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Claude Chabrol's Violette Nozière examines a notorious French murder case from the 1930s, and rather disturbingly becomes enamored of the killer. This is perhaps because she's played by the captivating, intense Isabelle Huppert, but Chabrol also looks for factors in Violette's life that may have contributed to her condition. The murderous Violette is yet another attractive and precocious young girl caught up in a flashy lifestyle that leads to disaster. Chabrol's sensual retelling tends to favor her side, simply because she's a rebel.
Although Koch Lorber has been releasing many fine-looking DVDs lately, Violette Nozière is not one of them. More on the disc's quality below.
The historical Violette seems to be a classic case of a sexually precocious teenager who lives a double life, loses track of her own lies and deceptions and makes the mistake of thinking she can get away with murder. Stifled by life with her unexciting parents, the teenager has them almost completely fooled. As soon as they're asleep she recovers adult gowns and furs from a downstairs cabinet and paints the town red with her equally promiscuous friend Maddy. Violette apparently does not attend school and pretends to do homework while practicing her forgery skills. Catching her daughter red-handed with love letters, Germaine Nozière far too readily accepts Violette's lame excuses. The Noziéres so want their illusions to be affirmed -- that scandal not touch their daughter or their good name -- that Violette is able to bamboozle them to an almost absurd degree. When her doctor reports that Violette has syphilis, Violette convinces her parents that she's a virgin and that the sickness must be hereditary. As if programmed to feel ashamed, Violette's parents assume the fault is theirs. Their almost diabolical daughter soon has them taking 'medicinal powders' that she claims are prescribed by the doctor.
Violette apparently has been passing herself off as a young adult from the age of fourteen, and is living an outrageous double life. Taking money from her parents and sometimes prostitutiing herself, she has funds sufficient to buy gifts for her handsome but worthless boyfriend Jean Dabin. She rents afternoon rooms in a no-tell establishment, impressing the maid with her outlandish behavior. "Where does she get her money?" the maid wonders.
Violette Nozière isn't the easiest story to dramatize. Moralists would see Violette being seduced by society's false values -- her head turns whenever a Bugatti car passes by. The testimony from her notorious trial and the researches of subsequent authors make her parents seem equally culpable; they should have seen through her cheap charades. But what teenager doesn't try to hide secrets from their parents, 'for their own good?' That's part of growing up and becoming independent. Childhood flashbacks offer 'reasons' for Violette's interest in sex: her parents go off by themselves and grandmother won't answer questions why they want to be alone, etc.. Violette listens while her parents make love and is slapped for peeking. She also notices the interest her father takes when she bathes. Finally, it is strongly implied that Violette's mother has had an affair with an old friend; a lot of the girl's mad money comes in the form of casual blackmail payments. When she eventually decides to support her daughter, the film hints that it is because Violette chose not to reveal Germaine's infidelity on the witness stand.
Chabrol also fragments the story, beginning as Violette leaves the apartment after poisoning her parents. The specific chronology of the crime, its detection, Violette's arrest and detention are also scrambled, blurring the relationship between cause and effect. This expresses Violette's disassociation from her own acts but also blurs our focus on justice. We may not want Violette near our wallets or pouring our drinks, but we don't see her as a murderous fiend, despite the evidence of premeditation.
Violette Nozière bears a strong resemblance to another Chabrol true-life crime tale, Story of Women. (Spoiler) The female lead in that movie (also played by Isabelle Huppert) is railroaded by a Nazi-influenced Vichy court and pays an outrageously disproportionate price for her offenses. Violette's trial took place only ten years earlier but in a completely different legal climate. She was also sentenced to the guillotine, but ever since an ugly incident at the end of the 19th century, no woman had been guillotined in France. Violette was eventually released after the victory in WW2, married and had children.
Isabelle Huppert won awards for her starring performance and Stéphane Audran deals well with a difficult role. Violette's cellmate is played by Bernadette Lafont, a veteran of Chabrol's earliest features.
Koch Lorber's DVD of Violette Nozière is a throwback to the days of the old Fox Lorber label and its weak transfers of European films both famous and obscure. Koch Lorber now releases plenty of high-quality DVDs but occasional eyesores like this one keep turning up. It appears to be an older flat transfer that crops away horizontal information. Colors are off and the contrast fluctuates wildly. Image definition suffers from only so-so encoding, as the opening titles break up in ways I haven't seen since the first days of the format. In short, this is a very disappointing disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Violette Nozière rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2007
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