Home Video Hovel: La Poison, by David Bax

Sacha Guitry’s La Poison starts like no movie I’ve ever seen before. For a few minutes, before being introduced to anything involving the story, characters or setting, Guitry himself walks around, personally thanking by name every member of the cast and crew, often offering them some sort of superlative praise. Not only is it sweet and heartwarming but opening the movie with such humanism and positivity also builds up a much needed bulwark against the deliciously cynical dark comedy to come.

Once La Poison actually begins to tell its tale, we get to know the Braconniers, Paul Louis (Michel Simon) and Blandine (Germaine Reuver). He can’t help but tell every townsperson he meets how much he hates his wife and she drinks three bottles of wine a day and is not what you’d call a pleasant drunk. At dinner, the one time a day when they are forced to be conscious in each other’s presence, they avoid conversation by listening to the radio. One evening, a news program airs an interview with a Paris lawyer who’s become famous for getting murderers acquitted. This gives Paul Louis an idea. But Blandine may have had the same idea first.

Guitry’s cast (with whom we are all so familiar by this point thanks to the opening minutes) is full of true character actor types, so self-assured and distinct that they need only be credited by their profession: The pharmacist (Jacques Varennes), the florist (Jeanne Fusier-Gir), the haberdasher (Pauline Carton). But it’s Reuver, the angry sparkplug, and Simon, with a face like a wrinkled doormat, that steal the show, as great trading barbs as they are silently, begrudgingly eating a meal together.

La Poison is always funny but often biliously so. When a judge spits, “Killing is so vile,” the attorney who has made his name defending killers replies, “Yes but it means a living for so many people.” This point of view, skewed and pessimistic but not incorrect, illustrates the movie’s greatest strength. Even as its events continue to heighten, it knows that outlandish stories only work when they have an internal logic. La Poison is never as nice and friendly as its director appears to be but, God help us all, it may be right.

Criterion’s restoration comes from a 35MM fine grain and the minor loss of information between the negative and the compressed duplication of a fine grain may account for some of the occasional soft smudginess of the final product. Still, Criterion’s high standards mean this is a fine product. The mono French audio is good and clean, with no hiss to speak of. The new English subtitles are lively and funny.

Special features include a new interview with Olivier Assayas about Guitry, a 1965 television episode featuring interviews with some of Guitry’s collaborators and a 2010 documentary on Guitry and Simon.

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