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The everyday life of Paul Braconnier (played by the famous Michel Simon)
his wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver) is far from what one would describe as
marital bliss. Paul Braconnier reproaches her that she's old and ugly and
that she drinks too much. They hate each other as much as they possibly
- to the point that they want to murder each other. One day, Paul
hears about the champion lawyer Maitre Aubanel (played by Jean Debucourt)
who just won his 100th case. Paul decided to promptly visit him to know
he can kill his wife without going to jail. Delighted to hear that murder
without consequences is possible, he decides to stab his wife when she is
about to poison him. With a lawyer like Aubanel, he is certain to get away
with his crime. What follows is probably the funniest trial sequence in
'La poison' is the funniest movie that Sacha Guitry made after WWII. As always in the work of Sacha Guitry, this story is a satire of marriage. This black comedy is delightful due to the performance of Michel Simon (once more!) in this role of a colorful rogue and to the high standard comical writing of Sacha Guitry. The name of the main character (Braconnier, which is the French word for poacher) was not chosen randomly: it is a description of the attitude that the main character has throughout the movie, i.e. that of a character behaving against the law. The tone of the movie is definitively anarchist and the character played by Michel Simon is not far from that of Boudu (another great performance by Michel Simon in 'Boudu sauve des eaux by Jean Renoir, 1932).
Guitry adds to our pleasure by introducing the complete credited cast during the opening sequence (much alike Orson Welles introducing his actors in the movie Othello and in the trailer of Citizen Kane) congratulating Michel Simon for his acting. Louis de Funes (at this time not as popular as he would be more than a decade later) can be seen in a small role. Pauline Carton (who played in most of Sacha Guitry movies) is present as well.
This movie is a gem. Highly recommended. 10/10.
Guitry could never get over the way he was treated after the
Liberation;his "De Jeanne D'Arc A Petain"(1942) (see this title which
is never screened on French TV) was not exactly a work longing for
freedom and the fact that he was given coal for his town house by the
occupying forces led him to a (brief) internment.
Some of his post-war works are bitter,even cynical and made French justice an object of ridicule .If Guitry had been a mediocre director/writer ,his latter days works could have sunk into oblivion ,the work of an aging embittered old duffer ;but Guitry was a master ,with wit ,humor and (yes) genius going for him .At the time,only Henri Jeanson could write as well as he did .
"la Poison" begins with a presentation of all the people who made the movie (proof positive that Guitry was neither self-centered nor ungrateful) ;it was not the first time he had done this ,but this time ,he speaks with the actors,the technicians ,the script girl and it lasts about five minutes .Guitry was the one director in France to show such respect for his collaborators.
It was the first time he had directed Michel Simon ,who is another genius ,one of our five best actors ever .They would team up again in another Guitry's masterpiece ,"La Vie D'Un Honnête Homme " -for the record ,Louis De Funès ,who has a small role in "Poison" ,is in that movie too-If they would redo (God preserve us!) ,I really wonder WHO could reprise this part.Simon is so subtle an actor he is able to show all the tragic side of his character ;the scenes when he eats his dinner with his missus ,an alcoholic shrew, with the radio on so they do not have to talk are sheer genius .
Even the scenes which would seem at first out of place are necessary : the villagers waiting for a miracle,asking the vicar for help ("I can only pray ";and God heard him and took heed of it)At the time , the vicar ,with his servant (La Bonne Du Curé) played a prominent part and he was the local shrink ;Simon visits him before consulting a lawyer.
All the scenes featuring the lawyer are Guitry at his very best ;if you are sick and tired of those movies in which the brilliant lawyer always wins ,"La Poison" was made for you.Reductio Ad Absurdum that justice is unfair and that if you want to be acquitted ,you need a piece of advice from the man of law before you act .As if it were not enough,the children have their own trial too.
Guitry's hatred for justice is even more glaring in his overlooked "Assassins Et Voleurs" .People who liked "La Poison" must see it too.
This is a minor masterpiece. It is Guitry at his most cynical - and
that's saying a great deal. Michel Simon's wife, presented as a
perpetual drunk, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The fact that
she buys rat poison to do away with her husband, who appears to have no
grievous faults, doesn't help her case any. Michel Simon delivers a
truly first-rate performance as the husband. You don't feel that he's
justified in killing his wife, but you certainly don't feel any regret
that he does. Guitry's script, which treats husband-wife relations as a
joke to be ridiculed, is delightful in an extremely cynical way.
Misanthropy at its finest - whatever that may be.
I watched this movie again tonight, and I marveled - and laughed - at the cynical genius of so much of it. The script is often brilliant, yes, but it is Michel Simon who makes it all work. His every scene is wonderful, but the scene with the lawyer after he has killed his wife, and then the trial scene, are devastatingly marvelous. This is a movie that could have great success as an American remake, updated - but who now could play the Michel Simon part?
