Truffaut/Hitchcock and 50 years of The Bride Wore Black, aka the Kill Bill of its generation

Baradwaj Rangan

May 14, 2018 12:38:55 IST

François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, starring Jeanne Moreau, turned 50 this April. Today, the film is better known as the film Quentin Tarantino claimed not to have seen when he made his two Kill Bill movies, despite the absurd similarities in plot (a bride is widowed at her wedding; she sets out to take revenge on the men she holds responsible). The Bride Wore Black isn’t one of Truffaut’s major movies – though, of course, one could argue that with an auteur, every movie is a major movie because it says something about the filmmaker. For instance, you could say that The Bride Wore Black is important because it’s one of the films that followed Hitchcock/Truffaut, the now-legendary book length interrogation of Hitchcock’s movie methods by Truffaut.

The English edition of the book came out in 1966, but the interviews were conducted during the span of a week in 1962. At an American Film Institute seminar, Truffaut said, “When the camera is in the countryside and is going to film a car that’s going by on the road, and the following scene would be inside the car... The way many films would do it, you’d see the car arriving from a distance... It gets larger and larger... The car passes in front of the camera and becomes small again... And then you jump into the car... And I realised it was better to cut when the car was the largest, when it was right in front of the camera... This is the kind of thing that made me want to talk to Hitchcock.”

Generalising a bit, this is too “flashy” an edit point for a European film, whose rhythms are generally looser. But the directors of the New Wave worshipped Hitchcock, and they essentially elevated him to the auteur he is regarded as today. Truffaut wrote in his introduction to the book, “It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock.” Given the dextrous mix of cinephilia and fanboyism in the interviews, it’s only to be expected that Truffaut’s book had an impact on Truffaut’s subsequent work. So let’s look at Truffaut’s sixties’ films, 1962 onwards (ie the year he conducted those interviews with Hitchcock).

That very year, he made Jules and Jim, a bohemian love triangle. Then came The Soft Skin (1964), another love triangle, though a more adulterous one, given that the man was married. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi novel, and Stolen Kisses (1968) was the third instalment in the series of films about Antoine Doinel, the character we first met in The 400 Blows. Trivia note: The second part was a short film, Antoine and Colette, which was folded into an omnibus titled Love at Twenty. It had five segments by five directors from five different countries. The illustrious list of filmmakers included Marcel Ophüls (son of Max Ophüls), Renzo Rossellini (son of Roberto Rossellini), and, believe it or not, the great Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda.

That leaves us with The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969) – and these are two of the most “Hitchcockian” films in Truffaut’s oeuvre. (The director’s last film, a whodunit titled Confidentially Yours, is another candidate for this category.) The more glamorous Mississippi Mermaid, starring mega-stars Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo, was labelled – by Ty Burr, in the Boston Globe – as “a Hitchcock movie with the soul of a Jean Renoir drama.” It was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, who was also responsible for the source material that Hitchcock turned into Rear Window. But The Bride Wore Black carries additional baggage from Hitchcock, and I’m not just referring to the early scene at the train station (reminiscent of Hitchcocks Marnie) featuring the black/grey-clad heroine with a suitcase.

Along with other quotes – the poisoned drink from Notorious; the concert hall scene from The Man Who Knew Too Much; and from Foreign Correspondent, the body falling from a height (see clips above and below; the quote extends to the framing of the killer’s palms) – the biggest tribute to Hitchcock is the use of the Master’s regular composer, Bernard Herrmann. (The Kill Bill similarities, too, have to be mentioned at this point. The widowed bride ticks a name off a list whenever she bumps off a target. The scene where Uma Thurman kills a mother in the presence of her young daughter is similar to the one where Jeanne Moreau kills a father in the vicinity of his young son. But what can one say when Tarantino shrugged it off as coincidence? Maybe, as widely reported, he was inspired by the manga-based Lady Snowblood, the 1973 Japanese thriller where a woman seeks revenge on three men.)

Today’s audience would definitely respond more to the Tarantino treatment, which is more... well, today. There’s an abstract remove when Jeanne Moreau does her ridiculous things (kill a man with a bow and arrow; push a man from a balcony while a crowded party is underway in the adjacent room), whereas there’s a primal adrenalin surge when Uma Thurman does her ridiculous things (punch her way out of the coffin she’s buried in; murder by a... black mamba!). It’s because of what we, in India, call the masala mode, where the pitch is so heightened with music and emotion that the ridiculous no longer seems ridiculous. Also, Hitchcock would have surely explained how the widow tracked down the five men responsible for her husband’s death. Moreau simply says things like “You’ll never know,” and “It took me a long time to find you.”

But this unknowability is part of the high of watching a certain kind of European cinema. Not everything is explained, and so we strive to fill in the gaps. I often resort to the theory of “logical logic” versus “emotional logic.” The former is when all the knots are resolved neatly. The latter demands of us leaps of faith (provided we buy into the film). So here’s how I am able to apply “emotional logic” to The Bride Wore Black. People go crazy in love and loss, and this irrationality is mirrored in the plot – it’s what we see and call “ridiculous.” Annette Insdorf observed, in her book François Truffaut, “In this color film, [the protagonist] wears only black and white; her clothes represent her absolutism – the purity of her motives, the darkness of her deeds.” Brilliant! Now, let’s not get into the discussion whether Truffaut intended it this way. It makes the heroine a bit more knowable, and that’s what matters.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: May 14, 2018 17:13:06 IST