La poison—or, How to Kill Your Wife

Even in an era of French cinema renowned for its films noirs, Sacha Guitry’s comedy La poison (1951) struck a particularly somber note, with its potent cocktail of black humor, ferocious misogyny, and critique of the French justice system. At first sight, La poison seems a radical departure from Guitry’s elegant boulevard plays and comic historical pageants, and yet it exhibits many of the auteur’s familiar traits, including a droll narrated credit sequence and the foregrounding of witty dialogue and brilliant acting. It is also, in less evident ways, a deeply personal project.

Set in a small village in Normandy, La poison is the story of a gardener named Paul Braconnier (Michel Simon), who hates his wife, Blandine (Germaine Reuver, credited as “Madame Reuver”), so much that he dreams of killing her; she is presented as an alcoholic harpy who herself has plans to poison him. When he hears on the radio a famous barrister, Maître Aubanel (Jean Debucourt), boast that he has gotten his hundredth client acquitted, Braconnier goes to see him and pretends that he has already killed his wife in order to hear the lawyer’s defense strategy. Back home, he starts applying the “advice” he has tricked Aubanel into giving him about the best way to carry out such a crime, plunges a knife into Blandine’s stomach, and arranges the evidence around the kitchen. Having thus committed the “perfect murder,” he browbeats a shocked Aubanel into defending him and is indeed acquitted, to the cheers of his fellow villagers. Chief among them is the florist played by Jeanne Fusier-Gir, who acts as a humorous one-woman Greek chorus throughout: the villagers stop for gossip at her conveniently located flower stall in the church square, and the names of the days’ saints that she writes on a slate mischievously echo the action (before the murder, she writes “St. Borgia”—more likely to be a jokey allusion to the murderous Italian family than the Spanish saint).

Such a deliberately immoral tale raised some eyebrows when the film came out in November 1951, yet La poison was popular at the box office, with almost two million spectators. It also became a cult favorite of the critics at Cahiers du cinéma, including François Truffaut, who saw Guitry as one of the models for the future New Wave. Subsequently, La poison received further accolades: when it was rereleased in France in 1974, it was unanimously greeted as a masterpiece. Even the critic for the Catholic newspaper La Croix argued that the story should not be taken at face value, and that “with talent and black humor, Guitry maintains a (quasi-Brechtian) ‘distance’ between the sordid drama and its transposition to the screen.” How Guitry maintains such a distance is one of the complexities, as well as the pleasures, of La poison. But this in turn raises important questions about the relationship between a film’s aesthetics and its ideology, in this case especially its misogyny—as signaled by the title. Usually a masculine word, poison in French (as in English) means a lethal substance, but la poison refers to a pest, a “poisonous” woman.

Words, Deeds, and Performance

The son of stage star Lucien Guitry, Sacha Guitry became a successful playwright and theater actor in the pre–World War I era. A wit and a dandy, he reigned over the Paris beau monde until the end of World War II, with his flamboyant style, wives, mistresses, and seductive bons mots. Starting in the early thirties, sound cinema gave him the opportunity to spread his fame further by making screen versions of his plays, among those adaptations Faisons un rêve (1936) and Quadrille (1938). For him, text and performance were paramount, and he professed indifference to cinematic technique, notoriously shooting his films in record time: a couple of weeks, sometimes a few days. La poison was shot in eleven days. Similarly, his comically extravagant historical films, such as Remontons les Champs-Élysées (1938), while more lavish, gave pride of place to witty dialogue and a plethora of stars. He acted in these himself, as he did in practically all his films, including his most famous one, The Story of a Cheat (1936), foregrounding his colorful presence and inimitable, resonant voice.

La poison, unusually, does not feature Guitry in the cast, although he does appear in the extended—over five-minute-long—credit sequence. His face half hidden under a fedora, he introduces his actors, from the star, Michel Simon, to those who appear fleetingly, as well as the crew. Simon receives lavish praise in this introduction and is compared to Sarah Bernhardt and to Guitry’s father. His presence was so important to Guitry that he agreed to allow the actor the rare privilege of never having to shoot more than one take of his scenes—as Michel Pérez, critic for Le Nouvel Observateur, put it in October 1987, La poison is almost “a documentary on Michel Simon.” The actor, famous for his roles in Jean Renoir’s La chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), brings his ungainly physique and gruff but mesmerizing presence to the part, suggesting intelligence and humanity under the breathtaking cynicism of his character, whom Aubanel aptly describes as “a rather captivating monster with unusual charm.”

