La vérité: Women on Trial

In a stark, forbidding prison, a nun ascends a staircase, framed by vertical bars, and walks down a corridor, unlocking cell doors. Women start coming out; two of them quarrel. Smoking on her bunk, one inmate sighs when told she has to go to court today. This is how we meet the main character of La vérité (1960), Dominique Marceau, and its star, Brigitte Bardot. The black-and-white photography, the nun’s ominous silhouette, the air of confinement all suggest a strong symbolic link between women, guilt, and punishment, especially as the scene ends on Dominique looking at herself in a shard of broken mirror. La vérité’s opening thus economically sets the tone before the film turns into a courtroom drama. Dominique is to stand trial for the murder of her boyfriend, Gilbert (Sami Frey). While we follow the legal proceedings, a series of flashbacks will take us through her short, unhappy life—her childhood with her parents in Brittany; her time living in Paris with her sister, Annie (Marie-José Nat), whom she deserts for a circle of raffish Latin Quarter bohemians; her tumultuous affair with Gilbert; and the destitute period after they split up, which leads to the tragic denouement: Dominique slashes her wrists (with another piece of broken glass) just before the verdict is rendered.

Gripping as its narrative is, La vérité goes beyond being a simple crime fait divers. Other women besides Dominique come under judgment in this film: female criminals of the era who inspired director Henri-Georges Clouzot and his team of scriptwriters; Bardot herself, who was then at the height of her stardom; the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir—in fact, a whole generation of women who dared rebel against the patriarchal order in France’s troubled postwar era.

“Bardot’s image as an emblem of youthful rebellion offered Clouzot a chance to be recognized as a modern filmmaker, a way of defying the New Wave cinema that was then all the rage.”

La vérité is a dark jewel of classic French cinema. Bardot’s favorite among her films and, for many, her best, it is also Clouzot’s last masterpiece. After a long apprenticeship as a scriptwriter, he had made a name for himself as a director during World War II, with L’assassin habite au 21 (1942) and Le Corbeau (1943). The latter, a controversial drama about a small town destroyed by anonymous letters, is now widely acknowledged as one of the best films made during the German occupation, but after the liberation, Clouzot was suspended from filmmaking for two years for having worked for a Nazi-run production company. He bounced back, producing a string of tense, sardonic dramas, with Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Manon (1949), The Wages of Fear (1953), and Diabolique (1955) earning him accolades and a reputation as the French Hitchcock. This triumphant series came to a halt, however, with the box-office failures of the documentary The Mystery of Picasso (1956) and the spy thriller Les espions (1957). Therefore, the offer to work with Bardot, then the most sensational star in France, came at an opportune moment for Clouzot, while it gave the sex goddess a second stab at artistic respectability, after Claude Autant-Lara’s Love Is My Profession (1958). Bardot’s image as an emblem of youthful rebellion, coined in her breakout star vehicle, And God Created Woman (1956), also offered Clouzot a chance to be recognized as a modern filmmaker, a way of defying the New Wave cinema that was then all the rage, with its rejection of the tenets of classical French filmmaking. Therein lies a central aesthetic tension in La vérité, between classicism and modernity, which is echoed in the film’s attitude toward women.

In the late fifties, Clouzot still epitomized the postwar studio filmmaking famously denigrated by François Truffaut in Cahiers du cinéma in 1954 as the “tradition of quality.” By this he meant films made by solid director-writer teams, with structured narratives and sharp dialogue delivered by great performers, along with “sophisticated framing, complicated lighting, and sleek photography,” as well as tight editing. A good example of this tendency in La vérité is the scene where a distraught Dominique decides to visit Gilbert at home after seeing him conducting Stravinsky’s The Firebird on a television in a shop­window. Her actions as she runs down the street, hails a taxi, and rushes into his building and up the stairs are perfectly orchestrated to the crescendo of the music. For Truffaut, tradition-of-quality dramas were also pervaded by an atmosphere of “gloom,” and within this idiom Clouzot worked a particularly dark seam (notwithstanding some humorous episodes), producing film noirs imbued with a somber vision of humanity in general and French society in particular. In this respect, La vérité is no exception.

