Despite the robust revival of Sacha Guitry’s films and plays in France over the past ten years, the prolific dramatist and director remains largely unknown outside of his adopted country. Even in France, Guitry—also one of the most famous actors of his day—is known not as a master director in his own right, but as an early example of the French auteur, a precursor to the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. His slow decline from the heights of stardom after the Second World War was due to suspicions that he had collaborated with France’s German occupiers, as well as to the fact that theater directors were generally less respected in the film industry. This loss of reputation was undeserved. At their best, Guitry’s films remain brash, funny, and highly personal. Like Charlie Chaplin before him, and Woody Allen thereafter, Sacha Guitry made films that are much more about his own persona than their ostensible subject matter; and that persona remains as witty and charismatic as ever.
La Poison (1951) is a gem of a dark comedy. As many have noted, the charm of this film comes mainly from Swiss comedian Michel Simon’s humanizing interpretation of the central role. Simon is a master comedian, for whom Guitry wrote the starring role of Paul Braconnier, a killer who plots the murder of his wife (Germaine Reuver) and orchestrates his own acquittal. Shot in less than eleven days, with only one take for virtually every scene, the film follows Braconnier’s consultations with the inhabitants of Remonville, a typical French village of the 1940s or 1950s. Characters include: the priest (Albert Duvaleix), the florist (Jeanne Fusier-Gir), and denizens of the local bar (including Louis de Funès), all of whom are to some degree aware of Braconnier’s desire to kill his wife. [End Page 397]
There are numerous revelations, including the fact that—as the audience learns at the very beginning—Braconnier’s wife is also trying to poison him. But the real innovation of this film—in both narrative and technical terms—comes not from Guitry’s cynical portrait of a French village, but from the intrusive sounds and ideas surging in from the outside world, which gives rise to various, unexpected moral quandaries.
Like Guitry’s masterwork, Le Roman d’un tricheur (1936), La Poison was enormously influential on the experimental post-War generation of filmmakers. It is easy to see why: Guitry was an auteur who wrote and directed over 150 plays and 30 films, often starring in them. He also brought some experimental touches to mass-market cinema. In La Poison, an incongruous soundtrack and jump-cuts are used to achieve a comic, and sometimes satirical, effect.
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For example, singer Lucienne Delache’s cheerful love songs get played during the painful dinner scenes in which Braconnier fantasizes about the violent end of his marriage. The soundtrack thus interrupts the illusory realism dominating the picture and forms a peculiar sense of dramatic tension. Another example of the director’s creative use of sound occurs in a scene where a radio play of a domestic dispute momentarily appears to be a fight between Braconnier and his wife (21:43). Later Jean-Luc Godard and others would exploit these effects so frequently that they would come to be regarded as clichés of French and world cinema.
Eureka’s new edition foregrounds the importance of La Poison for filmmakers of the later generations. François Truffaut reflected that in “On Guitry’s Habitual Theme,” a brief note he published in Les Films de ma vie in 1957. Details about the production of the film are provided in a 1981 essay by Bettina Knapp and a one-hour documentary released in 2010, containing numerous interviews with journalists and scholars.
In the context...