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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on a "cause célèbre ", The Marie Besnard case (already
highlighted by a 1986 TVfilm starring Alice Sapritch), Christian
Faure's "Marie Besnard l'empoisonneuse
", a TVfilm in two episodes, is
French television at its best.
Did Marie Besnard really poison her husband, after murdering eleven relatives, or was she merely the victim of circumstances or else the sacrificial lamb of ill-meaning rumor, nobody knows for certain and don't expect the film to give you the key to the mystery. Which is a good point in fact, for ambiguity is always more rewarding in terms of storytelling and character development than the expression of a one-sided point of view, good only for propaganda or advertising.
Not in the least Manichean, the writers and the director presents us with a woman we do not know if we must love or hate, admire or loathe . Another good idea is to make us see the case through the eyes of a couple forming and breaking up thanks to and because of Marie. Simone, a girl from Loudun who knows Marie, first wants to defend her and that is what draws her close to Maître Vidal, Marie's lawyer, whose objective is of course identical: clear his client's name. But as the story unfurls, Simone, who has become a reporter, starts doubting and as her main goal has become the search for the truth, she gradually becomes estranged from Vidal, still ready to support Marie at any cost .This is a fine device at once bringing life to an otherwise gloomy story and epitomizing the contradictory public and justice attitudes to the Marie Besnard case.
Comedian Muriel Robin is instrumental in the achievement of the film. As the "poisoner"(?), she is as withdrawn as she is usually expansive. Plain-looking, badly dressed, spouting lips, stubborn eyes hidden behind spectacles, Muriel/Marie (it is difficult two separate character and actress) goes through the whole ordeal, dejected at times but always dignified, never really yielding to adversity. This strange mix of ordinariness and unusual strength finally manages to make the character appealing whatever you can think about her.
The rest of the cast lives up to her but a few performances can be singled out for praise on the part of Mélanie Bernier, pleasantly combining spontaneity and seriousness, Jean-Noël Brouté, portraying a very lifelike police inspector, Jean-Paul Bonnaire as the debonair graveyard caretaker and Annie Grégorio, both comical and detestable as Marie's false friend.
Let's not forget the excellent work of the whole art department. They are to be praised for the accuracy of the period details. The cars, the clothes, the interior settings, the equipment of the radio and television crews, all give an impression not only of realism but of reality to this story set between 1947 and 1980.
The viewers who, in amazing numbers, spent two of their evenings before their TV sets ,have not been disappointed by this intelligent TV film. They have not been taken for fools, as is too often the case.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not being French I'd not heard of this case before so had no idea how
the story would end, as I watched my opinion as to Marie Besnard's
guilt or innocence changed more than once.
The programme opens with Simone, a reporter outside the final trail of alleged poisoner Marie Besnard before going back to where the story really started; the village of Loudun a few years after the war. Here Marie is living with her husband Léon and Aby, a German POW who remained after the war and now works for Marie. Soon afterwards Léon falls ill and dies. A friend of the family claims that he'd told her he'd been poisoned. At first nobody believes the accusation but after he is exhumed and arsenic is found in his body Marie is arrested and further exhumations occur, this time of other people near to Marie whom she had inherited money or land from.
As the story breaks young reporter hears of the case and as she was originally from Loudun she is determined to cover the case. The alleged poisonings aren't the only mystery for Simone in Loudun, she also wants to learn who denounced her mother as a collaborator after the war. Early on it seems that only Simone and her lawyer believe Marie to be innocent but as the expert witness's evidence is demolishing in court people start to believe that she is innocent. However while this is happening Simone starts to have doubts; why has Aby left France and was Marie guilty of covering up when her husband strangled his sister then made it look like suicide?
The acting was great, especially from Muriel Robin who played Marie in such away we couldn't be sure if she was hiding her guilt well or was genuinely innocent and Mélanie Bernier who was delightful as the reporter Simone. It wasn't just the main characters who were memorable, Olivier Saladin was a lot of fun as Auguste Leclerc, a witness with a highly theatrical manner who has to be dragged from the court at one point.
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