The film’s tribunal scenes enable the director to expose a justice system in the hands of cynical, reactionary old men—in particular, the president of the tribunal and the lawyers representing Dominique and the family of Gilbert, Maîtres Guérin and Éparvier. On hearing of Dominique’s death, the legal adversaries casually shake hands, Guérin whispering about the “hazards of the job.” The general public fares no better; witnesses, the press, and the courtroom audience are all portrayed as bigoted, prurient, and in some cases malicious petit bourgeois types. It could be argued that this cynical characterization effectively places the spectator on the side of the accused, as we can compare the verbal disparagements heard in court—where Dominique is called lazy and selfish, a “slut,” a “bitch,” a “whore”—to what happens in the flashbacks. People repeatedly call her a liar and a murderess, but we can see that she loved Gilbert more than he loved her, that he used her sexually before coldly rejecting her, that she genuinely wanted to kill herself and shot him only accidentally, in a panic. In other words, we can see that she is telling “the truth.” 

Clouzot’s attitude toward Dominique is more equivocal than that reading would suggest, however, and, in its oscillation between opposing viewpoints, La vérité appears to follow the director’s rejection of Manichaeism in Le Corbeau. In a famous scene in that film, a psychiatrist tells the hero, “You think people are all good or all bad! But where is darkness, where is the light?” all the while swinging a lamp, literally creating alternating patterns of shadow and brightness. Yet in La vérité, despite the sympathy shown toward her, the balance ultimately tips against Dominique and women in general.

La vérité marks a shift in source material and focus for Clouzot. While most of his films had been adaptations of texts by male authors, now he was ostensibly writing an original screenplay, with the help of a team that included four women, among them his wife, Véra, and the feminist novelist Christiane Rochefort. We can agree with Christopher Lloyd, in his critical biography of the director, that “the contribution of these four female writers no doubt explains in part La vérité’s sympathetic and sensitive treatment of the character played by Bardot.” The film’s empathy for Dominique also arises from the fact that the star herself was a major source of inspiration for the character, albeit in ways that were not entirely positive. Bardot, with her widely exposed private life, epitomized a new kind of celebrity. Her audience was further encouraged to read her screen roles as being close to her as a person by her notoriously nonactory performance style, a confusion often encouraged by the star herself, who said of And God Created Woman’s director (and her husband at the time): “[Roger] Vadim knew me by heart and showed me as I was.”

“Through Bardot, La vérité channels an almost paranoid vision of the young generation and its trappings.”

By the time Bardot made La vérité, “Bardomania” was in full swing and she was the most famous Frenchwoman on the planet, in huge demand in the film world. Every detail about her, from the trivial to the salacious, was public knowledge, but especially her numerous relationships with men. Clouzot agreed to make the film in 1959, during Bardot’s short, tumultuous marriage to actor Jacques Charrier (who tried to stop the project). In January 1960, the two had a son, Nicolas, whom she was ill prepared to look after, leading to accusations that she was a bad mother. The shoot, in the summer of that year, was tough. Clouzot was a notoriously exacting director, and sparks flew between him and his star, culminating in a much-reported episode: he slapped her to make her cry on-screen, and she slapped him back; he then deliberately trod on her bare toes. All this took place in the midst of her acrimonious split with Charrier, the publication in August—against her will—of her secretary Alain Carré’s sensational “memoirs” in the gossip newspaper France Dimanche, and the beginning of her affair with Frey, her La vérité costar. On her birthday, September 28, five weeks before the film’s release, shattered by the shoot and Frey’s absence due to military service, she attempted suicide—which less scrupulous film reviewers such as Claude Mauriac insinuated was a publicity stunt. In this context, it was not difficult for spectators to read Dominique’s rebellious nature, chaotic love life, and suicide attempts as being transparently about Bardot herself. The character’s styling as a fun-seeking, insolent young woman who loves dancing to rock and roll and going to the movies—preferring Brando to Bach—as opposed to Gilbert’s dedicated pursuit of a career in classical music, pointed also to the star’s personality.

