What I Remember:
I saw this on television, probably on PBS, in the ‘80’s. My guess is it was at least the partial inspiration for “Kill Bill”. The groom at a wedding gets assassinated on the chapel steps, to the horror of all in attendance. The bride proceeds to go about finding out who did it, then wooing each person involved, and finally killing them. As I’m sure you all know, all of Tarantino’s films are referential. Almost every idea he has had is derivative, and yet he puts an original spin to make it uniquely his own. In the case of “Kill Bill”, he even names his character “The Bride”. In case you’ve never seen “Bill”, she and her entire wedding party are shot at the ceremony, and she wakes in a hospital assuming that the baby she was carrying is among the dead as well. She then proceeds to track down each person she knows responsible for the melee, and murders them one at a time.
When a film aficionado (like me, for instance) thinks of Truffaut, he (me) is immediately mindful of the great classics of his early works; the Antoine Doinel series, and of course, the superb “Jules and Jim”. Other early classics include “The Soft Skin”, and “Shoot the Piano Player”. Truffaut’s involvement in the New Wave of French Cinema cannot be overstated; he was one of the driving forces along with Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. Truffaut seemed the most approachable to American tastes of this crew. His main influences were from American Cinema, in particular Alfred Hitchcock. But Truffaut did not imitate Hitchcock the auteur, he was most interested in how Hitchcock considered his audience and their reaction to every scene and bit of dialogue that his films proffered. With Hitch, the audience was paramount. This rubbed off on Truffaut.
Just as Hitchcock would have you identify with a Norman Bates, as he nervously watched and hoped that Marion Crane’s car (with her mutilated body in the trunk) would fully submerge in the pond, Truffaut asked us to identify with Jeanne Moreau’s bride, who avenges her groom’s death by seducing and killing those responsible, rather than let the law do its job. As I recall, you root as hard for this bride as you do for Tarantino’s.
As far as I can tell, this is a forgotten classic. I remember being totally bowled over, and wondering how it was that I missed seeing this film in theater, when I was so enamored of Truffaut and Moreau. I count “Jules and Jim” in my top 20 all time. It seems in the pantheon of French Cinema, you never hear or read about “The Bride Wore Black”. Let’s see if it deserves that fate.
“I didn’t come here for love!” Julie Kohler
Prevented from suicide by her mother, a mysterious woman subsequently tracks down 5 men to murder, men whom she holds responsible for the murder of her newlywed groom on the steps of their nuptial church. She uses her feminine mystique, her cunning, her looks and her single-mindedness to trap and eventually kill her targets.
Truffaut freely admits that this is his homage to Hitchcock. Having just completed the famous coffee-table masterpiece Hitchcock/Truffaut, wherein the younger man probed in depth (via interviews) the entire canon of the elder’s work, Truffaut was suitably inspired to make this film. He went so far as to adapt a story from the same author who’s work was the foundation for “Rear Window”, his use of Eastmancolor resembles the Technicolor of Hitch, and for the final and most convincing touch, his score was composed by the great genius Bernard Herrmann.
The similarities don’t end there. Many shots and stylistic elements are direct references to the portly master of suspense. The POV shot of Julie pushing her 1st victim off a terrace is straight out of Raymond Burr attacking Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”. A leitmotif of pouring a glass of liquid into a plant or flowerpot becomes a plot device that helps a man remember where he saw our killer. Hitch was well known for these moments of revelation. Many of the scenes take place in open air, friendly environs, places you would never expect evil to be afoot. The schoolyard crow attack in “The Birds” and the Senator’s soiree where Bruno strangles a dowager in “Strangers on a Train” are prime examples of this juxtaposition that Hitchcock adored.
Be that as it may, there are so very many things in “The Bride Wore Black” that you would NEVER see in a Hitchcock movie. The bride does not ever reveal how she found out who these men are. Hitch would have found some clever way to explain this. Why does Julie Kohler know, and the Police don’t? More importantly, there is no real protagonist other than our bride. In a Hitchcock film, there would be someone with whom the audience can completely identify, someone whose humanity overcomes their desire for revenge. Exoneration is the driving force of Richard Hannay, of Roger Thornhill, of Barry Kane, of Guy Haines. Revenge is something for the bad guys.
Yet this is also French New Wave, and that movement’s disregard for Hollywood conventions developed a troop of anti-heroes. Our bride, Julie Kohler, is a standard-bearer. As I wrote before re-watching, you find yourself rooting for Julie to succeed, to not get caught, to continue. This theme is a twist from Hitchcock, who loved to manipulate his audiences in uncomfortable ways, but would always give them a more suitable target in which to invest their allegiances. It would take “Bonnie and Clyde” for American Cinema to finally give us anti-heroes akin to the French.