Whether talking to the village priest, swapping insults with his wife, or haranguing the court, Braconnier uses language to convince and seduce. The visual sobriety of La poison, its simple sets and limited camera movements, confirms Guitry’s subordination of mise-en-scène to dialogue and performance. But far from being a limitation, this serves to move the plot along, through a series of ironic parallels and counterpoints that illuminate the Braconniers’ abusive relationship: a radio play stages a couple having a violent row, a romantic song cruelly highlights the lack of love between them. As popular singer Lucienne Delyle sweetly intones about doves that will “adore each other forever,” Braconnier plants a large knife in a loaf of bread, foreshadowing the murder. More radically, the lawyer’s words are shown to be as lethal as Braconnier’s deeds in unwittingly giving away the “recipe” for murdering with impunity. The discussion between Aubanel and the prosecutor reinforces the point, illustrating how justice is both performed and perverted by words. When the prosecutor protests that “justice is not theater!” Aubanel’s sardonic “Ah?” accompanied by a shrug, discreetly deflates the virtuous statement; he is later vindicated when we see Braconnier turn the tribunal into precisely a theater. Thus, La poison repeatedly foregrounds the concept of representation and, in the process, distances us from the actual crime.

A Personal Subtext

While the theatrical wit of La poison is typical of the filmmaker’s work, its dark register belongs to the postwar historical context. Guitry continued to work during the German occupation, making a series of patriotic films—including Le destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary (1942) and La Malibran (1944)—that in his mind were designed to boost the spirit of France in its darkest hour. But there was a reckoning. Despite Guitry’s refusal to work for the Nazi production company Continental or have his plays performed in Germany, and the fact that he used his influence to help Jewish friends escape to safety, his ambivalent wartime politics, his ostentatious lifestyle in a time of austerity, and his admiration for Marshal Pétain provoked resentment and were seen as collaboration with the enemy. He was arrested during the liberation of Paris on August 23, 1944 (famously, in his pajamas), and although in the end no charge was made, he spent time in the transit camp at Drancy, outside Paris, and in jail, which he wrote about in his book 60 jours de prison, published in 1949. Guitry alludes to the affair in the credit sequence of La poison when he says to the actress Pauline Carton (who plays the village haberdasher) that the prison set was made “according to my instructions” and “I can assure you that it is accurate.”

In this light, La poison is clearly a settling of scores, a way for Guitry to avenge the public humiliation he had suffered. In his outrageous diatribes to the court, Braconnier mocks the legal proceedings in a way that in part translates Guitry’s experience of his arrest and its legal aftermath as a chaotic farce (incarcerated without a proper charge, he was moved between several institutions; his case was eventually dismissed after the judge appealed in vain—through the press—for the precise motives for the accusation against him). In the process, Guitry also indicts the arbitrariness of a legal system that can be perverted simply by adhering to its own rules, as demonstrated by Aubanel. And, the film suggests, if a guilty man can be so easily absolved of his crime, then the opposite is also true, and an innocent one can be wrongly accused. Indeed, when the haberdasher comes to the witness stand, she jokes about all the liars who have stood in her place before; the reference to Guitry’s sense of having been unfairly accused could not be clearer.

As a poor, unglamorous gardener living with a slovenly spouse, Braconnier as played by Simon is the antithesis of Guitry, a rich and famous playwright serially married to beautiful actresses. Yet here he becomes a mouthpiece for the author. Guitry was by no means the only artist disciplined after the liberation for wartime activities, but he remained traumatized by the episode. He deeply resented what he perceived as an injustice; in the words of his biographer Dominique Desanti, “being rejected by society, at the age of almost sixty, increased his misanthropy and also rationalized it.”

