Violette Noziere

(Violette, France/Canada - 1978)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Stephane Audran, Jean Carmet, Jean-Francois Garreaud, Fabrice Luchini, Bernadette Lafont
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, Odile Barski, Herve Bromberger, Jean-Marie Fritere, Frederic Grendel
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Composer: Pierre Jansen

Introducing the audience to Violette Noziere (Isabelle Huppert) the cool, detached, disinterested nighttime seductress at a nightclub in the Latin Quarter of Paris, we never doubt she’s an adult as she searches for a suitable man. Nearly apprehended sneaking back into her house sometime after 7 A.M., she scurries back downstairs to wipe off her red lipstick and change into her modest household attire. Still caught with a gold ring she borrowed from her friend, Violette claims she found it only to have her mother Germaine Noziere (Stephane Audran) scold the 18-year-old “young girls don’t need rings” and confiscate it until she has a chance to drop it off at lost and found.

Utilizing the most complex narrative structure I’ve seen from him, Claude Chabrol constructs Violette Noziere schizophrenically, showing the distinct sides of Violette - the innocent young girl whose parents don’t allow her to grow up and the oversexed adult secretly playing out her fantasies – before overlapping them enough to bring about a tragedy. Both of Violette’s identities are role playing, which comes easy to this woman who is always concocting some story, identity, alibi, or future endeavor on the spot for those who are generally all too willing to believe her. She discovered early on that others are happy with her as long as she’s what they believe her to be, but of course since she isn’t trouble is sure to ensue.

Violette is a dreamer, and one of her dreams is to find a really decent man who will take her to the seaside town of Sable d’Olonne. She literally envisions a man she’s never seen before in her dreams, so when he appears in real life she takes it as destiny and immediately falls in love. This man, Jean Dabin (Jean-Francois Garreaud), not to be confused with the legendary actor unless it’s too his benefit, turns out to be a sponger who will go on her dream vacation, if she pays his way.

Violette’s desire to experiment with other men is all but eliminated once Dabin is part of her life, as all her fantasies now center on him, her first real love. The previously indifferent Violette quickly turns into the clinging girlfriend who tries to buy the love of her gigolo. It’s not all due to Dabin, as Violette’s past indiscretions have already caught up to her, the revelation that she has syphilis creating a schism in her relationship with her mom, who was previously the parent she considered her ally. Germaine’s rejection has the effect of increasing Violette’s reliance on and blindness toward Dabin, which creates a need for money she doesn’t have, as the usual 100-150 francs a day doesn’t excite him, and it takes a lot more money to go on holiday.

Depicting the events through a fractured narrative, the film seems to exist in Violette’s memory, which considering she’s a serial liar can’t wholly be relied upon. Technically, the movie is a series of flashbacks intercut into a linear present, but recollection dictates the sequencing. Chabrol may skip a crucial scene when the time comes, and doesn’t necessarily show all the pertinent details at once, breaking some scenes into portions that aren’t revealed until something triggers the memory later on.

Violette Noziere thrives on mystery, the intrigue of the unknown, with Chabrol’s presentation piquing our interest in the truth. Some of the flashbacks function in a very clear series of largely visual filmmaking, for instance Violette telling Dabin a man like him needs a ring so Yves Langlois cuts to a scene of her stealing money from her parents while they’re sleeping and follows with her putting the ring on his finger. Chabrol is rarely so obvious though, almost never announcing what a scene is about and generally slipping revelations into a scene that appears to be about something else rather than building the scene around the critical information. We know Violette is up to something as she’s attempting to write a letter left handed. We have heard the respectable friend she “always goes out with”, Janine Deron, who we aren’t sure if even exists as we don’t know the name of the friend that lent her the ring but we suspect she’s not the sister of Violette’s doctor Deron, is finally going to meet the parents. However, Janine’s pending appearance, and later notice of her inability to attend, is a minor aspect of a crucial scene where Violette’s nosy parents confront her after discovering her night club attire and letters from Dabin, who they determine must declare his intentions toward her. Again, this casts Violette in a victims light, as although she’s actually delusional enough to want to marry Jean, parents trying to force their child to marry the first boyfriend as soon as they learn of him, without even meeting the man, are you kidding me?

There are all sorts of revelations, verifications, and confirmations of suspicions after the fact. It’s practically the only way you can learn what might be true, as Violette can’t even keep track of her own lies after a while, telling the hotel maid she’s studying history one day and medicine the next. We might think Germaine has been driven crazy by the fact her “innocent” daughter has a venereal disease, or due to the whole preposterous cover-up where Violette gets Dr. Deron (Jean-Pierre Coffe) to insist she’s still a virgin, and thus syphilis is hereditary so her parents should also take medicine for it as they obviously passed it on to her. However, during a dinner conversation with some guests we learn Germaine’s actual problem was food poisoning, which doubtlessly came from the “medicine” that was “sent” by Dr. Deron.

As this is a film by Claude Chabrol, it’s inherently a criticism of his bourgeois class. The Noziere’s are low level members, who pin most of their hopes on Violette finding a husband with a better job than a railroad mechanic like her father Baptiste (Jean Carmet), at least an engineer. Always struggling for their standing, they tend to not only ignore all signs of trouble though a kind of willful blindness, but also put their efforts into hiding them from the public. Violette has long been convinced there’s some deep dark secret her parents are hiding from her. There’s certainly a secret Germaine and Violette are hiding from the world, an important rich old man named Emile (Jean Dalmain) who had relations with Germaine and whom Violette calls father. He functions as Violette’s secret benefactor, a kind of implicit blackmail where they have a friendly relationship, he even writers her letters she hides from Baptiste, despite the backbone being Emile buying her silence.

We aren’t sure if Violette and Emile’s relationship is platonic or sexual, but certainly Baptiste at least lusts after his daughter, watching her while she’s undressing. One of the many unanswered questions is whether Baptiste goes along with the idea of hereditary syphilis for fear his incestuous relationship will be revealed. Not to downplay the severity of his actions and desires, but many of the families problems stem from not being bourgeois enough to afford a home with some space. The claustrophobia of the cramped quarters practically eliminates the possibility of privacy, rendering everyone both more nosy and more secretive.

Violette was the first of seven features Claude Chabrol has made so far starring Isabelle Huppert. He particularly likes casting the brilliant actress in films based on true stories, as in addition to Violette Noziere, Story of Women, La Ceremonie, and Comedy of Power all have her portraying real life people. Violette is certainly closest to Story of Women, playing an adventurous female who takes matters into her own hands and is ultimately condemned to death. Both films were even well received “comebacks” after brief down periods. Violette, which Huppert won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for, is her best performance for Chabrol, if for no other reason than a dreamy, disenchanted, rebellious bourgeois student trying to break free from the expectations of her controlling parents but forced to live a double life in the meantime gives her the most to work with. Violette is memorable because no matter what she does she seems to be both victim and victimizer. She can’t find anyone who doesn’t try to somehow box her in, her overbearing parents only accepting a proper little girl, the men at the night clubs mistaking her for a whore and treating her as such, and Dabin at best selling his affections. She’s always in conflict with her true self, taking advantage of others through her misrepresentation.

My favorite scene takes place early on when she’s looking to pick up a man who is reading a book in a bar. He hands it to her when she asks him what it’s about, but she tosses it back at him and makes her intentions clear by immediately placing her leg on the table (since Violette Noziere is set in 1933, her sexy attire opens down the middle so her legs are reveled upon certain movements). It’s vintage Huppert, saying nothing yet really saying everything.


* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *