Most movies out there exist to hold the audience's attention from the beginning to the end credits, possessing dramatic buildup or comedic twists and turns that create a consistent level of engagement throughout. Then, there are films whose sole purpose hinges on a specific scene -- or succession of scenes -- after all the groundwork has been laid, where the events that happen prior to these pivotal moments are just moving parts required to lead a specific cinematic idea to its purpose. Such is often the case for thrillers or mysteries that revolve around a specific plot twist, but not so much for comedies, building toward one specific lampoon or punchline. Sacha Guitry's dark, measured comedy La Poison largely operates in this fashion, where the events leading up to the "big show" near its end merely function as dryly humorous devices that ultimately funnel into an elegant, compelling twist on the courtroom drama, a slyly lighthearted yet entirely cynical takedown of marital woes and manipulations of the law.
After a lengthy introduction to the cast and crew at the film's beginning, led by director Sacha Guitry and entirely separate from the story at hand, La Poison depicts the everyday happenings of a small and sleepy French village. People make their way to and from the pharmacy, locals set up camp at the café, and folks like Paul Bracconier (Michel Simon), a gardener by trade, swing by the local church to chat with the priest and divulge their "sins". The root of Paul's frustration hinges on his wife (Germaine Reuver), whose bitter attitude toward her husband is made worse by her persistent drinking and general lack of attention paid to her appearance (and cleanliness). In a fit of frustration, disguised as regular irritation between spouses, Paul contemplates a life without his wife … if she were to die. Little does he know that she, too, contemplates the same thing. With the resources available to them in the small town and driven by the sounds of a particularly contentious radio broadcast involving a lawyer who's had great success in defending murderers, the married couple inch closer to making their fantasies a reality.
While depicting the early frustrations of the Bracconiers and the personalities of the other townsfolk, director Guitry establishes a playful, yet not overtly comedic tone with La Poison. Between an older woman reading over the pharmacist's prescription ledger to see who's taking what for their ailments, reaffirming her suspicions, and the casual chatter about potentially lethal marital frustration between Paul and the local priest, the conversations toe the line between attempts at joviality and highly deliberate stage-setting for the events to come. Emphasis falls on the chilly, quarrelsome rapport between the Bracconiers over their nightly dinner routine, though they probably consume more calories through the bottle(s) of wine they drink than the brothy soup and loaf of bread at their table. There isn't much joy derived from observing their bouts, nor from the ways in which the townsfolk become voyeurs and sleuths to their verbal arguments, but there's something pleasurable in seeing how Guitry creates the foundation for the escalation in their bickering and emphasizes potential murder methods.
In fact, it's hard to imagine La Poison being interpreted as an exercise in humor without the presence of Michel Simon. With a body of work stretching from the seminal silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc to eccentric performances in Boudu Saved From Drowning and L'Atlante, among many others, Simon's sympathetic and subtly oafish demeanor as Paul taps into mild physical comedy. His body language speaks volumes about the character's mental faculties as he converses with the clergy and evades his tiring wife, appearing just uninviting and rough-around-the-edges enough to miss out on the attention of women yet just charmingly browbeaten enough to tempt one's sympathy. Simon's manner of speaking leaves his character's capacity for murder in an uncertain state, perhaps in flux as he copes with the exaggeratedly stern-faced attitude of his wife. Their hostile interactions possess a bit of a "means to an end" rhythm, wherein Guitry doesn't reveal any interest in examining who they once were as a couple that found each other appealing enough to get married, only in Paul's internal conflict now.
For better or for worse, everything holds a purpose in La Poison that isn't centered on deepening the characters or garnering laughs, a purpose that gradually becomes clear once the focus shifts to lawyers, the legal system, and crossing the threshold from anger to murder. Guitry draws from his own complicated experiences with dealing with the law -- he coped with charges of collaborationism during the Nazi occupancy of France in the ‘40s -- in his incredibly clever depiction of the malleability of circumstances surrounding a criminal activity, notably in the orchestration of the perfect crime by way of some unknowing advice from a lawyer. While the situation comes across as contrived and purposely evasive of the audience's viewpoint for dramatic effect, the ways in which a potential murderer exploits the viewpoints of lawyers in how to beat the system gradually allows that darkly comedic sinking feeling to settle into the stomach.
Through the chaos of a crime scene and the ensuing trial, La Poison builds into an outlandish, yet biting and perceptive satire that travels down a troubling -- and timeless -- road with its justifications of murder and defending those whom have murdered. Guitry executes plenty of cleverness in how he channels all the minutiae of the film's prior events into a raucous courtroom discussion, cutely juxtaposed against scenes of children acting out how their vision of the trial should've gone and how hearsay about a crime travels throughout a small town. There's some oddities during the final act, especially when the topic of attractiveness of people emerges during a trial as a talking point relevant to guilt or innocence, but La Poison ultimately applies a strong dose of sharp, amusing commentary to how the discombobulated tiffs of an old married couple drive them to murderous tendencies, justifying the transparent maneuverings that Guitry had to set in motion to get beyond that point.
