The universal nature of cinema is best illustrated through tributes by other directors. Acclaimed French director Francois Truffaut, part of the French New Wave, was directly influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock when he created The Bride Wore Black (he’d also just published a book of extensive interviews with the Master of Suspense). The Bride Wore Black doesn’t just borrow from Hitchcock, but also creates a new femme fatale for the violent days of the 1960s, while being an early example of the popular 1970s revenge thrillers – albeit with a female at the helm. A marriage may symbolize a new beginning, but you better make sure not to mess with the wrong bride!
Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) was a bride for a few minutes before her husband was killed in a freak accident. Unable to end her own life, Julie seeks out the five men responsible for her husband’s death, dispatching them one by one.
Having not seen much of Truffaut’s work previously, this is a highly accessible film with a lyrically straightforward script that isn’t as verbose as other French films can be. Sentences are short and clipped, no elegiac prose about the nature of existentialism here. In fact, Truffaut doesn’t do much to label this a French film outside of characters talking in their native tongue. Maybe I’ve watched too many esoteric French films, but what’s odd about The Bride Wore Black is the nature of the violent in such beautifully sterile and formal locations. It’s shocking to watch a man pushed to his death during a beautiful, all white, wedding reception. The concept of violence is at odds with such beauty, as if it’s foreign to them. I can’t comment much on this from a historical concept, but maybe the conjunction of Hitchcock’s work with the French reality says something about American violence?
You can easily discern where The Bride Wore Black has acted as muse for other directors. Immediately springing to mind is Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride from the Kill Bill series, a character that could have only been a direct descendant of Julie Kohler. Julie’s justification for seeking revenge seems warranted from a narrative standpoint, but there’s just as much empathy created for the men involved. Not all of the men responsible are sympathetic, they’re human, and Julie’s husband’s death plays as little more than a tragic accident. There’s no doubt they should be brought to justice, but the audience must ask if Julie’s brand of justice is what’s right? Prior to hatching her murderous plot, she tries to kill herself and goes to a see a priest, both a means of saving her soul and seeking religious counsel. For Julie, religion plays as little more than a face-saving measure, a means of giving her comfort, but with strings attached (she can’t kill herself and end her suffering).
There’s little plot outside of Julie literally crossing each name off her list, but each murder brings us closer to understanding why she’s hunting these guys down in the first place, and why this means so much to her. Each man Julie encounters plays on a part of her personality, and how she enters into their lives says a lot about who they are. She becomes the type of woman each man wants – whether the unattainable dream girl, the docile politician’s wife, etc. – adding an element of gender criticism to the mix. Julie isn’t a femme fatale, it’s how the men’s different definitions of “femme” proves fatale.
In fact, two men are actually incredibly sympathetic. Michel Bouquet’s Coral elicits near total sympathy as a loner who believes he’s hit the jackpot with Julie. Their sequence, the closest thing to romance we see, starts out as a sweet date between a mysterious woman and an incredibly meek and nervous man. The poison Julie gives him creates a truth serum, of sorts, as Coral relays his innermost desires about wanting to touch Julie, despite knowing she’d never give him the time of day. His death is the most heartless as he shows genuine remorse and, again, is just so pathetic. It’s this moment where the audience has a harsh decision about whether to support Julie or not. The other, slightly less, sympathetic character is Morane (Michael Lonsdale), a burgeoning politician watching his son for the day. The fact that he has a child already creates anxiety, but it’s how Julie goes about killing him that shocks. She locks him in a closet and duct tapes the door closed, every child’s worst nightmare. The fact that Julie impersonates a teacher to gain access to Morane’s home enhances this moment as maternal figure turning on her child (at the same time this moment lets Julie give background on her husband being her childhood sweetheart, another element of Julie perverting the relationship between parent and child). Considering it’s a Truffaut film, it’s not surprising that there’s enough symbolism worth exploring that books have been written.
A coldly glamorous woman would immediately turn off audiences, but Jeanne Moreau is the perfect woman for the role of Julie. Her soft features, expressive eyes, and French grace make her the perfect blend of French formalism and Hitchcock steeliness. She certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film. The movie gives her several beautiful costumes, strictly alternating between black and white, allowing her a dual role of fashion place and moral arbiter of good vs. evil.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray comes with a wealth of exclusive bonus content including an English dubbed version (you all know my issues with dubbing. Thankfully there’s a French copy with English subtitles included). Other features include the requisite isolated music track, audio commentary, theatrical trailer, and a 79-minute featurette on Hitchcock/Truffaut composer Bernard Herrmann on a separate disc.
If not for Twilight TIme I’d have never seen The Bride Wore Black. This dark Hitchcock homage eschews Hitchcock’s theatrics and psychoanalysis in favor of attacking the nature of humanity itself. What makes a person good or bad? Can one still be sympathetic for someone in spite of their sins? Jeanne Moreau is wonderful as the avenging angel jilted at the altar, and the movie has certainly inspired others since.
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