Poisonous Women

If Braconnier targets the justice system on behalf of the film’s author, his immediate victim is the murdered wife, the titular “poison,” a character presented—unlike her husband—without any redeeming features. La poison offers a dim view of humanity that accords with both the director’s misanthropy and the wave of social films noirs of the late forties and early fifties, which included Yves Allégret’s Une si jolie petite plage (1949) and Manèges (1950) as well as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949) and Diabolique (1955). An early scene in which a group of villagers visits the priest to ask him to condone a fake miracle in order to attract tourists to their remote village is designed to demonstrate their greed and stupidity. At a higher social level, the discussion between Aubanel and the prosecutor points to society’s unhealthy appetite for crime, seen at the end of the film to contaminate even children. And of course, Braconnier (the name means “poacher”) is no angel. Yet beyond its generalized misanthropy, La poison is imbued with a dark misogyny that fits into the era’s cultural backlash against women after their increased freedom brought by the war, and is visible in many films of the period, especially the social films noirs mentioned above (see The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956, by Noël Burch and Geneviève Sellier). Against this background, we can see how Guitry’s own attitude toward women, hitherto one of lighthearted libertinage, took a darker turn. Whereas his earlier films had been populated by beautiful and elegant Parisiennes (including those incarnated by his increasingly young wives) and a few witty older women, sometimes played by Pauline Carton and Jeanne Fusier-Gir, La poison leaves behind these more benign, albeit patriarchal, visions of women to focus on the comprehensively derogatory portrayal of the hero’s wife.

Indeed, Blandine Braconnier’s “ugliness” is presented as a major aspect of her identity and a reason for killing her. In response to the priest, Braconnier’s first argument for wishing her dead is that she “looks like a barrel” and that, on top of not washing her feet, she “looks like a sausage.” Later, in court, when the judge points out to Braconnier that he himself cannot claim to be handsome, he dismisses the point: “It is not my looks that are on trial today but hers.” Added to his list of grievances is the fact that his wife drinks three liters of wine a day; she is seen drunk several times and at one point has slumped to the floor as a result. The theme of her abjection is pursued in more vulgar fashion when her photograph is circulated in court as “justification” for the murder, accompanied by lewd remarks about the impossibility of . . . with her (of what is left implicit). Ultimately, Blandine Braconnier is turned into a freak, isolated and rejected by the whole village, including its other women. She has no friends, while her husband is well embedded in village life. His drinking follows the socially accepted form of frequenting the local café, while she drinks on her own at home. Her only social interaction is with the chemist, to buy rat poison. As a result, her murder appears entirely justified, the natural elimination of a pest. In La poison, thus, the central male character, as the director’s alter ego, shapes the narrative and focalizes the point of view; however, by presenting his wife as a ghastly harridan, not only can he commit a crime with impunity, he also ends up appearing as the victim.

The gender imbalance of the film is underlined by its casting. Michel Simon’s charismatic performance minimizes both his unattractive physique and his character’s criminal behavior. He dominates the film through his near-constant screen presence, his status as a major star, and his character’s narrative agency, all of which combine to align us as spectators with him. Thus, we follow his plotting and, like the villagers, cheer when he is acquitted. By contrast, Germaine Reuver, as the wife, benefits from none of these advantages. Although we learn in the credit sequence that she acted onstage with Guitry’s father, in 1951 she was not known as a film actress. Her screen time is limited and her agency as a character minimal: her plan to poison her husband comes to nothing and only contributes to making her guilty of premeditation; in the process, she unwittingly validates her husband’s hatred of her and ultimately her own murder.

In La poison, Guitry transferred resentment of society into hatred of a woman. In doing so, he echoed a wider process highlighted by historians of the Second World War and the liberation in France, who have shown how women often functioned as scapegoats for the historical humiliation of the defeat (most graphically in the case of the femmes tondues, the women whose heads were shaved on account of their association with the enemy). For the filmmaker, the condemnation of one “poisonous” woman symbolically served to exorcise the trauma of his arrest and incarceration. Guitry would soon turn back to less caustic comedies, including three historical pageants that were among the most successful French films of the fifties: Royal Affairs in Versailles (1954), Napoléon (1955), and If Paris Were Told to Us (1956). La poison, however, remains his most original work of the period—cruel, misanthropic, and misogynistic, but a brilliant, stupefying (to use François Truffaut’s word), and shockingly funny film.

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