As for the suspense, it’s only important for Julie to stay at large until she finally gets all 5 men. You are only invested in this intellectually. You wonder how she is going to get away after pushing the first man off his terrace, but you don’t find yourself begging her to run, for God’s sake! You are fascinated why she doesn’t deface a painting of herself on the wall of the artist she has just killed, but you don’t find yourself yelling at her to wipe it out.
Why do I continue to harp upon this subject? It’s at the root of what I think makes this less of a classic than it could be. Hitchcock understood that unless the audience is emotionally tethered to a character, it is nearly impossible to create true tension and release. Therefore the audience’s experience at the cinema is one of lessened returns—a far less affecting film than “Notorious”, or “Spellbound” even. Check me out…defending Hollywood formula. Go figure. I guess it just got real cold down in hell.
I’ve already spent some time describing a number of the homages to Hitch, but there are some other elements that are worthy of discussion. Cinematically, there are some very fun moments provided by François. The final scene is a long static shot, and the action takes place off screen. Shakespeare would have been proud.
Julie’s first appearance in disguise is as an apparition, which symbolically shows her as the ghost she is, already dead inside. The billowing, white outfit is at once revealing and angelic. You can see why the men are fascinated with her, even though her target is at his own engagement party. Her scarf gets blown off the terrace and onto the awning, which allows the fiancée to go over the edge to grab it, and for her to push him off. Later after we watch her quickly walk away from the building, the camera follows the scarf as it wafts around the sea winds of the Cote D’Azur. It reminded me of “The Red Balloon” more than a bit. Eventually the scarf comes to rest in the fronds of a palm tree, and we see a jet taking off through those leaves. Of course, Julie is on that plane.
The music of Herrmann makes such a visceral connection to Hitchcock, almost in the way a song from your youth can bring a time and place physically to mind. Music can be a form of time travel, and when a composer references his own work on an earlier film, it’s almost like you’re watching both films at the same time. The score of “The Bride Wore Black” reminds me of Herrmann’s work on both “Vertigo” and “Psycho”. I rank “Vertigo” at the very top of my favorite; it is for me in a revolving door with “Chinatown”, “Citizen Kane” and “The Conversation” at the pinnacle of Cinema. Note: none of these films end happily. Just sayin’. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah- having the score bring to mind “Vertigo” and it’s near flawless majesty, probably went a long way towards pointing out just how “The Bride Wore Black” did not measure up. In fact, it helped me to realize what a thin line between homage and satire Truffaut walked while making this film.
If you don’t fully identify with Julie Kohler and her quest to rub out her husband’s murderers, don’t blame Jeanne Moreau. I read some talk about how Truffaut should have used the typical icy blonde of Hitchcock, maybe Catherine Deneuve instead of Moreau. My contention is that Moreau’s performance alone places the movie in a different strata. She is so wonderfully oblique, then suddenly shows chinks in her wall, and even has a full on breakdown while describing marrying her childhood sweetheart only to watch him be gunned down on the chapel steps. At one point, she realizes that one of her victims-to-be has legitimately fallen in love with her, and her face registers the pain of knowing that this emotional connection could never derail her juggernaut of a revenge train. It is a masterful turn, and I believe she is perfectly cast.
The men all do a great job in their reduced roles as misogynists, womanizers and losers. You do almost feel bad for them..well not ALL of them. Certainly the guy who’s kind of a flop with chicks (to quote Jerry Lieber) is a tad sympathetic, as is the artist who falls in love with Julie. The family man is kind of a self-obsessed prick, and you don’t really mind that he gets locked in an airless cupboard. All the other roles are at most one-liners, so it’s really about the killer and her victims. There is a building clerk that does a bit something like Dennis Weaver’s motel clerk in “Touch of Evil”, but it’s totally for laughs.
ON SECOND LOOK
Hitchcock never did an homage to other filmmakers, and neither did Bergman, Kurosawa or Fellini. Woody Allen has a bunch, as well as Tarantino, and here we see Truffaut take a stab. You’d think when one master references another it would be a very special, magical moment. Ivan Lins did a full record of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs. Herbie Hancock did a full record of Joni Mitchell. I want to hear the masters do their own material. There are plenty of lesser lights out there that can do the job of homage to a master. Truffaut is at his best doing Truffaut. Don’t get me wrong here—it’s a fun and surprising suspenser with twists and turns and great movie moments. It just doesn’t reach the heights of “400 Blows”, “Love on the Run”, and particularly “Jules and Jim”.
1st Look-★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★