Monday, July 27, 2009


By 1959, Jean Renoir seems to have become the Alfred Hitchcock of France, not for making popular thrillers, but by becoming a TV personality as well as a film director. He had released many of his films to television, and filmed introductions to them that we see today on Criterion DVDs. This late feature from the great Frenchman exploits his TV celebrity, opening with him arriving at a studio and preparing for a broadcast. The broadcast itself is "Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier," which Renoir introduces as a review of recent shocking events.

Friends began to suspect that something was wrong with Dr. Cordlier (Jean-Louis Barrault, above) when he changed his will, leaving his entire estate to a Monsieur Opale, a stranger to all who knew the doctor. It soon emerged that Opale was a man believed responsible for a series of random, brutal attacks throughout Paris. Cordelier told his closest friend, the attorney Joly, that Opale was assisting him in important experiments as a test subject. These experiments were to revolutionize Cordelier's field and make a fool of his great rival, Dr. Severin. The more people learned about Opale, however, the more intolerable his relationship with Cordelier became. He probably killed Severin, and appeared to have kidnapped Cordelier himself before the more awful truth emerged....

Opale strikes.

The story may remind you of something, especially with the final revelation that Cordelier had lived a kind of double life. Renoir is telling a kind of cinematic joke, and it's meant in part to be a joke on the audience. Le Testament is, as you've probably deduced, a modernization in a Parisian setting of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. While I don't know Renoir's motives for certain, it looks like he wanted to make the story fresh and surprising again, first by changing the setting and then by telling it in a novel manner. That's actually a pretty bad pun and I apologize for it. What I was trying to say is that Renoir sought a new approach to telling the Jekyll story on film and found it by adopting the structure of the original novel. Movie versions usually tell the tale from Jekyll's perspective, so that we follow his experiment from the beginning. The novel saves the dual identity of Jekyll and Hyde for a big revelation near the end of the story, leaving the relationship of the two individuals a mystery for as long as possible. Renoir seems to be conducting a kind of experiment himself (apart from making a feature-length film for television five years before Don Siegel's pioneering American effort, The Killers). The object, perhaps for his own amusement, may have been to see how long it would take before audiences recognized the familiar story.

Apart from the meta-element, Dr. Cordelier is, like any Jekyll movie, a showcase for the lead actor. Because Renoir tells the story as Stevenson did, there aren't really any transformation scenes, so Barrault's job is to sell the characters as distinct personalities as long as possible. He does it with a simple, almost crude makeup job, including some skunky looking hair on his wrists, along with clothes that seem a little too big for him (following the original premise that the Hyde persona is smaller than Jekyll). He adds a repertoire of spasms and a sort of lean in his walk that reminded me (and many viewers) of someone out of silent comedy. Renoir's filming on the streets of Paris put me in mind of the earliest Keystones and other comedies that consisted mainly of the comedians running amok in public. He and Barrault obviously shared an appreciation of silent clowns as often malevolent grotesques whose humor derived as much from cruelty as from pathos. Because Opale uses a cane a lot, he reminds many people of Charlie Chaplin in the earliest incarnation of the Tramp character in the Sennett and Essanay films, in which Charlie often had that malevolent spirit Barrault incarnates. At the same time, the actor reminded me vaguely of contemporary British comics, becoming a kind of amalgam of everything from Peter Sellers to Monty Python without the jokes, as if Renoir's film was really the first movie of the 1960s. He also sometimes reminded me of a singularly ugly woman in men's clothes, or someone's parody of a butch lesbian. It's a strange, yet cool performance, and the mixed messages he sends are compounded by Joseph Kosma's score, which sometimes sounds like silent comedy music, whenever Opale prances down a street, and sometimes channels Universal Studios, whenever Opale attacks.

Opale's particular kick is attacking the weak. His assault on this poor gentleman rivals Henry Fonda's number on Wallace Ford in Warlock as Best Attack on the Handicapped of 1959.

Reviewers have criticized the cinematography, blaming it on the limitations of television, but I like the way the outdoor footage looks, and I think Renoir and cinematographer Georges Leclerc made the most of their urban locations. Films like these are partly travelogues through time for me, so simply seeing footage of Fifties Paris is a treat, but this is also good footage, as far as I'm concerned.

Le Testament is part of the ridiculous bargain that is Lionsgate's Renoir DVD collection, which includes two silent features, some shorts, La Marseillaise and The Elusive Corproral. It's still a bargain compared to the other great-director box sets the company has released, and this film definitely helps make it worth the money. Everyone agrees that it's a minor item in the Renoir canon, but it works as a light horror film that's not so different in spirit from some of the more irreverent drive-in fare of the time from AIP and other producers. Classic horror fans should definitely check out this variation on a famous theme.

Here's a French trailer for a subsequent theatrical release of the movie (uploaded by Thespilian) that gives you a fuller sense of Opale's activities. He doesn't neglect the ladies, you see, but overall prefers to beat people up.


Neil Fulwood said...

Agree with you about the cinematography: very evocative and some good compositions.

Like your choice of screen shots, especially the handicapped attack. Ouch!

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah I own this set as well. I like the packages with the striped cue card replication that opens on the hing. Too bad they never included LA CHIENNE in this set, but I managed to secure a copy of it from LD to DVDR. Exceedingly fine review here of this forgotten minor gem among the great director's prolific output.