Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sacha Guitry's LA POISON gets The Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-ray & DVD

Sacha Guitry. Hmmm... Of course, you've heard the name of this Russian-born, French playwright/filmmaker/actor. But his actual work...? Not so easily or quickly identified. As much as TrustMovies prides himself on knowing and appreciating French film, he is embarrassed to say that, until viewing LA POISON -- the 1951 film to be released on Blu-ray and DVD this coming week via The Criterion Collection -- he had never actually seen a Guitry movie. All that has now changed, as I plan to lap up each and every film by this fellow that I can find.

La Poison proves an original surprise from its opening credits onward. In those credits, which suddenly move from the usual written-words-on-screen to an in-person appreciation, as M. Guitry -- shown above, center, with two of his actors from the film -- takes the time and trouble to thank each of his actors, as well as his cinematographer, editor, set designer, music composer and every last person who collaborated on the film for their efforts. (He even makes a quick phone call to thank a woman we never see but whose voice we hear in the film.) Guitry also manages to get in a delightful bit of praise for, as well as a dig at, La Comédie-Française, regarding those two actors (Jean Debucourt, left, and Jacques Varennes, who flank him, above.

Because, La Poison is the first and only piece of Guitry I've seen, I must base my ideas and opinion solely on it. From this, I'd say the man had a great gift for witty dialog, smart and subtle satire, and a marvelous appreciation of human hypocrisy combined with a gift for unveiling that hypocrisy in all its varied splendor. His theme here is marriage gone about as sour as marriage can go, which had led to its participants' plans to do away with each other. Hers (Germaine Reuver, above), the poison of the title, is the more standard approach, while his (that great and unique French actor Michel Simon, at left, below) turns out to be something quite different that blossoms and evolves in amazing ways as the plot unfurls.

Guitry's film begins slowly and sweetly, with a look a "typical" French provincial town that turns out to be both typical and not so. The town's priest (Albert Duvaleix, above, right), as in the work of Marcel Pagnol, dispenses as much logic and solid, worthwhile advice, as he does religion, while the town gossip, (Pauline Carton, below), rather than being some mean-spirited bitch, turns out to be pretty smart, as she and the town pharmacist go over the various ailments that plague the citizens, and she compares here own notes regarding a person's character with the prescription given him (or her). This is a scene -- cleverly mixing humor, intelligence and moral ambiguity -- that you will not have encountered.

Once the "murder" plot is set in motion, the pace picks up mightily, as do the film's humor, satire and surprise. How Guitry works out his particular and peculiar "morality" is as smart, shocking and delightful as anything you'll have seen. Tt will have you alternately laughing and gasping, and always alert so as not to miss a single, clever, engaging bit of word play or moral hypothesis.

Performances are all you could want (Guitry clearly knew his actors and what they could accomplish like the back of his hand), and his keen appreciation of what human beings -- including, yes, children -- so often understand and can reveal seem to me pretty extraordinary. (That's Jeanne Fusier-Gir, above center, as the town florist.)

Criterion's new Blu-ray is spectacular indeed. The transfer could hardly look better, competing I should think, with the film's quality at the time of its theatrical release. Supplements include a lovely appreciation of Guitry, his work, and particularly this film, by no less than Olivier Assayas, while the supplementary 24-page booklet includes a fascinating essay by Ginette Vincendeau that details the movies strengths, as well as its misogyny, along with details of Guitry's life and WWII activities. It's a must-read (but see the film first), as is the wonderful obituary on Guitry included here, which was written by François Truffaut.

Arriving on both Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection this coming Tuesday, August 22, La Poison, in French with English subtitles and running just 85 minutes, will be available for both purchase and rental.

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