La Poison splashes onto Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection as spine #891 in their roster, sporting beautifully, intricately illustrated big-head artwork capturing the dining room featured so frequently in the film. A plaid pattern, like their tablecloth, adorns the inner artwork, along with a funny little ring stain once the disc is removed. A Booklet has also been included, of course, that includes information about the transfer, home-media production credits, and a pair of essays: "La Poison - Or, How To Kill Your Wife", by Ginette Vincendeau; and "The Mischievous Sacha Guitry", by filmmaker Francois Truffaut.
Video and Audio:
The Criterion Collection have served up a 35mm high-definition restoration for La Poison for their 1.33:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment, pulled from a fine-grain positive at Éclair Laboraties in France. This amounts to a fairly robust black-and-white digital transfer, with a few caveats. Contrast levels are, by and large, quite appealing, yielding potent black levels and a fine grasp on depth within the image, which tends to be crucial with the amount of close-up and two-person conversations that occur throughout the film. Fine detail stands out quite well at most points, accentuating strands of hair, the texture of bread, and the roughness of a makeshift wall designed to look like a prison. Certain portions of the image can be blurry, though that can play into the optics of the innate cinematography. Grain tends to be a complicated area, though, where the heavy grain of stock and the complexities of compression yield a fuzzier than expected presentation. Considering the film's age and lack of exposure, however, La Poison does look pretty terrific.
Also translated from the 35mm treatment's optical track, the restored French 2.0 monaural track is entirely unremarkable, which can certainly be a good thing in terms of films from the period. Dialogue tends to have the thinness and texture of its vintage, but it possesses enough lower-end heft in Michel Simon's voice to satisfy in terms of depth. There are very few sounds other than dialogue to be heard during the film, aside from cheering children, which has the shrill high-end clarity one would expect, and the crashing of dinnerware into a wall, which doesn't project a very strong punch behind the shattering of its impact. Distortion isn't discernible, though, devoid of distracting thumps or hiss at any point throughout the recording, producing a very pleasing match for the high-definition transfer. As to be expected, Criterion's English subtitles are grammatically fluid and contextually flawless.
There's only one new specially-crafted extra for La Poison, and that comes in the form of an Interview With Filmmaker Olivier Assayas (16:17, 16x9 HD), in which he discusses the "ingenuity" of Sacha Guitry, lumping him with Jean Renoir and other essential and influential French directors. Assayas takes a highly reverential tone in his discussion about the director's tone and writing technique, as well as Guitry's acting style. It's a highly general discussion, nonspecific to La Poison for the first half and featuring many clips from the director's other works. Then, the discussion organically shifts to La Poison and how Michel Simon fills the role that Guitry likely would've played himself earlier in his career, as well as tapping into a discussion about how Simon captures empathy with his specific abilities.
The Criteiron Collection have also included On Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendoir of a Monarch (1:01:02, 16x9 HD), a lengthy and in-depth discussion crafted by Gaumont that emphasizes the later years of Sacha Guitry's life and the partnership between the director and Michel Simon. It emphasizes the natural presence of Simon as an actor, anecdotes about the working title, the cynical angle of the film's content, misogyny, and the external relationships and perception built around the film. Broken up into eight chapters, the interviews are both anecdotal and highly insightful, hitting a rhythm highly reminiscent of Criterion's traditional interview-based supplemental productions. Criterion wrap things up with an archival extra: an episode of Cineastes de Notre Temps (1:06:53, 4x3 HD) focused on Sacha Guitry, which aired in 1965. Its most noteworthy features come in the individuals participating, starting off with a shot of Michel Simon surrounded by birds in a comfy chair and leading into lengthy clips and standard, sometimes meandering interviews.
Despite the observable design of what Sacha Guitry has planned for the fate of his characters, La Poison uncorks and pours out a wryly cynical takedown on marital woes and the ways in which the legal system and lawyers can be contorted. Bolstered by a uniquely charismatic turn from Michel Simon as an unhappy husband to a shrew of a wife, the film confidently follows its not-so-funny levity from the seeds it plants involving their spousal conflicts to the fruit of Guitry's labor, which blossoms into a rancorous final act that counterbalances the clear point-by-point blueprint of the director's systematic writing. It's the kind of film that exists in the curious space between dark comedy and genuine drama, one with the kind of personality that could generate plenty of bleak laughs had it wanted to, yet instead takes a stab at rich, bleak commentary under the guise of humor. The Criterion Collection delivers a fine audiovisual presentation for La Poison, and equips it with over two hours of interviews. Strongly Recommended.