Sunday, 4 March 2007

Claude Chabrol's Juste Avant La Nuit

Image from Fremantle Home Entertainment

The last Claude Chabrol work that I viewed was Nada, an uninteresting and confusing film about terrorism. In order to get over that, I found relief in visiting a far superior Chabrol work, Juste Avant La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall). With themes of lust, deceit, murder and redemption, Juste Avant… is more a psychological drama rather than a thriller.

Charles’ (Michel Bouquet) kinky affair with his best friend and neighbour’s wife, Laura, ends violently with him strangling her. The early post-murder sequence of Charles attempting to act normal in front of Laura’s husband, François (François Périer), is very misleading. You are lulled into a false sense of security that the rest of the film will revolve around Charles trying desperately not to be caught. But the plot, based on the short story The Thin Line, follows a different line of thought.

The characters are zipped up and buttoned up. Emotion is a potential threat and there is a secret battle to stop it rippling to the surface. Charles drags his hand along the hedge as he walks up the street. This is a rare spontaneous action crying out for help. Another striking scene is where he mimes his confession on the way to Laura’s funeral. He speaks but no sound comes out. There are emotions and feelings that dare not be expressed.

Hélène (Stéphane Audran as Charles’ wife) is more successful in controlling her feelings. Her reaction to her husband’s confession – sex, murder, warts and all – is as cool as a cucumber. She calmly chooses to forgive him and carries on with the façade of that thing called life. The constantly cold weather represents their state of being – beating hearts packed in frozen ice.

The detached performances by Michel Bouquet, Stéphane Audran and François Périer convey this rather chillingly. Bouquet is especially outstanding as the man in danger of listening to his conscience amid the awkward rehearsals of everyday life. A young woman who recognises him from afar as Laura’s lover stares at him and refuses to let her glance drop. Let’s admit it, we would do the same thing. You have to study this man in the hope of seeing a glimmer of truth behind that stony act.

The structure of the sets (particularly in Charles’ house) evokes an acute sense of being trapped and hidden. Curtains are drawn to conceal the cracks in relationships. They are opened when Hélène wishes to cast an eye on what is happening in the next room and beyond. In a macabre and mischievous way, the gate to François’ house looks exactly like prison bars.

There are some arresting shots of the married couple walking along the beach. It’s meant to be a getaway, a ‘break’, but it can hardly be what you call a holiday. The cold hard wind is still trailing them. The only difference is that they have escaped from the white walls of their houses just to glare at the black silhouettes of their estranged figures. The photography sums up the state of their souls by capturing them in complete black (in one shot with minimal light) as they stroll up the rocky beach.

Another interesting sequence that plays with the idea of black and white is when Charles confesses to François. This crucial night scene is directed with very little light and we can barely see the actors’ faces. But it soon dawns upon us that seeing their expressions is really not that important. François’ reaction is similar to Hélène’s, he decides to opt for forgiveness and pretend that the whole thing had never happened.

The twist comes from Charles feeling uneasy with all this peace-loving forgiveness and wanting to be punished for his sins. He is exposed to the apathy of a society numb to the feeling of moral outrage or shock. As Charles contemplates his predicament, the opening becomes that much clearer. Laura whispering, “If you knew what I’ve done, if you only knew…”, as she begs to be strangled. This is one consequence of the bourgeois society that wants to pretend that nothing really hurts.

What Juste Avant La Nuit is trying to say is that we do need judgment, we do need redemption. Or else, our sense of self-worth is in danger of crippling away.

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