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