The Judge and the Assassin (Le juge et l'assassin) Review
1893. Joseph Bouvier (Michel Galabru) is a former army sergeant who is sent to an insane asylum after shooting his girlfriend and then failing to kill himself by shooting himself in the head. After he is released, he spends five years on the road, raping and killing young men and women, mostly servants and shepherds. When he is arrested, Judge Rousseau (Philippe Noiret) has to decide whether the man is insane, in which case he will be committed again, or guilty, so he can face the guillotine…
Bertrand Tavernier has a clear affinity with history. Something like half of his output is set in periods before the present, ranging from the 1950s in ’Round Midnight to the 13th Century in La Passion Béatrice. The Judge and the Assassin was his third feature, following Que la fête commence (Let Joy Reign Supreme) which was set in the French court in 1719. It has not had a British commercial release, though Channel Four showed it in 1986. (I have not seen it.) The Judge and the Assassin also failed to reach British cinemas, but it did have a fully-letterboxed VHS release in 1995, which was my first opportunity to see it.
The Judge and the Assassin was inspired by a real-life case, and in it Tavernier continued his collaboration with veteran screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had cowritten The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul with him. The film is based on a treatment that Aurenche and Bost had tried to have made many years earlier without success. Bost died in 1975, so Aurenche and Tavernier wrote a new script based on the storyline.
The title is double-edged. Although Rousseau is the judge and Bouvier is a killer, “l’assassin” could equally apply to Rousseau. Although he appears to befriend Bouvier, he is exploiting his case for his own political gain. France is currently in turmoil, and anti-Semitism is rife due to the then contemporary Dreyfus Case. (Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Army Captain in training for the General Staff. French Intelligence concocted evidence to convict him for spying. The case caused considerable controversy and inspired Emile Zola’s famous open letter “J’accuse!”. Dreyfus was eventually cleared and reinstated.) Given the ructions in society, there is a drive to restore order and the values of the wealthy. Yes, the film says (possibly too explicitly as Tavernier now admits) in an end caption, Bouvier’s crimes are terrible, but his victims are outnumbered by the thousands who die as a result of social conditions – including 2500 children under the age of fifteen in mines and silk factories. The film ends with a crowd singing revolutionary songs.
The Judge and the Assassin is a well-made film, strongly acted and good-looking, but I’ve always found it somewhat ponderous. Philippe Noiret, who had starred in all three of Tavernier’s films to date, underplays his not-especially-sympathetic character in favour of Michel Galabru’s far showier role as Bouvier. There’s a strong early role for Isabelle Huppert (before her breakthrough the following year in The Lacemaker) in third billing. The film was Tavernier’s first in Scope, and Pierre-William Glenn’s camerawork is first-rate. (There’s an apocryphal story that Tavernier took an axe to a 16mm print when he discovered it was pan-and-scan.) Another regular collaborator, composer Philippe Sarde, makes a strong contribution as well.
The Judge and the Assassin is one of five Tavernier films released (separately0 by Optimum. The disc is encoded for Region 2 only.
The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 2.35:1 with excellent results. Colours are strong, the image is sharp and blacks are solid. This is one film I have available for comparison on VHS (though not the ability to make screengrabs from that format): one index of this film’s improvement on disc are the opening credits. Printed in red, mostly on a background of grey sky, they were very hard to read on VHS, much easier now.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally released, and little needs be said. Dialogue, sound effects and Sarde’s score are well balanced. Subtitles are optional. There are only eight chapter stops, which isn’t really sufficient for a two-hour film.
Tavernier provides a video introduction. The first part of it, fourteen minutes long, is common to all five of Optimum’s DVDs but you can skip over it to chapter two, which is specific to the film in hand and here lasts twenty minutes. Tavernier has a lot to say and tends to digress, but he’s worth sticking with. He discusses the particular appeal and challenges of making films set in the past, and how some actors (specifically not American ones) are ill-suited to playing in these films. He’s open about what he sees as the flaws in The Judge and the Assassin, mostly a didacticism overly-influenced by Brecht. If you find his French accent a problem, unfortunately no subtitles are provided.
The other extra is the theatrical trailer (2:15), which is presented in 4:3, pan and scan.
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