At least where articles in the English language are concerned, there are few pieces of critique available regarding Sacha Guitry's La Poison. It is tempting to conclude that this stems from the perceived or actual collective academic apathy towards comedy, a genre Guitry moves in here and in which he was prevalent towards the end of his career, in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Prevalent, in fact, is a word suited for a partnership with Guitry. Across the Second World War, and whilst also writing over one-hundred plays and other works, the director is credited with penning some thirty-three films in a period of twenty-five years.
The actuality, when digging deeper into the reasons behind the critical ambivalence towards Guitry, seems less to do with genre and more to do with interest in the man himself. Where he and his films were prevalent, those willing to watch them - especially after he was suspected of some fraternisation with occupying forces during the war - seem sparse. Described in his IMDb biography as one of his greatest commercial and critical successes, Les Perles de la Couronne has a paltry two-hundred and fifteen logged viewings.
In comparison then, La Poison, with three-hundred and fourteen, is a popular Guitry work. Part knockabout blackly comic farce, part social commentary, part Plato-esque destruction of logic, La Poison, shot in eleven days, is a real find from the archives for Masters Of Cinema. At eighty-five minutes, this is an easy-going introduction to the comic French cinema of the 1940s and 1950s but it is also a film with real worth and voice, looking predictably sumptuous on the restored blu-ray edition.
As Paul Braconnier (Michel Simon) wishes ruefully to be rid of his alcoholic frog-like wife (Germaine Reuver), a rural French village titters with rumours and gossip but suffers from a lack of visitors. Meanwhile, in Paris, superlative defence lawyer Maître Aubanel (Jean Debucourt) has just succeeded in securing his one-hundredth acquittal. Might there be a way that all parties could come together to secure the greater good of the town?
Of course, in the manner of such things, there clearly is a way to riches for the village, innocence for Braconnier and further success for Aubanel. There are few exact replicas for this style in modern cinema, but La Posion has more than a hint of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's knockabout frivolity to it. Actions are not so much conducted with a wink and a nod but the telegraphing of key moments is lingered on for comedic effect. A client in the pharmacy takes forever to get out of the door, such are her numerous stares and gestures at the abrasive Madame Braconnier.
During its early moments, La Poison seems to have more to say about the 'London Calling' effect of isolated suburbia, than anything else. Braconnier, fresh from moaning about his wife with the straight-faced priest (a fantastic Albert Duvaleix) sits at the local cafe, next to a table of men who immediately lean in to whisper about his problems. A few beats later, Devaleix stares wide-eyed at a bunch of locals who come to ask him to organise 'something extraordinary... a murder perhaps', in order to attract visitors to the town. Guitry's picture of a local idyll is less Cheshire Life, more Royston Vasey.
The final third sees Guitry in much more academic mood. Having argued for the innocence of all murderers conceptually, Aubanel is forced to face the consequences of his Greek logic when Braconnier turns to him for defence, ahead of committing the crime. There follows a blackly comic period of extended discussion - some of it in the dock - where the natural order of the murderer is put on trial. It wasn't self-defence but if Braconnier doesn't kill his wife does she not kill him? Braconnier has committed self-preservation through a pre-meditated desire for life.
That this segment never gets too heavy - though it does teeter on the brink - is down to Simon, a behemoth of a man, praised extensively by Guitry in the odd opening five minutes where the director, on screen, introduces his cast. It's perhaps ticks like this that see Guitry ignored all too often but with clever and surprisingly hilarious output like La Poison, and its exceptionally strong cast, there's likely more gold in his oeuvre for those who wish to mine it.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and/or the most pristine film elements available.
La Poison is released in the UK on Monday 25th February 2013