A Woman Kills, Jean-Denis Bonan
(trailer screengrab)

Shunned French Crime Film ‘A Woman Kills’ Slips Out of the Shadowy Margins

French New Wave director Jean-Denis Bonan is among the cursed and damned filmmakers – revered by a few, reviled by most. His formerly shunned A Woman Kills (1968) slips out of the shadowy margins and appears for modern viewers.

A Woman Kills
Jean-Denis Bonan
7 February 2023

Some films are too strange, provocative, or personal to find a distributor. Discovered and unveiled to the public some 45 years after it was shot and shelved, Jean-Denis Bonan’s A Woman Kills (La femme bourreau, 1968) at last comes to Region 1 Blu-ray as a lovely 2K scan in a nicely curated package from Radiance Films.

A simple description of the narrative can make A Woman Kills sound like an exploitation film of nudity and violence, and you’d think such a film could have found an audience easily enough. Certainly, the highly personal and no-budget vampire films of Bonan’s friend Jean Rollin, who has a tiny part in the film, were able to secure out-of-the-way screenings. The problem is that while Rollin’s films sound commercially exploitable, they can’t help being artsy, poetic, and surreal.

Despite the affinities between Bonan and Rollin and the fact that they even shared actors, Bonan didn’t have the same luck. As various scholars explain in the extras of this blu-ray, such as the introduction by film scholar Virginie Sélavy, the major French producer Anatole Dauman liked A Woman Kills but couldn’t convince distributors to give it a chance because it had no stars and no clear genre. An unfinished cut was unearthed for a 2010 screening at the Cinémathèque Française. This showing eventually led to a French release, including a 2014 DVD.

I suppose the English title is A Woman Kills because a literal translation of the French title, A Woman Executioner, lends itself to ambiguity in English. The point is that a woman is doing the executions. The victims are all female prostitutes until the climax when several policemen are killed, and that’s significant for reasons we’ll explain.

Shot in grainy 16mm black and white, A Woman Kills begins with the image of a woman seen from the back wearing a black dress and her long black hair as she opens separate drawers or compartments in a large, tall piece of furniture. Hmm, compartmentalized. She draws a knife from one drawer. Then a subjective camera rushes down narrow cobbled alleys.

During the credits, we hear several disembodied voices exclaiming that the crimes have continued even after the execution of the woman convicted of the first murder. Miscarriage of justice is implied. The state has killed a woman for killing a woman, although the likeliest explanation is that the later murders are copycats.

Then we see an intense closeup of a bearded man, apparently a priest, exhorting an offscreen woman to pray for forgiveness. We understand this as a flashback to the condemned woman’s cell and her point of view, although we’ll never see her, and she’s never otherwise in A Woman Kills.

The narrator (Bernard Letrou), more or less a continual presence, introduces Louis Guilbeau (Claude Merlin), a highly-strung young man who got a government job as an executioner (“the state’s official killer”) after serving in the Algerian war. That war is a taboo topic rarely mentioned in the era’s French cinema, although exceptions were Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) and Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1962). By the way, where are Rozier’s films while we’re on the subject? They’re all on French DVD, but that’s not doing Region 1 viewers any good.

We digress. Back to A Woman Kills: Louis has requested a release from his job because he feels he’s falling apart. This detail isn’t mentioned, but he’d have been responsible for executing the original murderess. In a scene that oddly mirrors the closeup of the priest, we see Louis walking through corridors until he enters a room and speaks to a female police investigator named Solange Lebas, whom we neither see nor hear in this scene. He says something about receiving death threats in the mail.

Soon after, we see Solange in the person of Solange Pradel, an actress with some physical similarity to the knife-wielding woman we’d seen from the back in the opening scene. Solange investigates Louis’ claims. As conveyed with the subjective camera moves, she visits his mailbox and confirms her suspicion that it’s empty. In his apartment, Louis admits he made up the story because he wanted to meet her. Indirectly, via narrative ellipsis, they begin an affair while the murders continue.

Unusually, Solange will be the detective who takes matters in hand. The narrator mentions that she was born in Tunis, like Bonan. Like Guilbeau, Bonan served in Algeria. The two characters might be split elements of Bonan’s personality.

We’ll refrain from saying much further about a plot that only runs 70 minutes and whose main surprise possibly isn’t intended as a surprise. There had already been at least one famous ’60s film with a similar twist (Hint: directed by a certain A. Hitchcock). A Woman Kills drops very broad clues amid its misdirection, finally revealing the killer when there’s still half an hour to spare. Then the film becomes a chase through abandoned ruins, and some cops get killed before the final confrontation.

