Handling the Truth

Studying Clouzot’s La Vérité

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Given how contentious (and often male-dominated) the debate about how society treats female agency has often become, it’s a very good thing that the Criterion Collection has just rereleased a scintillating French courtroom drama that lets the woman have the final word. The film is called La Vérité (“The Truth”), directed by the great Henri-George Clouzot (the auteur behind superb thrillers like Diabolique and The Wages of Fear) and starring none other than Brigitte Bardot in a tour-de-force performance.

The film was a huge hit and quite a success de scandale when it was first released in 1960, with the cinema-mad Parisian press going nuts over leaked accounts of its stars’ canoodling and the film’s tempestuous production. La Vérité’s storyline is far more captivating than even the tabloid presses’ wildest dreams; the picture it paints about the way a supposedly egalitarian society understands women as moral and physical beings is far more damning than a paparazzi’s surreptitious snapshot. The film’s crackling themes of sexual politics, female agency, and the public interrogation of a woman’s private life conducted almost entirely by men ring as painfully true today than it did when it was first released. 

Of course, at the time Bardot was already known worldwide as a sex symbol, but, at this point in her career, she was utterly sick of being stalked by French paparazzi and craved respectability as a real actress. Her anguish over the demands of fame as a woman very much in the spotlight mirrors the perpetual struggle of women in Hollywood as well, as the life stories of the likes of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and many others attest. Film scholar Karina Longworth’s superb podcast You Must Remember This dedicated an entire season to tell the stories of the talented young starlets whose initial fame didn’t survive the meat grinder of Hollywood. Bardot inhabits the role of Dominque, a comely, willful, and slightly naïve young woman whose sexual and emotional independence stirs up a great deal of controversy within a culture that is hypocritically fascinated with controlling the very bodies of women of whom they officially disapprove.

As a worldwide icon of voluptuous femininity, Bardot already knew quite a lot about the social currency of bodies on film and clearly takes to heart Dominique’s outrage at a society that feels entitled to judge her while simultaneously basking in her ample pulchritude. Bardot made her name as the star of films like the skeezy Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, but she was also the subtly indignant lead in Godard’s brilliant film Contempt whose screenwriter boyfriend passively barters her to an arrogant producer in exchange for a lucrative Hollywood contract to re-write The Odyssey. Given all of her experience in French cinema’s mansions and back streets, we can be assured that Bardot knew a little something about how the largely male cinema audience reacted to women like her.

Dominique moves to Paris to escape her provincial small town after her grouchy father tells her she has no future. She moves in with her judgmental older sister and starts hanging out in the notorious cafes of the bohemian left bank, casually flirting with morbid poets and self-involved layabouts. Her interactions with the pseudo-literary demimonde demonstrate Dominique’s curiosity and her intuitive interest in intellectual life that remains just beyond her grasp, highlighting the few opportunities she has had for any cultural enrichment. When we find out during her trial that she was reading a Simone de Beauvoir novel in school, we discover she was merely passing it around to giggle at the mildly dirty parts.

Sex is the one thing that Dominique knows she can use to get her out of a bind. After casually taking a few different lovers, she gets involved with Gilbert, a passionate young conductor played by Sammi Frey, probably best known as the reticent Franz in Godard’s Band of Outsiders, in his screen debut. In a boldly non-committal fashion, she dates Gilbert while openly sleeping with other men, refusing to apologize for her whimsical sexual autonomy while bluntly keeping Gilbert in a Parisian version of what we now call “the friend zone.” Lots of actors were auditioned for the role, including much bigger stars, but intriguingly Frey was selected by Bardot herself as a co-star. The two then started a tumultuous on-set affair that jeopardized their current relationships as well as their careers. (More on that later.) What’s interesting is how, in the most emotional scenes between the two characters, the viewer can sense that the line between fiction and reality is as thin as a wisp of Gauloise smoke.

Eventually, they do become a committed couple, but when the hyper-sensitive Gilbert can’t stand Dominique’s enjoyment of the attention from other men their relationship begins to unravel. No spoilers here but suffice to say that a court trial is needed to determine the legal issues associated with motives, responsibility, and guilt. Dominque must defend herself alone on the witness stand while dealing with pretty much the worst thing to ever be foisted upon her: not only having to endure the messy details of her private life being brutally made public but, even worse, to have to do it before a courtroom filled with an alternately hostile and fatalistic crowd predominantly made up of suspicious older men. The right to be able to tell one’s own side of the story is crucial, especially when a messy love affair is in question, but being forced to have one’s private motivations called into question in public is more pressure than most people can bear.

In order to establish the truth, or at least her own version of it, Dominique is forced to fight to take control of her own story, to define the true meaning and intent behind her choices and acts. The lawyers and judges in the courtroom (the prosecution and the defense seem more or less interchangeable) examine and argue over each painful personal detail of Dominique’s life, taking for granted their ultimate power to rule on what really is none of their business in the first place. One of the lawyers doodles a spiderweb during the hearing and thinks nothing of casually showing it to his female defense attorney. Dominique’s case does not look good.

