We know Dominique killed her boyfriend, the question is why? Was it self-defense, a crime of passion, plain vindictive murder? What is the truth?
In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘La Verite’ (1960), Dominique (Brigitte Bardot) is a life-loving girl enjoying post-war Paris with her friends. Men desire her, they pursue her, especially young aspiring conductor Gilbert Tellier with whom she begins a passionate romance. It isn’t long before the sexual fireworks inevitably explode as once Tellier has his way with her he becomes dismissive and abusive, driving Dominique into the arms of other men which just continues the cycle when she repentedly returns to him. Various friends, employers and landladies witnesses these violent arguments, all told to the court by a series of flashbacks via their testimonies which either confirm or refute the claim that Dominique was driven to killing her lover by passion and despair before attempting to kill herself.
What, exactly, is the truth? More horrifyingly, does it matter? Is the actual process of being judged what is on trial and could it be a seemingly detached system that is the real murderous force here?
This movie is all about Dominique and how society sees her and her life, whether she is guilty or not. Her crime might not be murder but simply existing. At every moment Dominique is judged, exploited then judged for having been exploited purely because she is beautiful, sexual and “free”. Sure, some of this she brings on herself by bad “life choices” or pressures of circumstance but the film is balanced in such a way that even though everyone in the film judges her (she is on trial after all) it never feels that we, the audience, are. We are simply seeing a free-spirited young woman live her life. It is a demonstration of the double-standards so many men have towards female sexuality — I can sleep about but you must remain pure or you are a slut. What we are being asked to judge is the entire system and society itself rather than this young women.
A number of elements make ‘La Verite’ work brilliantly and giving it a powerfully emotional punch, first and foremost being Brigitte Bardot’s performance which is fantastic and heart-breaking. We ache for her plight even though she never pleads for our sympathy or denies showing us her flaws and faults, happy to expose to us her entire naked self for us to assess, to project our own hypocritical standards onto. This is one of the great tragic performances of French cinema and she will splinter your heart.
To give Bardot’s performance room and space to shine Clouzot doesn’t resort to visual tricks or gimmicks in his movie, instead opting for the restrained gaze of gliding camera-moves and layered compositions. There is, at first glance, a stylistic simplicity here but one that is only resisting drawing too much attention to just how much skillful work is going on here. You could watch this film a dozen times and always discover something new, something only made more pleasurable by the black and white cinematography which is gorgeous; this could, possibly, be the most beautiful film Clouzot ever made. The film practically glows as it captures this incredible time-capsule of Paris in 1960.
Yet it is precisely that which brings me to what I found the most fascinating aspect of watching ‘La Verite’ which is the context of when and where it was made. The film is emotionally melodramatic and a tad overwrought with a style which in everything feels considered and planned to the minutest detail and gesture. It has the placid gloss of a highly-polished mirror, a mirror that the Nouvelle Vague in 1960 was immediately in the process of stamping on and shattering into shards. I can just imagine Jean-Luc Godard sitting in a Parisian cinema watching a weeping Bardot up on the screen being judged by a group of men, much like he’d have Karina gazing at Falconetti’s Joan, except itching and squirming in his seat, desperate to take a hammer to it whilst surreptitiously squirreling away Clouzot’s image of Bardot lying naked on her front on a bed for his ‘Le Mempris’, ready to throw off the sheets fully revealing her immodesty along with Clouzot’s moral hypocrisy and stuffiness. Sure, Clouzot is showing us Paris buzzing with pop-music, jukeboxes, dancing youths and all with a carefully crafted style but that only exasperates his predicament as despite all his skill, he was about to suddenly feel “old-fashioned” in the flutter of a heart-beat.
In the end of ‘La Verite’ it isn’t Dominique who ends up on trial but Clouzot himself.