When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism. Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert. He is begging for ignorance. Cursing his intellectual nature. Wishing for simplicity. This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.
The film opens with man (Michel Bouquet) sitting in a chair while, in the background, a naked woman squats on the bed on all fours. “Charles, come and play…” she purrs seductively at the visibly anguished man. “Come and play… or I’ll make you pay!”. She glares up at him “If you knew what I’ve done…” she shifts to the polite form and repeats herself “If you knew what I’ve done… I deserve the worst”. She then encourages him to put his hands round her neck. The next thing we see is Charles letting himself out of the apartment, the body of the woman lying prone on the bed.
Charles Masson is an advertising executive. He has two children, a loving wife Helene (Stephane Audran) and a devoted best friend François (François Périer) who built his house under the explicit instructions to make it as avant garde as possible in the hope that the modernist architecture would help Charles keep the onset of bourgeoisie at bay. Everyone loves Charles. He is a decent man. When an employee is caught with his hand in the till, he cannot even bring himself to admonish the man. And because Charles is such a decent man, it simply does not occur to anyone that he might not only carry on a sadomasochistic affair with his best friend’s wife Laura (Anna Douking) but also wind up strangling her.
Chabrol does not initially show us the murder or explain why it happened. But he does show us that Charles is slowly falling to pieces. He cannot concentrate at work, he is snapping at his wife and he has started using laudanum in the hope of getting some sleep. Eventually, he cracks. He admits to his wife that he was having an affair with Laura prior to her death. However, rather than being angry or resentful, Helene absolves him of his guilt. This does not go down well and Charles continues to go downhill. Then, he cracks again. Revealing to his wife that not only did he have an affair with Laura, he also killed her. He killed her because he could not stand the things that she wanted him to do to her. Sadistic, humiliating things that gave pleasure to Laura and pain to Charles despite the fact that it was Charles who was having to do these things. However, yet again, Helene forgives Charles. She argues that it was not his fault. Laura had been chasing after him for years and not only did she want Charles to brutalise her but Charles’ decision to push things too far was almost a form of self-defence, a means of freeing himself from an intolerable relationship. Helene’s seemingly bottomless well of forgiveness tortures Charles even more. He confesses to his friend but there too he encounters nothing but forgiveness and assurances that sending him to prison would only cause more unhappiness by depriving Helene of a husband and the children of a father. In fact, François does not even want the murder of his wife to damage their friendship, thereby denying the guilt-ridden Charles of the modicum of comfort that might have come from having his best friend turn his back on him.
Suddenly, Charles starts to sound a lot like Laura. He speaks of the need for punishment and for retribution for his misdeeds. Having confessed and been absolved by everyone who will listen he starts to talk about the need to give himself in to the police. After begging with him to rethink his actions, Helene then changes roles. From a bottomless font of forgiveness to avenging angel, she spikes his water with enough laudanum to kill an elephant.
Months pass and Helene receives a letter from François. It is ambiguously worded and speaks nebulously of Charles as a wonderful man and of the need for God to forgive them. Charles Mother points out that the children are starting to forget. Helene simply looks at her, she finds herself in the same position as Charles once did. She has committed the perfect crime. Can she live with that guilt in a way that Charles could not?
Juste Avant La Nuit is part of a series of films made by Chabrol in the late 60s and early 70s about the moral vacuity of the middle classes. This cycle also includes Les Noces Rouges (1973) and La Femme Infidele (1969). The thematic unity of these films is reinforced by Chabrol’s tendency to use and re-use the same actors, frequently with the same character names. Indeed, by casting Michel Bouquet opposite Stephane Audran, Chabrol seems to be presenting us with a film that is the mirror image of La Femme Infidele. All of these films revolve around the capacity of the bourgeoisie to both commit and forgive murder in order to preserve their lifestyle. In Les Noces Rouges, the couple fail to run away for fear of losing their position, In La Femme Infidele, the husband kills his wife’s lover but never mentions it for fear of disturbing their relationship.
Chabrol’s bourgeois are people trapped and incapable of accepting their conflicted nature. On the one hand, they are civilised, urbane and wealthy individuals that are free to live their lives however they see fit. But on the other, they crave limitations, rules and boundaries. this conflicted vision of humanity is present not only in the work of Sartre but also of Freud : In Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), Sartre speaks of the anguish and despair felt by people who realise that they are free and responsible for their actions. There is no universal code of ethics, no objective form of human flourishing, only what you can live with. Many people who experience these feelings of anguish and despair respond by throwing themselves into the arms of a moral system. As Freud said in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922) that the group : “Wants to be ruled, and oppressed, and to fear its masters”. Charles, much like Laura before him (and possibly Helene after him) yearns for censure. He cannot cope with having sole responsibility for his actions and so he tries to submit himself to a series of authority figures… first his wife, then his friend and finally the police. However, Charles’ refusal to accept responsibility is shared by his friends, all of whom are willing to pass judgement on him.
If we push the idea further, we can also find an explanation for why it is that Charles kills Laura. Chabrol never shows us the murder or allow us any first-hand insight into the relationship between Charles and Laura. All we have to go on is Charles’ admission that Laura forced him into a sadistic role against his will. What evidence we have certainly supports this contention as Laura seems to ‘top from the bottom’, threatening revenge for failure to comply. However, Laura is happy in her position. Her bourgeois conflict between freedom and regimentation has clearly found a balance in her forcing of people to brutalise her. she is free and sexually independent in her willingness to take a lover whilst married, but she is also willing to face the punishment that comes from transgressing the norms of bourgeois society. However, Charles is another matter. his desire to be free asserts itself in his affair, his engagement with kinky sex and his murder of Laura but he refuses to accept these elements of his nature. His description of Laura is of some kind of Svengali-style rapist who lured him into a psycho-social trap and then forced him to murder her. but there is a more plausible justification for the murder.
The early British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once said that we do not want to kill the people we hate most, instead we want to kill the people who evoke in us the most unbearable conflicts. This is because it is human nature to try to resolve inner conflicts decisively. To be one thing or another. Much conciliatory art (such as the films that dominate the Gay Indie film scene), is based upon the idea that conflicts are a result of confusion. Confusion that can be solved simply by ignoring one part of our nature. However, the reality is that inner conflicts define us as people and drive us forward. They are not battles that can be won, they are battles that are forever being fought and the dust cloud that rise from the battlefield is who and what we are. When Charles met Laura and her need for complex sexual power dynamics, he was reminded of the conflicts that rage within his bourgeois existence : The urge to be free, the urge to be submissive. By having an affair with Laura, he was forced to confront his own uncertainties and rather than assume the responsibility for ending the relationship, he chose to erase Laura. To erase the source of his confusion and the reminder of his own conflicted nature.
When Charles’ friends, co-workers and family speak of his as a good man, they are seeing what Charles wanted to be. A man who was aware of his bourgeois desires but who kept them in check by working a creative job, living in an avant garde house and engaging in extra-marital affairs. Charles had the potential to be a great man but he never quite achieved it. Better then that he be remembered by friends and family alike as the man he wanted to be.