Clouzot counted Hitchcock among his inspirations, and the master of suspense returned the favor by singling out his work for praise. Gradually building the suspense with each new revelation about the twists and turns of Dominque’s all-too-human personal life, Clouzot’s camera records the proceedings with a slightly cynical detachment. No one in the story is without a certain degree of blame. Clouzot’s storytelling offers us “the truth” in terms of the basic facts of Dominque’s life while knowing full well that, even though we may have the information about Dominique’s various loves and losses, the true meaning of those facts will always be in the eye of the beholder.

As the plot unfolds, we are invited to consider the questionable moral motivations and blatant self-interests of everyone involved. The court wants to uphold the deeply prejudicial social contract, which is challenged by the specifics of the case, but all that state-sanctioned authority doesn’t neatly tie up the loose ends of the messy human drama unfolding before us. Dominique’s, Gilbert’s, the court’s, and finally the audience’s perspectives are all ultimately held up for questioning. The choice of Bardot to play the role was an especially insightful one on Clouzot’s part since Bardot’s beauty and joie de vivre makes Dominique’s lissome sexuality alluring and thus throws off the audience’s tendency for moral judgment. It’s harder to wag a disapproving finger at a character for being oversexed when they are so lovely to behold. And the fact that the French film industry had already shown no compunctions about making Bardot into an international sex symbol throws into question their prurience about airing her dirty laundry in order to sell some newspapers.

The film’s parallels to what we talk about sex and sexuality in public are striking. At times Dominique affects a bold indifference to the judgment of others but also has moments of deep vulnerability, insecurity, and tenderness. She is both aggressor and victim, torn between being the author of her own story and just another character in the drama. Her final statement to the court brings her to the edge of sanity as much as tears and conclusively finished the film’s chaotic shooting schedule. Bardot felt that she had never given as much of herself onscreen before, and some would say that she never did so again.

A morally murky mixture of the public and private imbues the film with charged tension from its first moment. Seemingly everybody involved onscreen was perpetually at wit’s end. Artifice in acting is all well and good, but when the actors have real-life emotions involved, especially with each other, it adds an extra current of electricity in the air. When exasperatedly Gilbert tells her off at one point, you can easily see how Frey’s line readings aren’t far from how he actually feels about his co-star. Aside from Bardot and Frey’s aforementioned real-life affair, an already fraught situation was made worse by Bardot’s long-time personal assistant deciding to dish about the messy details of her personal life. The press, of course, ate it up. Bardot’s cuckolded husband had a nervous breakdown from the public embarrassment.

There was a lot of high drama going on behind the scenes, too. Clouzot’s wife and frequent collaborator, Vera, (who, interestingly, co-wrote the script) also had a breakdown. Clouzot himself had a heart attack during the filming but soldiered on to finish it regardless. According to some accounts, Clouzot treated his star abusively. He berated her for minor offenses in front of the crew, stomped on her bare toes with boots on, and generally followed his usual habit of making his actors miserable by pushing all their emotional buttons on set, forcing the desired reaction to appear onscreen. Apparently, high-wire tension worked out well: La Verite was the second highest grossing French film of 1960, and it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Bardot was encouragingly seen as the embodiment of a youth culture that was just starting to shake off the doldrums of postwar Europe, and her character’s impulsivity came off as free-spirited and a breath of fresh air rather than merely flaky.

There was evidently a sizeable audience ready for what La Vérité brought to the screen in the early ’60s, but what ultimately makes the film still enthralling almost sixty years later isn’t just the drama that occurred on both sides of the camera. It’s how we are brought into the all-too-palpable anguish of a woman whose actions aren’t necessarily intended to throw into question the society she lives in but does anyway. The girl can’t help it. Like her fictional French precursors, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and De Sade’s Justine, Dominique upends society’s hypocrisy quasi-intentionally by following the zig-zagging path of her own desires wherever they may lead her. By seeking something more engaging than the life of a provincial housewife, Dominique inexorably transgresses the unwritten laws of French society about how a woman must act, dress, talk, and think.

Even when the consequences of those desires result in a painful denouement, she is deeply wounded and yet still refuses to deny their validity. Messy as her choices often are, they ultimately remain her own. The very public battle Dominique finds herself in happens on a variety of fronts: she must defend herself legally, first and foremost, but in order to do that she first must win the fight to make her story heard, to take control of her narrative, and compel those who keep gaslighting her to listen. Much as it is in real life with these kinds of controversies, no one who participates in the trial of Dominique ends up walking away unscathed. Besides being a scintillating courtroom drama featuring one of world cinema’s most alluring leading ladies, La Verite bracingly reminds us of who pays the ultimate price when a woman’s truth goes unheard. •

Images created by Barbara Chernyavsky.

Matt Hanson lives in Boston and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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