Bardot dominates La vérité—its production, its story, its marketing (the original poster features a massive close-up of her face), and its reception. And, as noted, the flashbacks give us access to her character’s side of the narrative. Yet she is cast as a disruptive force that must be contained and eventually punished. Bardot’s eroticism, youth, and modernity—the core of her star persona—are attractive, positive qualities in films like And God Created Woman and popular comedies such as Une parisienne (1957). In La vérité, as in Love Is My Profession, they are presented in a darker, more ambivalent, and at times caricatural manner. By contrast with Annie and Gilbert, whose work ethics and straitlacedness perpetuate conservative values, Dominique and her friends in the cafés and hotels of the Latin Quarter are feckless, self-indulgent, and promiscuous. The modern accessories they favor—clothes, sports cars, and motorbikes—are uniformly portrayed in a negative light. Through Bardot, La vérité channels an almost paranoid vision of the young generation and its trappings, similar in this respect to Marcel Carné’s perspective on the youthful creatures in his Les tricheurs (1958), a film to which La vérité was frequently compared by reviewers. But the real target of the film is female sexuality and female power. 

Bardot’s sexual attractiveness invited both the hostility of the older generation (male and female) and the lustful gaze of men of all ages, a structure dutifully reproduced by the film, which alternates between Dominique’s condemnation in the dock and the spectacle of her sensational body, detailed, naked at times, by the camera in the flashbacks. This in itself is not unusual treatment for a sex symbol. But what made Bardot unique and transgressive was the fact that, on- and offscreen, she was seen to pursue her own desire rather than content herself with being the object of desire. In La vérité, her character has casual one-night stands and pursues Gilbert, once he has left her, as much as he once pursued her. In an article written forEsquire in August 1959, Simone de Beauvoir judiciously pinpointed this aspect of Bardot’s persona, in a much-quoted line: “In the game of love she is as much a hunter as she is a prey.” That this feature constitutes Dominique’s (and Bardot’s) “problem” is implied when the film makes a derogatory link between the character’s life of dissipation and the work of Beauvoir, as Dominique is said to have read The Mandarins, the author’s Prix Goncourt–winning novel of 1954. One of the book’s erotic passages is read out accusingly in court, to the point that Guérin asks, rhetorically, “Is Simone de Beauvoir on trial here?” The answer is yes. In a period of gender realignment after World War II and the German occupation, female emancipation was a sore topic, as illustrated by the heated debates caused by Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex in 1949. More mundanely, we hear that Dominique was expelled from school for reading The Mandarins.

Beyond the famous Bardot and Beauvoir, other women too are on trial in La vérité. Clouzot, characteristically, conducted background research for the film, attending trials and investigating a number of female criminals, including the notorious Pauline Dubuisson. The young, beautiful Dubuisson was sentenced to life in prison in 1953 for murdering her lover, a fellow medical student, after he dropped her. While she never denied killing him, like Dominique she was adamant that it had been an accident and that she had intended to commit suicide (also like Dominique, she was found unconscious after attempting to gas herself). While Dubuisson had been branded as a murderous slut, her exceptionally harsh sentence provoked outrage, and she became a cause célèbre for a time. The publication in 2015 of Philippe Jaenada’s meticulously researched book on Dubuisson, La petite femelle, makes it possible to appreciate the importance of Dubuisson as a model for Dominique, despite differences in their trajectories. Jaenada shows how witnesses, the police, and the judiciary repeatedly bent facts and ignored or falsified evidence because of gender bias, just as we see happen in La vérité; essentially, they could not abide the “fact that she wouldn’t stay in her place as a woman, that is, be submissive, passive.” This echoes the notion that Guérin raises about Dominique in court when he says, “She led a free and easy life—granted! But is she being tried for that or for murder?” Jaenada’s conclusion about Dubuisson applies equally well to Dominique and to Bardot: “A trailblazer, she fought on her own against a whole prewar generation, against hundreds of years of hypocritical virtue . . . and male domination.” The brilliance of Clouzot in La vérité, and the reason for the film’s enduring appeal, is the filmmaker’s ability to display at the same time the disapproval, the hypocrisy, and the resistance to change of the generation he belonged to and the fascination with modernity and a new, freer, way of life of the younger generation, whose ambivalent attraction is perfectly embodied by Bardot.