La Poison Review

From director and writer Sacha Guitry, La Poison is a delightful but deeply cynical take on spouse killing. In it, Michel Simon can no longer take his unclean drunk of a wife and is searching for a way out of the marriage. He initially explains his disgust in a scene with the town vicar. Simon cannot believe this woman he now lives with is the same one he married thirty years earlier. We soon learn that she harbors similar frustrations about him. Those three bottles of wine she consumes each day must be her way of coping with a rather loutish husband. Guitry manages to wring some humor from a very uncomfortable situation when he has a song play on the radio as they silently (and miserably) eat dinner together that details a promising love between a pigeon and a finch, one which clearly doesn't exist here.

Just when the unbearable marriage angle is starting to feel a bit tiresome itself, a dark and brilliant turn of events transpires. The idea of murder being introduced shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's even read the movie's synopsis. Both husband and wife think of the unthinkable in this instance. But where La Poison brilliantly expands on this development is by having Simon first consult an attorney. The same radio that had played the romantic song as Simon and his wife ate also aired an interview with a famous Paris defense lawyer celebrating his 100th acquittal. He's heard arguing the notion that someone who simply kills, for example, their spouse has already done what they needed to and isn't a threat to society in the same way a murderer with multiple killings would be. He likens it to a duel, with the victim as the loser.

This, at the very least, inspires Simon to take a day and visit the lawyer in Paris. During their conversation he manages to outsmart the learned professional after he claims to have already murdered his wife and has the attorney help fill in the gaps as to what supposedly happened. Guitry portrays the lawyer as being a little too sure of himself and thus ripe for a fall. The one-on-one he shares with Simon is a minor revelation within the film, however, and probably the truest turning point of anything that happens. It's where we first see Simon's character as being something other than the unhappy small town husband. In his suit and tie, he takes on a new effect, one with previously unseen potential. These hints are renewed and confirmed when Simon finds himself arguing his case as persuasively as his expensive attorney while in the courtroom.

Few will find themselves actively rooting against Simon's character. That's kind of a funny thing when you think about it, and it's probably owing more to the actor's sympathetic performance than the writing. Had the tables been turned, and we saw things from his wife's perspective, it's not difficult to imagine a swaying in mood as to the viewer's allegiance. That he kills her, rather than the other way around, is mere chance. And if things had fallen the other way, a similar defense could have been mustered for the wife. Here and elsewhere we can detect an obvious undercurrent of cynicism existing in conjunction with the main plot.

A particularly clever touch Guitry employs is to have the small French town which has been struggling to gain outside visitors see a sudden burst of interest after Simon's arrest. It's like something we might have seen from Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, also from 1951. The acidity here almost burns upon impact. The townsfolk seem actually happy with everything that's happened, and Simon becomes something of a hero because of it. His big moment comes in that courtroom scene, where he pretty much makes a mockery of the entire criminal legal process. It's a very well-done sequence that also manages to wink a little at itself when Simon makes the comment that he suddenly feels a lot smarter now after having committed a crime. While the experience of watching La Poison might not necessarily duplicate this level of epiphany, it certainly makes for a highly enjoyable way to spend an evening.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series brings La Poison to both DVD and Blu-ray, in separate editions. On review here is the BD version, which is dual-layered and locked for Region B.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The balance of grain looks sublime. There are just a few instances of noticeable tramline scratches but really nothing at all worth being bothered. Contrast is gorgeous. MoC was working from a recent Gaumont restoration and the results are, frankly, spectacular. No reason at all to hesitate.

The French LPCM mono audio is entirely up to par. Dialogue comes through cleanly and without a hitch. Occasional music registers well through the two front channels. I heard nothing to give any pause here. Subtitles in English are optional and white in color.

There's just one extra feature on the disc but it's quite nice. The hourlong featurette "On Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendour of a Monarch" is from 2010 and is a discussion of the film, Sacha Guitry and Michel Simon. In it, interviewees talk particularly about Guitry, with topics extending to his supposed misogyny and the accusations surrounding him about involvement with the Nazis during the occupation.

An included book runs 24 pages and begins with a sort of choppy excerpt from Bettina Knapp's 1981 Sacha Guitry biography. Amid the copious stills is a quick but on-target summation by François Truffaut, written in 1957. A couple of quotes, one by Guitry on Simon and the other by Simon on Guitry, conclude the written portion of the booklet. We're then left with the always helpful viewing notes and film and disc credits.

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