Backlog #6: Just Before Nightfall (1971)

This Chabrol picture is really, really good. It takes the dynamic of the previously discussed La Femme Infidele, with Michel Bouquet and Stephane Audran as virtually the same couple. This time however, the murder occurs right at the start – a claustrophobic scene where a sadomasochistic asphyxiation game goes badly wrong. The remainder of the film is an agonising study of guilt and responsibility.

The accidental murderer Charles is stunned by what has happened and flees in confusion, managing somehow to not incriminate himself. The police find themselves baffled – this is in no way a whodunit film. Initially Charles rationally considers his options and decides the best choice is to conceal the truth, keep calm and carry on. Soon enough he finds himself physically and mentally destroyed by guilt and confesses to his wife and his victim’s husband (a good friend). However instead of making him suffer for his crime, which is the response he expects and the only one he wants, they both understand and forgive him. This does not relieve Charles’ suffering and the film dissolves with his wife’s empathy soothing this torment in vain.

For me, Just Before Nightfall is a culmination of the series of films before it, the themes attacking bourgeois convention and twisting cinema norms. Ignoring or bypassing morality in favour of attempting to carry on without fuss or loss of face (or the diversion from the routines of normal life – Charles’ most mortifying experiences happen at a drab, gray railway halt). This is a crime thriller, but the guilty party is identified within 90 seconds and it is soon established that he is not going to be troubled by the police. Charles is unlucky enough to test himself within one of bourgeois life’s hypocricies (sexual abandon) and lose out. He then finds that the structure that he functions within is capable of protecting him from external harm, but no use in handling his psychological tremors.

The most amusing contradiction here was in Charles’ professional career, which appear in brief interludes away from his family life. Charles is a director in a public relations firm – the staid suited business-like presence, a figure of rectitude. Amusingly, his business partner is a ridiculously flamboyant middle aged hippie in fur coat and outlandish wig. We learn however, that the playboy is the one who has his eye on the firm’s business affairs – Charles instead has allowed the elderly accountant to rip both of them for fifteen years, finally running away with the secretary. When Charles bemusedly asks the errant why, he gets spat at. So to summarize, another Chabrol classic – these films are fantastic!

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