The writer, actor, and director Sacha Guitry emerged from the theater to become one of France’s best-known and most inventive filmmakers, and La poison marked his first collaboration with another titan of the screen, the incomparably expressive Michel Simon. With Guitry’s witty dialogue and fleet pacing, the black comedy is the quintessential depiction of a marriage gone sour: after thirty years together, a village gardener (Simon) and his wife (Germaine Reuver) find themselves contemplating how to do away with each other, with the former even planning how he’ll negotiate his eventual criminal trial. Inspired by Guitry’s own post–World War II tangle with the law—a wrongful charge of collaborationism—La poison is a blithely caustic broadside against the French legal system and a society all too eager to capitalize on others’ misfortunes.
La Poison is one of those great dark comedies that lingers long after you watch it. Back in 1951, French filmmaker, writer, and actor Sacha Guitry gave it his go at the comedy-drama genre that sparked a bit of controversy back in the 1950s, as it still does today. Guitry was born in 1885 and died a few years after the release of La Poison at the age of 72. He had lived quite a life as a playwright, a director, worked against the Nazi regime and was sent to a concentration camp for a short while. Some of his life experiences during the war and his five marriages gave way to La Poison, which follows a nasty married couple, literally through death. How Guitry framed and told this bitter story is still discussed today and how society and law enforcement chooses to do business when it comes to certain aspects, such as women and minorities.
La Poison centers around a man named Paul (Michel Simon), who is married to his wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver). They both live a simple life that seems quaint, yet happy, but that's far from reality. Blandine constantly belittles her husband Paul. She has nothing nice to say about him. In addition to her verbal abuse, she has let her looks go ( Paul refers to her physical appearance as a barrel). Blandine also has an addiction to alcohol, where she would rather drink her demons away at home alone, rather than socially.
On the other hand, Paul doesn't like his wife much either for various reasons. Little to each other's knowledge, they both dream of killing each other. Blandine secures some rat poison from a local chemist, but does no service to her plight in her unhappiness. In fact, she just rubs people the wrong way in their town. Paul has the same feeling about murder, but actually seeks help from a lawyer who basically lays out the ins and outs of getting away with killing someone.
It's actually quite funny in how these things play out on screen, as the two former lovebirds seem trapped in a funny sitcom, but with no good resolution after the thirty-minute mark. Part of the film takes place in a courtroom, where Paul is on trial. Guitry makes him the victim for sure here in that a woman sabotaged his well-being. I know that makes sense given the story here, but when Paul tells the judge that his wife is ugly and a nag, therefore he should be the victim in his crime, which can surely stir up some controversy.
The dry humor is very witty and smart throughout with some great performances by Reuver and Simon. The morals and ethics in France during this time period are definitely on trial here as well, particularly with law enforcement, as strictly being a man is justice enough. La Poison is still a wonderful film that is as relevant and funny today as it was over 60 years ago.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
La Poison comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion and is Region A Locked. There is a Criterion booklet that is fully illustrated that has cast and crew information, tech specs, and two essays on the film and Sacha Guitry. One essay is by professor Ginette Vicendeau and the other is from the iconic Francois Truffaut. This comes with Spine #891.
La Poison comes with a 1080p HD transfer and is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new high-definition restoration from a 35mm fine-grain positive. For being a film from 1951, this image is in surprisingly good shape. Detail is sharp in both close-ups and wider shots. The close-ups show the individual wild and wavy hairs on Paul's head, as well as some of the textures in the police uniforms and low-income clothing.
The grime on the walls is also easy to see and never looks soft. The black and white color scheme looks well balanced and well lit when it needs to be. There was a bit of fluctuation in the grain department, which could be heavy at times, but it wasn't a big deterrent in viewing. There were no major warps, dirt or debris on the print and the image stability was great. This is the best the film has ever looked for sure.
This release comes with a French LPCM 1.0 mix with optional English subtitles to follow along with the dialogue. According to the criterion booklet, the original monaural soundtrack was transferred from the 35mm optical soundtrack positive. Dialogue is clear and easy to follow along with the English subtitles, and free of any pops, cracks, hiss, or shrills.
Other sound effects are lively and robust along with a great score that never drowns out any other sound element. I wouldn't say this audio track has a ton of depth, as the low and high ranges are limited; nothing sounds bad, but rather vague and average.
On Life on Screen: Miseries and Splendor of a Monarch (HD, 61 Mins.) - Here is an excellent documentary that takes you through Sacha Guitry's life with tons of interviews with critics, historians, and film experts that talk about the filmmaker and his career and relationship with actor Michel Simon.
Criterion Booklet - This is a big 20 page, fully illustrated booklet that has cast and crew information, tech specs, and two essays on the film and Sacha Guitry. One essay is by professor Ginette Vicendeau and the other is from the iconic Francois Truffaut.
La Poison is a witty comedy with a layer of darkness over it that will be imprinted in your memory for a while. Filmmaker Sacha Guitry balances the comedy and political satire perfectly with two great performances from Michel Simon and Germaine Reuver. The video and audio presentations are both good and the new extras are well worth the watch. It's easy to say that Criterion has outdone themselves on this release, which comes Highly Recommended!