We had such good intentions with Mental May to examine mental health in film all month; however, it took just one French period drama to fully embrace all of the Continental fashions, schemes, and casual tobacco use instead. Once again, this week’s film doesn’t exactly connect to our monthly theme unless serving as inspiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho counts (okay, that totally doesn’t count). However, I think you may be persuaded to overlook the continued neglect of our theme based on the intensity of the suspense here, the twists and turns, and healthy dose of moral ambiguity.
A murder plot goes awry after the wife and mistress of a shady headmaster team up to stage his death as an accident.
As far as boarding schools go, the one Michel Delassalle runs isn’t one of your posher options. In fact, it tends more to the 19th-century, Jane Eyre type of school in which pupils are served spoiled food to cut corners and given rather draconian punishments for minor offenses. Though his wife Christina holds the purse strings, her unspecified heart condition means she has to take it easy, and Michel is more or less free to be an unpleasant asshole all of his waking hours.
Determined to spread his misery around, Michel is openly having an affair with teacher Nicole Horner. Rather than resent each other, though, the two women seem to share a bond over how terrible and inescapable is sleazy Michel.
After a late night fight in which Michel gives Nicole a black eye, she’s decided enough is enough. Secretly showing Christina some poison stashed away at the school, Nicole suggests the timing has never been better. With the school breaking for a 3-day holiday, the two women can carry off a rather convoluted plan that basically boils down to poisoning Michel and dumping his body in the school’s pool.
Leaving early in the morning, Christina accompanies Nicole to her home in western France. Nicole rents out the upper level to a married couple who are obviously there to create extra moments of suspense, but I’m not mad about it. That night, Christina calls Michel to demand a divorce, which brings him out to confront her immediately.
Horrible people of the world, here’s your last plea to be just a little less awful: when serving Michel poisoned wine, Christina hesitates just a bit, spilling the glass down his shirt. But, of course, rather than being understanding, Michel flies off the handle, reaffirming his wife’s conviction that he’s absolutely got to go. After the poison takes effect, Nicole holds down Michel in a full tub, placing a heavy bronze statue on his chest for good measure.
After a suspenseful trip back to the school, Nicole and Christina wait for someone to discover the body in the pool. After several days pass and no body materializes underneath the layer of leaves and grime floating on the water’s surface, Nicole sets up a potentially gruesome way for one of the pupils to find the headmaster. However, nothing shows up–even when the pool is drained completely. Other eerie happenings go down when one of Michel’s suits is delivered to the school by a man matching his description, and a boy says the headmaster has punished him for misbehaving.
When a body is found in the Seine, Christina is almost relieved. However, when she goes to identify the body, it turns out it isn’t Michel after all. Noticing her distress, a retired police detective offers to help Christina track down her husband. Oh shit.
More of an anxious wreck than ever before, Christina confesses to Nicole that she’d rather this all end so she could face whatever is coming. In a shocking twist, the detective announces he has found Christina’s husband–what can that possibly mean?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
To honor the warning that accompanies the end of this film, I will not spoil this for my friends (even though I’ve got to question the validity of a 65-year-old spoiler warning). I will say that this film is ridiculously suspenseful at times, and the buildup to our dramatic twist is quite satisfying. However, possibly because of the years I’ve spent watching Hitchcock (and soap operas), the twist is perhaps not quite as much of a surprise as intended. I think most fans of film will immediately latch on to several offhand remarks and have a pretty good idea of how things will end up.
That’s not to say the film lacks tension or quite horrific moments. I was genuinely shocked when Nicole sent one of the schoolchildren diving into a pool with a dead body in it. There are also some really disturbing shots of both Michel’s body and the liquids seeping from it. Even in black and white, this is vile.
It also makes me shudder that Christina considers divorce a sin, and that the terror and shame surrounding it are (in her mind) somehow worse than murder. There can certainly still be some (or even a great deal) of shame surrounding divorce, but it does seem to be more accepted today than ever before. I mean, especially if the alternative is murder? Though the fashions and casual cigarette-smoking while wearing sunglasses work aesthetically, I am once again pleased not to live during an earlier time in history.
In conclusion, this is creepy and atmospheric AF, but I was hoping for a little more fraternité between our leading ladies.