It is surprising how much contemporary French cinema owes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944). One of Sartre’s more accessible pieces, No Exit is set in hell and features three utterly hateful and narcissistic characters slowly coming to realise that the ultimate torment is not only to be stuck in an unhappy relationship but to be stuck in that relationship because one lacks the ability to either leave it or change it for the better. The worst hells imaginable, suggests Sartre, are the ones that we create for ourselves out of our failings and cowardice. Since the New Wave, French cinema has been dominated by what is sometimes called the “film d’appartement”, a film that is character driven and relationship-focused and which draws its drama from putting a bunch of people into a closed space and allowing them to work out their problems. Claude Chabrol is no enemy to the ‘Film d’Appartement’ sub-genre. In fact, you could say that he is one of the masters of the form. His mastery comes from his willingness to not only put incredibly strange characters into his apartment, but also to allow his relationships to work themselves out naturally, regardless of how bizarre or brutal the eventual denouement. Wedding in Blood is an excellent example of Chabrol’s approach to script-writing as it is not only funny and fascinating, but also merciless in its desire to turn a cinematic social experiment into a work of satire.
Pierre Maury (Michel Piccoli) is a deputy mayor and a man of the left. He is elegant, handsome and ambitious, but also married to the sickly and frigid Clotilde (Clotilde Joano). Lucienne Delamare (Stephane Audran) is a passionate and beautiful woman trapped in a loveless but financially and socially beneficial marriage to the pompous and precious local mayor Paul (Claude Piéplu). These characters all inhabit a nightmarish vision of provincial France. A small grey town under huge grey skies and filled with locals who are either mindlessly regurgitating formal greetings at each other or engaging in vile and prurient gossip. Needless to say, Pierre and Lucienne wind up having an affair. An affair so passionate and intense that whenever they go near each other they cannot help but paw at each others’ clothes like obsessed teenagers. This establishes a source of tension. A tension between the suffocating courtly existence of the rural bourgeoisie and the demented catharsis of the affair. These tensions are magnificently laid bare by Chabrol throughout the film but two scenes stand out in particular.
Firstly, when Pierre invites himself round to Lucienne’s house in order to seduce her, the couple see their hands slowly creeping together across the back of a chair while the pair argue over whether or not making a pot of tea would constitute too much trouble. As a dance of seduction, the formality is comical and completely at odds with the savagery of the couple’s desire (shown to us at the beginning of the film).
Secondly, having enjoyed a tryst with Lucienne in one of the historical beds of a local tourist attraction, Pierre attends a council meeting at which a local grandee sighs and talks about the youth of today having no respect for anything. His features framed into a picture of mock outrage and exaggerated innocence.
As Lucienne says when she first steps into Pierre’s arms : This is going to be difficult and indeed it is. Before long, the pair’s desire to be together pushes them to take greater and greater risks. Risks to their marriages, their freedom and, most importantly, their position. First, Pierre murders his wife and then the pair laugh conspiratorially while Lucienne’s husband Paul is trying to convince Pierre to come in with him on a shady land deal. This lapse in decorum tips off Lucienne’s husband who fakes a trip to Paris and surprises Lucienne returning home from a night with Pierre. However, rather than being outraged or betrayed, Paul seems quite pleased : Not only has he found a way to keep his wife happy, but he has also found a way of assuring Pierre’s loyalty. But, instead of reassuring the lovers, Paul’s tolerance terrorises them and they decide to murder Paul.
Initially, the pair get away with it as the local establishment decides that it would be far too politically damaging for the police to start rooting around in the private lives of its grandees. Tales of sexual scandal and murder tend to play poorly at the ballot box. However, this stay of execution does not last long as Lucienne’s ethereal daughter Helene (Eliana De Santis) decides to write a letter to a local politician. The letter does not reveal any facts, nor does it suggest that Lucienne might be guilty, all it does is suggest that there are rumours circulating about the pair being lovers. When confronted by the police, Lucienne and Pierre confess. When asked why they did not elope, they admit that the idea had never crossed their minds.
Les Noces Rouges is a film about the burdens placed upon individuals by the expectations that come with social class and status. As publicly visible members of the bourgeoisie, it was unthinkable for Pierre and Lucienne to surrender their positions in the local community. It simply had not occurred to them to reject the expectations placed upon them. To rebel. To seek out freedom. They preferred to murder their spouses rather than face any embarrassment that might be caused by their eloping and building a new life together.
This kind of social paralysis caused by status anxiety is also explored in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). In that film, local dignitaries become trapped in a drawing room when nobody wants to be the first person to leave a dinner party. Where Bunuel’s characters placed politeness and social standing ahead of the demands of survival, Chabrol’s characters place them above morality and friendship. They would rather be secret murderers than be seen to be unfaithful to their spouses.
Another film that echoes throughout Les Noces Rouges’ 95 minute running time is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943). Both films share a similar vision of village life. they present it as a hotbed of rampant and brutal hypocrisy, filled with people who would never say what they think about you to your face but who would be more than happy to circulate hateful rumours about you behind your back. Also telling is the fact that Chabrol’s couple (much like those in Le Corbeau) are brought low by a letter, a letter that deals not in facts but in rumour and hearsay. Helene’s desire to see the case re-opened stems not from any desire to see the killer of her step-father brought to justice, but rather from a concern that her mother may well have picked up a reputation for cheating on her husband. So, just as the couple were driven to murder out of concern for their social position, they are ultimately brought to book because someone was hoping to protect their social position from toxic rumours. But of course, it is the rumours that ultimately destroy the couple. When confronted with the possibility that they might be lovers, the pair confess. The cat is out of the bag. If they are publicly known to be unfaithful spouses, they might as well be publicly known to be murderers.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the daughter herself. Beautifully physically cast, De Santis looks enough like Audrian to be either her daughter or her younger self. Indeed, we are told throughout the film that Lucienne had Helene at a young age and the pair enjoy a very close and conspiratorial relationship. In fact, they are so close that, at one point, Helene finishes Lucienne’s sentence. the closeness of the relationship and the fact that it is Helene who expresses concern over Lucienne’s relationship suggests that, in some way, Helene is Lucienne. In fact, it’s worth noting that when Audrian appeared in Chabrol’s previous films La Femme Infidele (1968), Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970) and Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) it was as a character named Helene. A name also shared by the characters played by Marlene Jobert in La Decade Prodigieuse (1971) and Caroline Cellier in que La Bete Meure (1969). Yet here, strangely, the name passes not to Audrian’s character but to the that of her daughter. She represents a younger and purer version of Lucienne. A version who has not yet made the mistake of getting knocked up as a teenager. So when Helene publicly expresses her concern for Lucienne’s reputation it is almost as though the real Lucienne is asserting herself and, freed from the short-sightedness of love, seeks to clear her own name of rumour and calumny.
When Pierre and Lucienne are dragged away to prison hand in hand and chained, our mind returns again to Sartre’s Huis Clos. The couple are in love and yet are destined to be separated by prison. They could have been happy. They could have been together. But instead they were prisoners of their class and of their status. Prisoners forced to kill by vanity and a lack of imagination. Hell is made of such things.