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
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
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
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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