Bonan was apparently using conventions of pulpy melodrama for his own ends. The narrator keeps giving us exact dates for all these events, which occur in May 1968. If you know your French history, you know it was a titanic moment of unrest, strikes, and riots, none of which gets mentioned.

But A Woman Kills isn’t a hermetic film isolated from current events, like Rollin’s debut released that month (The Rape of the Vampire or Le viol du vampire). At the same time that Bonat filmed A Woman Kills with actors from Rollin’s film, he also filmed footage of the unrest with the same camera. A few documentary shots of the police find their way into A Woman Kills during the segment when the police die from guns and explosions.

For the modern viewer, A Woman Kills gets a boost from a critical interest in gender roles, as the title signals. On one hand, the film uses a common stereotype and blames the mother for mixed gender signals. On the other hand, the topic continues to engage us. The use of extreme close-ups as characters explain themselves is very “in our faces,” and their faces, providing vivid images for dialectical purposes. This becomes most striking at the end.

As mentioned, Bonan’s approach is highly aesthetic when not mixing in documentary or faux-documentary elements. Bonan is liable to be hypnotized by having the camera pan across vertical bars while looking down upon a railroad junction as doves fly everywhere. Gérard de Battista’s photography and Mireille Abramovici’s editing mix the beautiful and disorienting. The soundtrack often has unusual juxtapositions, and dialogue has a tendency to wax poetic.

For example, a police chief, staggering on crutches, issues a monologue declaring that the killer’s hands should become like jellyfish, incapable of holding anything solid. A radio reporter is named after Surrealist-in-chief André Breton. Bernard Vitet’s score is jazzy and avant-garde, punctuated by new cabaret-type songs of Daniel Laloux. Bonan, Abramovici (Bonan’s partner at the time), Battista, and Laloux are interviewed in an excellent making-of.

Film critics Kat Ellinger and Virginie Sélavy have a lively discussion of the narrative elements and connect them with contemporary events and films. For example, Sélavy explains the significance of the various dates mentioned. Ellinger points out three serial killer films of the same year that play with similar elements without being so radical: Gordon Douglas’ The Detective, Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, and Jack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady.

Also thrown in are Bonan’s early shorts. They’re generally about misfits and rebels who try to escape society but not successfully. The most startling and confrontational is Tristesse des Anthropophages (1966), which means “sadness of cannibals”, and it’s hard to believe Bonan could have been surprised when French censors banned it from being shown under any circumstances.

The short begins with two old friends dropping down from their separate trees. One reveals that his new job in the city provides the material for the latest fashion craze: eating feces. Then we see the restaurant where this occurs, almost a decade before a similar spectacle in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975), also banned.

The protagonist imagines himself as a sort of Christ figure who gets punished by the crowd for the crime of resurrection, and a few more things happen. He’s played first by Bonan, then resurrected in the person of Bernard Letrou, the narrator of A Woman Kills. This banned short feels like a Surrealist acte gratuit channeling the spirit of early Luis Buñuel with dashes of Sade and Georges Bataille, and definitely the work of an angry or whimsical young provocateur heaping execration on society. What censors would approve?

In his making-of, Bonan indicates he was blindsided when the short got banned, nor did this help his chances with A Woman Kills. In the same breath, he says he was thinking of Buñuel. Buñuel’s L’age d’or (1930) caused riots and got banned! Bonan must have felt so young and free that he forgot to think of that.

He also states that he was born in Tunis, witnessed French colonialism firsthand, and had very sour thoughts about society. He founded a radical film collective that was present at the beginning of the French unrest. Even before that, he witnessed radicalization among German students. He tells a wonderful story that students took over a cinema on Rue Luxembourg during the May events and played the forbidden Tristesse des Anthropophages. They dug it.

As for A Woman Kills, the unfinished edit screened to an enthusiastic crowd in 2010, and this led to the final post-production and release a few years later, to Bonan’s surprise. It’s nice that he’s around to enjoy this validation.

Fortunately, we no longer need to ask permission from censors, at least not about Bonan’s films. He’s a textbook example of what critics call a cineaste maudit, those cursed and damned filmmakers who find a coterie of defenders while others shun or dismiss them. They work in the margins and may feel freer for it.