Claude Chabrol’s 1978 film Violette Noziere takes its title from the name of one of France’s most notorious murderers, a young lady who poisoned her father and attempted, but failed to also murder her mother. Violette Noziere then needs no introduction, at least to a French audience.
Set in 1930s Paris, this is a less than opulent presentation of the city of light. Chabrol’s city is one of backstreet tenements where working class folk aspire to better things, attempting above all else despite deprivation, to live respectably. The Nozieres are thus a typically bourgeoise family. Their unremarkable lives are lived according to the ‘rules’ handed down to them from above i.e. church, state, school etc.
With its garish wallpaper and solid, cluttering furniture, the film captures the drabness as well as the claustrophobia of the Noziere’s life in their cramped 2-roomed apartment rather well; for this is a world where father’s might easily embarrass daughters at importune moments and where daughters are exposed to conjugal intimacies such are the confinements in which people exist.
It's the pace of the direction that really succeeds. The Noziere family psychodrama is allowed to simmer, Chabrol happy seemingly to let the dynamics of this family psychodrama fully develop to bursting point. Those seeking instant gratification might therefore be left disappointed and critics often point out flaws in this area, but it’s the very inertia, the stasis itself which propels the tragedy.
Chabrol’s direction brings out highly intelligent performances from the film’s main protagonists. Doting mother one moment and strict disciplinarian the next, Stéphane Audran is simply superb as the neurotic Madame Noziere. Meanwhile Jean Carnet plays the role of her diffident husband with aplomb. Although undeniably much prettier than the real-life poisoner she portrays, Isabelle Huppert is ideally cast as the flighty, enigmatic Violette and plays the role with a detachment that is truly chilling.
When Violette accused her dead father of ‘improper relations,’ the trial became yet more notorious. Did incest occur or was this the ploy of a young woman desperate to avoid the guillotine? Chabrol solves the dilemma by hinting that Monsieur Noziere may indeed have had a sexual interest in his promiscuous daughter. The issue of incest is thus left unresolved.
Similarly, the question of whether Violette had a benefactor ‘Emile’ – allegedly her biological father – is hinted at, but not developed. This mysterious figure was never identified. Thanks to Huppert’s deft performance, the viewer is never quite sure then if Violette is a cold-blooded killer or a young woman struggling with some form of undiagnosed illness, psychosis perhaps. At the time the media condemned the young woman for the crime of wanting to vivre sa vie – live her own life.
Interspersing some grainy flashbacks in which the young Violette sees her railwayman father leaving her behind on a departing train is an interesting though possibly superfluous directorial decision. There’s no compelling evidence that young Violette suffered such trauma. Indeed, it seems she was brought up by adoring parents quite prepared to sacrifice themselves on her behalf.
Thus, there’s not much sympathy to be had for Violette in this film. She’s cold, calculating and needy – but oh so cute with it. Indeed, Huppert is sweetly sexy with a vulnerability that almost makes her irresistible – not quite the intended effect, or was it? Whether this makes Violette a more sympathetic character is open to question, face of an angel, heart of a devil . . .
There is something unreachable about this darling, and not just the porcelain skin and pout. Psychologically, Violette is unfathomable, inexplicable. Why did she commit this heinous act? Was it solely to hang on to the impecunious ne’er-do-well to whose arm she clung and whose extravagances she readily funded? Violette defies typology and as such will endlessly fascinate, endlessly tease.
Overall, this is an intelligent, nuanced film, one whose cinematography and eye for detail recreates the period rather fetchingly. Faultless performances increase the film’s appeal even more. And yet Chabrol’s 1978 film splits the critics - some love it, others are lukewarm – just like the film’s subject, the enigmatic, inscrutable and always unpredictable Violette Noziere.