LA VÉRITÉ (The Truth), directed by the controversial auteur terrible Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique), was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film of 1960. For its controversial, rapturously sexy 25-year-old star, Brigitte Bardot, it was a triumph as a dramatic actress, her favorite film and biggest box-office success. And it almost killed her. *
Paris. ‘Dominique Marceau’ (BB) and ‘Gilbert Tellier’ (Sami Frey), are subjects of an attempted murder-suicide. He’s dead from multiple gunshots, she’s close to death from gas inhalation. Revived, Dominique is arrested, and put on trial for Gilbert’s murder. Her hedonistic past and the circumstances leading up to the crime are recounted in flashbacks, inter-cut with the voyeuristic spectacle of a public trial.
Clouzot worried the basic theme idea—questioning our questioning of others—for years, and originally intended to star Sophia Loren. She was busy with El Cid, so he did a complete rework to suit the persona of the French sex-kitten, who until that point had displayed her charms as a dancer, a light comedienne and a pouting vixen, but had not been tested by heavy drama, matched against formidable actors. He co-wrote the script with his wife Véra Clouzot and four other scenarists, three of them women.
With the background of the free-wheeling avant garde‘s contemporary scene clashing with the phony piety and petty resentments of the establishment, using the framework of a sensational trial, constructing a character-scaffold of battling lawyers, opposing witnesses, salacious reporters and a gossip-crazed crowd, Clouzot and a first-rate array of actors deliver a vivid time capsule, a backhand to a reactionary justice system and stifling patriarchy, and throw down a gauntlet to the audience: what is “truth”?
The Prosecuting Attorney: “You spent weeks seducing him, didn’t you? Weeks!” Dominique’s Attorney: “Objection! What length of time should she have spent? Is there any legal limit on how long a seduction ought to take?”
The masterstroke was casting someone emblematic of sexual freedom, whose image and actions, on & off-screen—her very nature—drew worldwide attention, ranging from waves of obvious adulation over the playful taunt of her physical attributes, to gusts of scorn for the fact that she did what she did with what she had. But could she really act? Her eye-opening performance here put that to bed, as she not only fearlessly runs a gamut of emotions from giddy to anguished, she does so with raw and vital instinct, free of artifice. Face & form aside (well, try to dismiss either), her disarming naturalness and searing emotion puts most of the year’s standard (and rewarded) play-acting by more ‘acceptable’ actresses to shame. She deserved an Oscar nomination.
To quote critic Philip K. Scheuer’s review from the Los Angeles Times: “an amazing picture, a tour de force from all concerned. It is at once immoral, amoral, and strangely moral”.
Stellar work in secondary roles from Charles Vanel, Louis Seigner, Marie-José Nat, Jean-Loup Reynaud, Claude Berri, Jacques Perrin. Besides the director and his wife, the others contributing to the script were Simone Drieu, Jérôme Géronimi, Michéle Perrein and Christiane Rochefort. 126 minutes.
* La Vérité accumulated intense publicity from inception to aftermath. Two years in the planning, with six months filming on closed sets (the rabid press after BB like locusts on wheat). Bardot’s marriage fell apart, her husband had a breakdown. She had an affair with co-star Frey. Clouzot had a heart attack. Bardot’s secretary and trusted confidante sold her secrets to the press. Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife & co-scenarist, had a nervous breakdown (she died from a heart condition a month after the film opened). Life cruelly reflecting Art, in a coup de grace for the hobgoblin of notoriety, her publicly private world in turmoil, Bardot slashed her wrists five weeks before the film was released. It was close, but you can’t keep a force of nature down for long.
Intense to the point of megalomania, Clouzot was legendary for abusing actors to get the reactions he deemed right. During this production, BB was no exception. At one point he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her violently, saying, “I don’t need amateurs in my films. I want an actress.” Bardot’s response was to slap him and shout, “And I need a director, not a psychopath.” Another time he slapped her (something he often did with actors) and stepped on her bare toes. She slapped him back and stamped on his foot. He didn’t hit her again after that. That not enough, for one scene he wanted her to fall asleep and drool (as we sometimes can). He gave her some pills, saying they were painkillers. They were sleeping pills: she had to have her stomach pumped. She described him as “a negative being, forever at odds with himself and the world around him”….”He was diabolical. The power he had over others was very strange. He was destructive, a negative force. Yet at the same time amazingly talented. A strange, bizarre genius.”
As for the divine BB, challenging hypocrites from both sexes (there were, uh.. just two, back then), surviving the slings & arrows of moral pygmies, it was not for nothing that in her 1959 essay “The Lolita Syndrome,” feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir referred to Brigitte Bardot as “the locomotive of women’s history.” We say Oui!
Opening a new decade and outlook, 1960 unleashed a torrent of superior foreign films: The Virgin Spring, Never On Sunday, La Dolce Vita, Two Women, The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, Tunes Of Glory, Sink The Bismarck! ,Village Of The Damned, Black Sunday, The Thousand Eyes Of Dr.Mabuse, Peeping Tom, Rocco And His Brothers, Breathless, L’Avventura.