Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.6: Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 48 (C+)

Above all other directors, Francois Truffaut truly adored Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut grew up watching Hitchcock films and spent years as a critic in for the Cahiers du Cinema arguing for the artistic merit of Hitchcock’s work, then seen mostly as commercial films. Truffaut even released a book of interviews with Hitch (titled Hitchcock) that is absolutely essential reading for any film lover and a great insight to Hitchcock’s creative process, his personal obsessions, and Truffaut’s own fandom. It’s not surprising, then, that Truffaut would eventually try a stab at a Hitchcockian thriller. What’s disappointing, then, is how 1968’s The Bride Wore Black turned out.

Julie (Jeanne Moreau) is a woman on a mission: on the day of her wedding, a stray shot killed her new husband. Distraught, she tried to kill herself, but later resolved to find the five men responsible for her love’s death. After spending years gathering information, Julie travels around France looking for the five men and killing them one by one, finally leading up to the man truly responsible.

Truffaut gives away his intentions early on: this is a feature-length homage to Hitchcock, complete with a Bernard Herrmann score that would fit right in one of the Master of Suspense’s films. To his credit, Truffaut keeps the first third pretty engaging as he slowly reveals the intentions behind Julie’s strange behavior.  She shows up to an apartment building in an elegant wedding dress, stalks a man for reasons initially unknown, crashes his wedding shower, stares at him throughout the party, and finally kills him in an accident. Truffaut has clearly taken a few valuable lessons from Hitchcock, namely how to drag out suspense and tell a story visually. Particularly strong is the lead-up to the second murder, as Julie meets a man at a concert and Truffaut cuts back and forth between the mysterious Julie, the roused man, and the musicians.

Truffaut has a strong hook (Quentin Tarantino would use a similar premise in the superior Kill Bill) and the directorial skill needed to pull it off. But The Bride Wore Black loses steam as it reveals just how little it’s up to. Truffaut doesn’t put in many of his personal pet themes- the complexity of love, the clash between nature and society, the intoxicating nature of art- but rather mounts a fairly straightforward Hitchcock pastiche. That’d be fine by itself, if disappointingly thin and less personal than his earlier work, but the emotions need to resonate for the film to work. They do not. Moreau, so exciting in Jules and Jim, is mostly a cipher here, and her overwhelming love for her husband is barely developed. None of the other characters are particularly memorable, and when it’s finally revealed just how the husband was shot, it’s completely asinine. Truffaut considered it his weakest film. It’d certainly be in contention.

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