If you can deal with so realistic and cynical a view of human nature, you owe it to yourself to see this masterpiece. You may think you're cynical, but you will realize you have nothing on Sacha Guitry when it comes to cynicism.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm a little bemused that some people have been beefing about Guitry's penchant for introducing his cast at the beginning of a film; but this is what Guitry DOES and to complain about it is like complaining that Frank Sinatra performed I've Got You Under My Skin in each of his live concerts (note to pedants: every life appearance AFTER 1956 when he recorded the song memorably on Songs For Swingin' Lovers); if you don't like Sinatra then why go to see him in concert and if you do like him why complain when he sings something that you both expect and want him to sing. So with Guitry; if you don't like him give his movies plenty of room and if you do like him don't beef about something you know he's going to do and which takes only two or three minutes prior to the story getting under way. This time around he elects not to appear and allows Michel Simon to take centre stage as a man stuck in a mutually hateful marriage so that even as his spouse, Germaine Reuver, is buying poison to see him off he is entertaining similar thoughts that turn practical when he discovers you can have your murder and get away with it. Many of Guitry's repertory are on hand as is Louis de Funes in an early role as Andre. If you like Guitry you'll love it.
To complete the previous comment (which I agree), I will add that
Michel Simon's (clever) machiavelism is to visit the lawyer PRIOR the
killing of his wife(pretending he already did it),in order to know how
to commit the "perfect" murder without being sentenced as much as
Maybe Sacha Guitry's most cynical movie about marriage. The famous Director/writer was an active womanizer and we may think that he was deceived by the female gender at this time (close to his death)and wished some revenge through this film (his young last wife -Lana Marconi- was supposedly interested in his money only and eventually sold his late husband's house in Paris to speculating promoters, only a couple of years after his death (the house was destroyed immediately to build a new building of no interest, whereas Guitry's last deep wish was to open a comedian's museum to exhibit his rarest manuscripts, costumes, theater memorabilia, etc.). What a pity!
One is perfectly justified to see this as social satire, but for me
Guthry's "La poison" (1951) is, above all, an easygoing, darkly
humorous and witty pastiche on acting in all its forms taking on
roles in marriage, in society, in one's own eyes, in others' eyes, and
of course, in a film. The opening introductory credit sequence sets the
mood perfectly, as there we are explicitly shown that we will witness a
performance that has been carefully planned, all actors, actresses and
staff selected. I don't think this is just a stylistic whim of
exuberance, it's an actual set-up for us. There are several references
to theatre with exits and entrances through doors, and space is handled
with confines, scenes as separate entities, spaces as separate
entities. And then there's the central scene in the lawyer's office,
where they literally create a fabrication that when inverted becomes
the desired reality for Simon's character. Reconstruction,
deconstruction, all of this means the same in this wonderful scene.
The chimera and the clown, death and joy that's what the film is also about. This contrast of tragedy and comedy, its light-hearted darkness, presents itself also in the title, playing with the meaning of poison ("le poison" in French, with the masculine article) and the mocking identifier "la poison" (with the feminine article) given to well, by all means watch the film and you'll find out.
Sacha Guitry is not a movie director, let alone a screenwriter. Guitry
claims so in the opening credits sequence: "I daresay this is stage
play." As for me this kind of heavy-handed foreword is out of place in
a movie. "L'auteur, bien entendu" shows off and introduce us to the
whole cast starting with a grand praise of Michel Simon. The monologue
is good but Guitry is insufferably pedantic while we're supposed to get
in the movie. Yet I admit this clunky device worked for Le Roman d'un
tricheur, but only because 1/Guitry was the lead 2/he played a lifelong
cheat and 3/he told us his life in a series of flashbacks.
Now La Poison would have been really poor indeed were it not for Michel Simon's talent. Once Sacha Guitry lets the movie start it rolls up pretty good. The satirical tone tends to be heavy but with Michel Simon playing at times borderline dramatic that sets a good balance... until the movie gets clunky again. Michel Simon has a very good scene with his presumptive lawyer followed by an awfully serious one involving the lawyer and the visiting general attorney. There you can see that the movie needs Michel Simon as a driving force (and Germaine Reuver as the main resulting force of course) : that's a very low and overstretched point made just before the climax. The Climax: Guitry shoots it quite on the nose but the scene is so meaningful it doesn't require much more.
The problem is after the climax the movie has nowhere to go. The satirical tone? It was good enough for the setup but it keeps playing like it's a light comedy (I'm sorry but satirical tone + murder doesn't necessarily make a dark comedy). So the people from the village keep playing the regular types they were assigned to and the trial is totally farcical. There you can only regret that the lawyer's part had been so blatantly undersized. As for Michel Simon if you let him become too strong a character he will overshadow everyone in the scene. And that's what happens: from the climax down to its end La Poison errs and cannot make up for Guitry's poor cinematographic vision.
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