Juste Avant la Nuit
This disc is also available as part of The Claude Chabrol Collection alongside Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Le Boucher, Que la bête meure, Les Noces rouges, Nada and Madame Bovary.
Claude Chabrol’s 1971 film Juste Avant La Nuit could have been called “The Complete Complacency of the Bourgeoisie”. It’s a fascinating study in guilt which avoids most of the obvious narrative avenues, deciding instead to explore the way an individual deals with his guilt and the manner in which the revelation of his crime is dealt with by those around him. Typically, Chabrol’s interest lies not so much in the crime as in the way the crime and its aftermath fit in to a stiflingly self-satisfied bourgeois environment. Equally characteristically, his analysis of this society is bleak, cruel and remarkably bitter.
The film begins with the crime. Charles (Bouquet), an advertising executive, is in the process of playing a brutal sado-masochistic game with Laura, his mistress and the wife of his best friend Francois (Perier). When he leaves her, she is lying dead on the bed, in circumstances which remain mysterious for much of the film. What we know for certain is that he is, in some way, responsible for her death. He returns to his wife Helene (Audran) and their children, leaving the crime to be discovered by the police, and all seems well. The police are baffled and Francois refuses to believe that his best friend could have anything to do with it. But Charles’ feeling of remorse gradually becomes too intense to bear and he decides that he must tell someone the truth about what happened. The results of his truth-telling, however, are not what he expected.
Chabrol doesn’t make whodunits. His films often have the pleasures of a twisting narrative and the suspense of seeing when the criminal will be discovered but there is rarely any doubt as to the culprit. In Juste Avant La Nuit, the question seems to be not who killed Laura – we know from the beginning – but when will Charles be found out by his friend and his wife. This, however, is where Chabrol plays a couple of brilliantly clever strokes. I’ve spoilered the next section for those who haven’t seen the film.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Firstly, he focuses on Charles’ own discovery of both his guilt and his remorse. The point, as Dostoyevsky once wrote, is in the revelation of the killer to himself. Charles thinks he can return to his life and that, so long as the police do not catch him, he will be fine. But he finds out that he cannot bear the knowledge of the crime once the true horror of it is realised. Plagued at first by twitches and paranoia, he becomes obsessed with the implicit reasons behind what he had originally considered to be the accidental result of a sex game. He comes to believe that he hated Laura and her sexual hold over him - the pleasure she took in knowing that he despised himself for complying with her perverse requests – and that, consequently, he must pay for the crime.
Secondly, Chabrol demonstrates the horrifying complacency of the middle-class society of which Charles is, we discover, an unwilling member. When he confesses his affair to Helene, he expects some kind of explosive confrontation and its non-arrival disconcerts him. Later, he confesses his crime to her only to discover that she understands and is willing to become complicit in his evasion of the police. Finally, and most shockingly, he confesses to Francois and offers his life as a penalty for his action. But Francois regards his long friendship with Charles as more significant than the killing of Laura and states his lack of interest in pursuing justice. When Charles presses, needing at least some acknowledgement of the crime and, perhaps, forgiveness, Francois replies, “There is no need for forgiveness. Nothing ever happened. The matter is closed.” Charles’ sentence is to be a slow death by complete understanding and when he decides to take a stand (because no-one else will), it is the only way he can gain any peace.
Chabrol’s dislike of bourgeois society is a vital part of many of his films but the hatred is rarely as withering as it is here. He seems to be crying out against a tendency for the middle class to take the unacceptable, even the degraded, and neither judge it nor tolerate it but assimilate it. By accepting the killing, Helene and Francois are tactily making it a normal, understandable action and this is what Charles (and Chabrol) cannot bear. This is accompanied by a number of small touches – my favourite being Charles’ monstrous mother, all snobbery and hypochondria, whose reaction to the news of Laura’s death by saying “What a sordid end… I never liked her.”
Michel Bouquet and Stephane Audran are brilliant as one of Chabrol’s couples named Charles and Helene. They played characters with the same names, and similar backgrounds, in the director’s 1968 masterpiece La Femme Infidele and many of the themes of that film – bourgeois complacency, the sudden eruption of the violent into the mundane, the corrosive nature of guilt, the ways in which a certain type of married couple can adapt to virtually anything if they put their minds to it – recur here. There is also a beautifully restrained performance from Francois Perier as Francois, determined to keep his dignity even if it means rendering his emotions null and void.
Chabrol’s direction is immaculate, holding the viewer with a grip of iron, and his script contains some memorable dialogue. But there’s a major problem with the film if you look at it dispassionately – which is hard to do on a first viewing. This is that the character of Laura is marginalised. When we see her, from Charles’ point of view, it’s as a demonic temptress and she dies so soon into the film that she never gets chance to become a proper character. Later on, we hear about her exclusively from the decidedly subjective points of view of Charles, Helene and Francois. It’s such a simplistic and sexist portrayal that I find it unworthy of Chabrol whose ability to get inside the heads of female characters is rightly considered one of his greatest talents.
Once again, Arrow’s disc, part of their Claude Chabrol Collection, is rather disappointing. The film is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer from a print which has seen better days. Colours are slightly faded and there’s quite a bit of print damage. There are no significant problems with artifacting and detail is above average but it would be nice to see how good the film looks after thorough restoration.
The French mono soundtrack is also a disappointment. There’s a constant crackling on the track which I found rather distracting after a while. The music score comes over better than the dialogue but, once again, this needs some serious restoration work.
English subtitles are available and positioned at the bottom of the picture just above the lower black bar.