Saturday, November 15, 2008
While it remains frustratingly hard to see and is often overlooked as one of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s key films, 1960’s La Verite (The Truth) remains an intriguing work made totally timeless by the breathtaking lead performance of legendary Brigitte Bardot.
Clouzot was already nearing his mid fifties when he directed the then 25 year old year old Bardot to arguably her greatest performance. Viewed today, La Verite is a striking reminder to the talents of two distinct and iconic artists, with Clouzot’s carefully thought out compositions perfectly capturing Bardot at her most vulnerable and most brilliant.
The film, scripted mainly by Clouzot, tells the tragic tale of Dominique Marceau, imprisoned and on trial for the murder of her boyfriend Gilbert Tellier. Clouzot, shooting the film through a series of flashbacks intercut with her trial, cleverly asks the audience to do the same thing the court is doing throughout the film; namely to pass judgment on Dominique and to finally decipher what exactly it is that constitutes ‘the truth’.
The truth at the heart of Clouzot’s challenging work is that this is very much a film about Brigitte Bardot. The French actress had moved beyond the position of ‘star’ by 1960 and she could do little in her life that wasn’t plastered across the front of every paper and magazine of the period. Clouzot’s striking black and white film, shot by Bardot’s regular cinematographer Armand Thirard, is filled with references to not only her private life, but to her older films and also most importantly to the illusion of her life that so many people were hungry for in 1960. La Verite finally suggests much sympathy for Bardot the woman while delighting in tearing down her image as a star. It’s something that Louis Malle would do in 1962’s A Very Private Affair and Jean-Luc Godard would also call attention to in 1963’s Contempt.
Bardot, taking an active interest in the film before shooting even began, auditioned with several leading men (including Jean-Paul Belmondo) before handsome Sami Frey was chosen. Predictably the press began writing on the possible behind the scenes developments between the two beautiful young actors, but more interesting was the working relationship between Bardot and Clouzot. Tony Crawley notes in his excellent The Films of Brigitte Bardot that “Clouzot worked her hard…and she was soon engulfed in respect” for the director’s methods. Never before had any director shown so much faith in the capabilities of Brigitte Bardot as a dramatic actress and her performance in La Verite will come as a shock to people who still think of her as just France’s greatest ‘sex-kitten’. As the damaged Dominique Marceau, Bardot is totally believable, sincere and captivating. It’s a tour-de-force performance that briefly all but silenced critics all over the world who had previously all but dismissed her abilities in front of the camera.
Bardot more than holds her own with not only Frey but also an incredibly distinguished cast of French notables including Charles Vanell, Louis Seigner and Claude Berri. La Verite feels like a illustrious production in every single frame and Clouzot handles the material with a master’s touch. He fills even the most minute of details with the same sense of tension and unease he had perfected five years before with his Diabolique. Perhaps even more striking is the way he captures the ennui of youth, a fact that makes La Verite one of the most insightful productions of the early sixties.
The film, which Bardot would call her favorite on several occasions, opened to almost universal acclaim in November of 1960. Triumphing at several film festivals, and garnering Bardot an Italian Oscar, the film swept across Europe in early 1961 before landing in the United States in the summer in a slightly cut version. Life magazine ran a long cover story on Bardot and the film won the best foreign film award at The Golden Globes. Clouzot was honored at the Academy Awards with a best director nomination but Bardot was ignored, despite receiving much acclaim from some of America’s harshest critics (although there were hold-outs).
What should have been a triumphant period for Bardot turned sour soon after the film’s release with a much publicized suicide attempt for the obviously troubled actress. She would throw herself back into her work soon after and remained incredibly prolific throughout the sixties before her retirement in the early seventies. While La Verite clearly contains one of her great performances, it should be remembered that Brigitte Bardot had delivered splendid work before and would continue to do so after.
Clouzot completed just three more films before his death in 1977. La Verite has still never had a proper home video release in the United States, a fact that has proved most frustrating for fans of Clouzot, Bardot and French film in general. Hopefully someday La Verite will get a proper home video release so more fans can see what all the much deserved fuss is about.