Violette, a classic French thriller, compels right at the ultra-noir first moment. This moment is complete with moody saxophone and jumpy strings, and the hairs on the back of one’s neck are sweetly tickled. Compared to all the loud and obvious so-called thrillers of today, this deliciously creepy crime-drama by director Claude Chabrol is refreshing, even if it’s almost 20 years old.
Isabelle Huppert plays the title role of Violette Nozieré, for which she shared the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1978. This movie marked the first collaborations between actress and director, as they went on to make six more films together, even as recently as 2005’s Comedy of Power.
Violette is based on the real-life scandal that shocked France in the ’30s. At the age of 18, Violette Nozieré, from a respectable middle-class background, was tried and found guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted murder of her mother. She was sentenced to death, which was later changed to life in prison.
The film is set during the weeks leading up to the murder and the trial. It is post-war WWI Paris, and Violette lives in a claustrophobically small apartment with her mother (Stephané Audran) and her father (Jean Carmet). The parents are over-protective and fussy, yet at the same time completely oblivious, especially the father.
At home Violette is pink-cheeked and innocent. Away from home she is a vixen in black, with blood red lips. She goes out on the town, itching for action, and seducing man after man. Ultimately, it is one of these men that will be Violette’s undoing. She falls for a con man; the kind who is always short on cash, and she does increasingly risky things to buy his affection, culminating in the final plan to poison her parents and run of with their money.
The film volleys between Violette’s two worlds and two personas, until both worlds collide. Isabelle Huppert is mesmerizing in the title role. Her earnestness as Violette at home, contrasted by her icy detachment as Violette while out at night, is very convincing. It’s like watching two different movies. Then halfway through, both parts start to bleed together and we see the layer of darkness that lies just below the surface of good Violette, and the naiveté and longing in the bad Violette.
The parents characters are not so fully- developed, but with the use of unexpectedly serene flashbacks, we are able to gain enough insight into them to start to question their role in Violette’s mental health. There are hints of a possible infidelity that questions Violette’s true parentage. And there are things about the tranquil home life that give an aura of sexual danger because of the close quarters. It’s pretty hard not to overhear someone in the bathroom when you’re a wall away. And all three are guilty of watching and listening to each other inappropriately.
It is almost an unwritten pact within the family to deny what they don’t want to see. The parents are striving so hard for a bourgeois existence, they will willfully ignore any signs otherwise. But Chabrol has made the parents so blind and passive, he is definitely pointing the finger of blame in their direction. But in his overzealousness for Violette, he has perhaps oversimplified the blame.
Chabrol also turns his venom on the public. They swarm around the courthouse like vultures salivating over the scandal. Their thirst for more dirt and more spectacle is vicious. We could draw parallels to today’s proliferation of gossip blogs and magazines.
But Chabrol is thoroughly enamored with Violette, and he sees her as a restless dreamer. “I need words that make me dream,” she exasperatedly sighs in one scene. She dreams of seeing the ocean. Of having space. These are all relatable things.
Chabrol is often called the French Hitchcock and this film is exemplifies this sentiment. The suspense ebbs and flows, and then actually plateaus towards the end. The most violent scene, the murder, wherein Hupper is especially chilling, is surreal and tranquil, and even creepier because of it.
The DVD quality is a bit shaky, but perhaps that is to be expected with an older film. There are no extras of note, just the trailers for a handful of contemporary French movies.