Backlog #13: La Femme Infidèle (1969)

This is a very stylish, classy but rather shocking movie (the three adjectives fit together well). It’s a psychological thriller that is a brilliant study of crime, passion and moral ambivalence.

Charles (the husband) is a typical executive, his wife (Hélène) tends their beautiful home and brings up the son. She is wonderfully elegant, but carries a control that expresses a mild hauteur. He, more furtive in countenance, clearly loves his family, but in a dull, dependable, buttoned-up way. From the start, we’re a trifle uneasy at this body language –what is going wrong, is there something else there?

As it happens, the husband starts to share this suspicion and hires a private detective who, soon enough confirms that Hélène is visiting the house of a writer, Victor Pegala. At this point, Charles has not come across to us as a particularly impressive or sympathetic character; and the news is no surprise to us. But his shock and sorrow at learning the truth really touched me.

This shock and sorrow manifests itself shortly after, when he decides to call on Pegala. The writer is sharply taken aback by his visitor. Charles appears to contentedly admit defeat, which at first glance emphasizes his pathos. However, he’s still blindly grasping for the truth: admitting to the other man that he gives his wife liberty, he completely disarms Pegala, who unburdens himself about his passion in a wide-eyed charismatic torrent; over a coffee table chat, the two men are gloriously contrasted. Charles fully absorbs the personal horror that there is someone else who understands and connects with his wife much better than he does.

Charles serene demeanour quickly becomes clouded. Pegala remains in a reverie and is oblivious to the blunt object that hits him. This brilliant passage concluded, it is followed by a fantastic set piece, where Charles, without a pause to drift from the task at hand, meticulously tidies up the mess in Pegala’s flat and removes his corpse to the boot of his car. This task completed, Charles then has a much more fraught journey across town, finally concluding with an unbearably tense moment where the body finally disappears into the swamp.

Charles returns to his wife. He seems happy enough now, but Hélène is out-of-sorts, particularly when two detectives turn up to question her about her relationship with the disappeared man. Her understandable unease at the perceived consequences of this questioning is perhaps the most striking of the film’s ironies. The trail gets warmer and the detectives return, this time questioning Charles, who unconvincingly denies any knowledge of Pegala. His wife finally discovers what has happened when rifling through his jacket. She is shocked, but on reflection realizes the truth about her husband and burns the evidence. To no avail: he is finally led away.

I’m sorry if the above is more of a plot spoiler than a review; but La Femme infidèle is a film with a very smooth and glossy surface, but a remarkable amount of passion and tension beneath the poise. It’s a film that approaches perfection in what it undemonstratively does. It may be a touch sedate – it takes a while to simmer, but the irony and moral ambivalence are wonderfully done.

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