"Violette," now at the Outer Circle 2, is Claude Chabrol's desultory, unrevealing chronicle of the Violette Noziere case, a celebrated Parisian scandal of the early '30s. Outwardly a demure and dutiful daughter, 18-year-old Violette slipped out of her parents' stuffy apartment in the wee hours to prowl the Latin Quarter and behave like a barazen hussy.
She seems to have sustained the deception for a considerable time, financing her secret life in part by stealing from her parents and engaging in prostitution. Somewhat incredibly, she persuaded her parents, a railroad employe and his wife, that a case of syphilis originated in some mysterious hereditary blemish, for which her doctor insisted that mom and dad take medication. The medication was administered by Violette and eventually proved fatal to her father. Mother survived to condemn Violette at a sensational trial, which ended with the defendant being sentenced to the guillotine, at which point Mrs. Noziere pleaded for clemency.
Violette did in fact escape execution. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released in 1945 after serving almost 12 years. She married the son of a prison clerk, went into the hotel business, bore five children and evidently led a contented, unexceptional bourgeois existence until her death from cancer in 1963.
At the time of her celebrity Violette evidently became something of a sociopolitical touchstone. The surrealists found her particularly inspiring as an example of subconscious desires made manifest. In their view Violette had broken through the constraints of bourgeois piety and morality. The poet Paul Eluard speculated that "... Violette dreams of baths of milk Of dresses of silk Dresses of pure blood One day there will be no more fathers In the gardens of youth There will be only strange men Everyone an unknown Men for whom she is totally new And the first woman Men for whom she escapes herself Men for whom she is no one's daughter. Violette dreamed of undoing And indeed undid The ghastly serpent's nest of blood ties .
Claude Chabrol has sounded similarly obsessed, if considerably less poetic, in confessional remarks like the following "I fell in love with Violette Noziere long before I understood her... I had to tear at her ghost, peel away at her dreams, go through her everyday life... I didn't wish to judge her, but to understand her."
Despite this profession of artistic hot blood, Chabrol doesn't appear to do much more than fumble around with Violette's case history and psyche in the dogged course of "violette." He may sound like a potential soul rapist, but he doesn't lay a finger on his subject. If Chabrol discovered motives for Violette's perfidious, girlish behavior that fail to meet the eye, he hasn't bothered clarifying them for the greater glory of his movie and edification of the public.
Over the years Chabrol has become stilted by making a specialty of savaging caricatures of the petit bourgeoisie. "Violette" appears to be an opportunity to reinforce his attitudes rather than explore hidden psychological depths. Isabelle Huppert, the young actress chosen to portray Violette, is rapidly becoming the favorite impassive madonna of the contemporary French screen. Although pale makeup has concealed Huppert's distinctive freckles, her largely expressionless Violette is no more revealing than her expressionless victim in "The Lacemaker." Her pensive, preoccupied look is awesomely inconclusive.
Chabrol doesn't suggest a less obvious explanation for the Noziere tragedy. He merely obscures the case by placing a premium on dressing and lighting Huppert for "enigmatic" glamor.
But are the suggestions misleading? Huppert has the air of a movie femme fatale, a Mata Hari, rather than a kid in compulsive kinky disguise. Is the lack of intensity, particularly in the form of erotic urgency, really true to Violette or just a consequence of Chabrol's glossy smugness?
She's always fresh out of smoldering animal magnetism. It's a typical Chabrol joke that he shows Violette tearing into the roast beef moments after biandly poisoning her mother and father. The hunger of his bourgeois characters is almost always confined to their stomachs.