Background: Sacha Guitry’s acerbic, openly misogynistic black comedy La Poison (Spine #891) examines the perversion of judicial justice in the face of a sensationalized public. It is Guitry’s first film in the main collection, but his fifth film overall following the release of Criterion’s Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry.
Story: After stewing for thirty years in a miserable marriage to a drunken crone, provincial gardener Paul Louis Victor Braconnier (Michel Simon) plots the murder of his wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver). He visits the office of Maître Aubanel (Jean Debucourt), a notorious lawyer famous for his love of defending guilty criminals and his stunning track record of 100 acquittals, and tricks him into helping him devise the perfect murder. After returning home and killing Blandine, Braconnier forces Aubanel to act as his attorney or else reveal his accidental complicity in the crime. After a bogus trial full of emotional grandstanding and preposterous theatrics, Braconnier is acquitted of murder and returns to his village a hero.
The Film: To understand La Poison, one must first understand the title. As film scholar Ginette Vincendeau explains in her insert essay for the Criterion release, the French word for “poison” is masculine and is preceded by the masculine article “le.” But “la poison” is feminine, and in this context refers to a pest—the most obvious inference being that said pest is Blandine. And indeed, Guitry goes to preposterous lengths to make her as repugnant as possible. Glowering, wrinkled, and nasty, Blandine is a pariah among her fellow villagers. A grouchy souse, there are maybe two scenes in the entire film where she isn’t drinking, drunk, or buying more wine. And it’s not just her behavior that warrants death; in Guitry’s worldview the simple act of growing old and unattractive is enough to justify her destruction. Consider the later murder trial scenes. When Braconnier implies that Blandine’s ugliness excused his actions, the judge points out that he’s no catch either. Braconnier simply replies: “It is not my looks that are on trial today but hers.” And what do you know? After photos of Blandine are passed around to a horrified courtroom, this “ugliness defense” helps get him acquitted.
This is all, of course, comically misogynistic. But a more biographical reading suggests another possible interpretation for “la poison,” a reading which while not excusing the misogyny at least re-contextualizes it. Who is “la poison?” Braconnier himself. By his gaming the system—shanghaiing Aubanel into being his defense and sensationalizing his trial to a ludicrous degree—Braconnier reveals the decrepit rot at the heart of French society: the obsession with criminals as media figures, the casual misogyny, the general incompetence of a legal system more interested with appearances and hearsay than justice. And by the 1950s, Guitry had a considerable axe to grind with the French justice system. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Guitry was one of the few prominent European directors who didn’t emigrate to America before the start of World War Two. And despite his refusal to collaborate with the Nazis, many resented his lavish lifestyle in Paris during the Occupation. When the city was liberated by the Allies in 1944, he was unceremoniously arrested and imprisoned without an official charge for several days before being released. If revenge for his humiliation was his purpose with La Poison, then Braconnier is his unofficial mouthpiece. It all begs a simple question: if such a despicable cad could game the system, how much easier could an innocent man be condemned?
The Supplements: One of the first things you’ll notice about the supplements on the Blu-ray is how few of them actually deal with the film itself. The video supplements focus mainly on Guitry, his career, and his influence as a filmmaker. There’s even an hour-long documentary exploring the relationship between Guitry and Simon. Of the two essays in the insert booklet, only the one by Vincendeau explores the film in any depth. The other, a heartfelt tribute to Guitry by French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut, only mentions La Poison in passing. For a film that so powerfully examines the darker side of postwar French society, this lack of meaningful content almost smacks of deliberate avoidance.
Overall: Of all of Guitry’s films Criterion could have chosen for inclusion in their main collection, La Poison is a puzzling choice. In their essays, both Vincendeau and Truffaut include laundry lists of his films they consider to be either superior or more financially successful. Yet as a favorite of the French New Wave elite and as one of Guitry’s most intensely personal, its inclusion was perhaps predestined. The film is useful as a guide to Guitry’s neuroses and charming for Simon’s thundering performance. But otherwise it doesn’t feel nearly as essential a film as one would expect from the Collection.
Film Grade: B-
Criterion Grade: B