La Vérité sur Bébé Donge (1952)

aka: The Truth of Our Marriage


La Vérité sur Bébé Donge photo
François Donge, a wealthy industrialist, is seriously ill in hospital. He knows that he has been poisoned by his young wife Bébé, but he bears her no recriminations. His only hope is that he will survive so that she will not be convicted of his murder. As his doctor does all he can to save him, Donge looks back on his married life in an attempt to understand why Bébé grew to hate him so much. It was not an ideal marriage, in fact it was almost a marriage of convenience. It seemed such a tidy solution, to marry the sister of his brother's wife. But Bébé's ideas of marriage were more romantic than his and once she found out that Donge was having affairs with other women, including his secretary, it was inevitable that a certain coolness would enter their relationship. Some women would be happy enough with the privilege of being the wife of a wealthy man. But Bébé had hoped for something more, something that François Donge could never give her. In the end, there was only one way out...
© 2012

Film Review

Film poster
There is just a hint of irony in the fact that, ten years after their divorce, the actress Danielle Darrieux and director Henri Decoin resumed their successful screen partnership with a film that provides the bleakest autopsy of a failed marriage. For the six years they were married, the actress and director enjoyed a mutually advantageous professional relationship that appeared to have been made in Heaven. Darrieux featured in all of Decoin's films from 1935 to 1941, including Battement de coeur (1940) and Premier rendez-vous (1941), and even after their (amicable) separation they would continue working together, their last collaboration being the historical drama L'Affaire des poisons (1955). Clearly, then, there was not the slightest suspicion of art imitating life when Darrieux accepted Decoin's invitation to play the part of a woman who becomes trapped in a loveless marriage, tries to kill her husband and then shows not the slightest remorse.

A suitably sombre adaptation of a novel by the popular Belgian writer Georges Simenon, La Vérité sur Bébé Donge is a very different kind of film from the light comedies that Darrieux and Decoin had worked on in their early years. The film functions almost like a classic French polar, employing a sophisticated flashback narrative structure which slowly unravels the central mystery as to why a respectable married woman would choose to kill her husband when she has no apparent motive for doing so. The film may be slow-paced and, at times, a little pedestrian in its mise-en-scène, but thanks mainly to the spellbinding performances from Darrieux and her co-star Jean Gabin, it is never less than compelling.

Gabin is perfectly cast as the self-satisfied man of the world, a seemingly heartless fiend who regards marriage as just one more business contract - not so much a union of two hearts as a necessary formality for the successful man who considers a wife to be a useful social accessory. From the outset, it is obvious that Gabin and Darrieux are ill-suited for marriage, but the scheming matchmaker Gabrielle Dorziat has her way and the path leading to a mutually assured destruction is soon laid. Darrieux's character could not be more different from Gabin's. She is a hopeless romantic. To her, love is a spontaneous thing, not something that is manufactured in the course of married life. It is not long before disillusionment sets in and Bébé's love for her husband turns to a quiet, festering hatred. The tragedy is that Bébé's husband does love her, evidenced by his determination to save her from the guillotine. But it is not the kind of love that Bébé imagined for herself, and it is certainly not strong enough to cause her to regret her terrible act.

With her cool elegance and chilling lack of emotion, Darrieux bears more than a passing resemblance to María Casares's Death Princess in Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1949) as she visits the stricken Gabin in his hospital room. Robbed of his vitality and almost the power of speech, Donge has only one way of communicating his fondness for his wife - through his eyes. Whilst the expression of love that alights on Donge's worn face may move our hearts, it has no effect at all on the stone-hearted Bébé. Once love has turned to hate, there is no way back, no second chance - it is like wine that has turned sour. As in his magnificent earlier Simenon adaptation, Les Inconnus dans la maison (1942), Decoin has no difficulty capturing the oppressive mood and characteristically jaded viewpoint of the author's original novel, and he also reminds us just what an astute and unromantic observer of human nature Georges Simenon was.
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The director Henri Decoin also worked with the actor Danielle Darrieux on the films Le Domino vert (1935), Mademoiselle ma mère (1936), Abus de confiance (1938), Battement de coeur (1940) and Bonnes à tuer (1954).

Film Credits

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