Sacha Guitry's 'La Poison' Is a Small, Sour Masterpiece of Provincial Satire

Michel Simon and Germaine Reuver (Amazon/Criterion)

This is a very dark and sardonic explosion of all the polite conventions that grease society -- and other movies.

La Poison

Director: Sacha Guitry
Cast: Michel Simon
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1951
USDVD release date: 2017-08-22

This film is a small, sour masterpiece of provincial satire.

Sacha Guitry is among the most respected and distinctive French filmmakers, yet he remains hardly known outside of France. Andrew Sarris expressed the opinion that what Americans miss in Guitry is what the French miss in Preston Sturges: a pleasure in the language that places acting and dialogue at the center of the film, as opposed to grand stylistic gestures.

In an extra on the new Criterion Blu-ray of La Poison (1951), an associate tells a possibly apocryphal story of a photographer suggesting that a shot begin on the chandelier and pan down to the table, and Guitry supposedly said it wouldn't make sense because the chandelier doesn't have any lines. In fact, Guitry's films are full of playful camera moves when appropriate, just as they're full of winks at the audience at how artificial are a film's pleasures.

But we're almost forgetting to talk about La Poison. This small, sour masterpiece of provincial satire focuses on an older couple who can't stand each other. In his first Guitry film, Michel Simon, the shaggy hulking irrepressible sacred monster of French cinema, plays farmer Paul Braconnier, whose last name means "poacher". He's a shambling lumpen slob, and his wife (Germaine Reuver) is no better. She spends all day getting drunk and plots to poison her husband with rat poison -- if she can only work up the courage.

Fortunately, the radio spares them from having to interact more than the bare minimum, and one day Paul hears a Paris lawyer (Jean Debucourt) speaking wittily and philosophically about his record of 100 murder acquittals. In a dialogue sequence of brilliant high comedy, Paul consults the lawyer while pretending to have killed his wife. He's actually fishing for pointers on the kind of details that could get him off if he goes through with it.

More glittering brilliance occurs in a climactic courtroom sequence that turns the assumptions of the legal system inside out. Here's one of Guitry's winks to the audience, for after a particularly ingenious bit of jousting with the judges, Paul tells his lawyer that becoming a criminal must make you smarter because he's never sounded that brilliant before.

One could argue that Guitry is exposing the hypocrisy of capital punishment or the taboos around divorce, but that may give too much social conscience to a strategy that's more annihilating. As discussed in the one-hour making-of, Guitry felt bitterness over having been briefly jailed over unfounded accusations of collaborating with the Germans, and his cordially sophisticated venom is simply aimed at the judicial system in general.

Guitry's sense of cinema comes out in the editing, for he never lets any scene run on theatrically when he can crosscut between two or three simultaneous sequences for illustration and counterpoint. During the trial, for example, he continually cuts to the village children enacting their own parody of the events.

Another essential part of his cinema is his personable credits sequences. Guitry opens the film by parading through a series of scenes in which he praises his actors and crew, showing them all to the audience. He comes across as the boss, which he is, and also as a generous one who values everyone's contributions. He expresses admiration and affection for the actresses and his female set decorator, and it's important to remember this in light of what's to follow.

The title refers not only to literal poison and to the general poisoning of society but to slang for a fishwife. In the liner notes, Ginette Vincendeau observes the misogyny of the wife's depiction as she's made to stand for all of life's humiliations. She doesn't mention two supporting women in the film who are depicted as wise and friendly, one of whom (Pauline Carton) opens the movie by reading the pharmacist's order book and passing judgment on the whole village.

It's easy to forget these women in the face of the wife's domineering presence, and perhaps it's also easy to forget that she's given enough reason to resent her marriage to make her anger and alcoholism unsurprising. Yet she's not depicted as a shrew waving a rolling pin, but simply as defeated and desperate. Guitry's cross-cutting gives her almost as much private time on screen as her husband.

The depiction of village life doesn't rise to the heights of viciousness seen in Henri-Georges Clouzot's controversial wartime film Le Corbeau (1943), but condemnation is there. The younger business owners, male and female, approach the priest about the possibility of attracting crowds by using one backward daughter in a scheme for a miraculous pregnancy, and they're delighted when Paul's notoriety in the papers proves good for trade.

In short, this is a very dark and sardonic explosion of all the polite conventions that grease society -- and other movies -- and only its Frenchness makes it come off as such a tart cleansing of the palate rather than the bitter insight it really is when you think about it.

This high-definition digital restoration looks and sounds terrific, and the extras include the making-of, an appreciation by Olivier Assayas, and a 1965 TV documentary on Guitry's career that will make Region 1 viewers eager for more releases.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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