The influence of the magnificent Alfred Hitchcock is easily discernible in countless films, and impossible to avoid in those of Francois Truffaut. Soft Skin, Truffaut's best film, integrates into its exhausting spontaneity setups from North by Northwest, and Farenheit 451, Truffaut's worst film, slavishly duplicates shot sequences from all Hitchcock's late work, climaxing in a dreadful track-in/zoom-out shot recreating Hitchcock's Vertigo distortion effect. God knows we can all learn from the Master. Nonetheless, Hitchcock-imitation is not one of Truffaut's more endearing stylistic traits and, light years behind his idol in quality, Truffaut's films have become increasingly insubstantial.
The Bride Wore Black would appear a step in the wrong direction, Truffaut having subtitled it unofficially his "hommage a Hitchcock," the film directly after publications of the huge Le Cinema Selon Hitchcock now on everybody's coffee table. But the film pleasantly reveals Truffaut as having learnt more and imitating less. Only the music (by Bernard Herrman, composer of Vertigo and five other Hitchcocks), and a few shots (for example, the early close-up of the suitcase, from Marnie) recall specific Hitchcock films, and Truffaut provides instead a carefully crafted film molded around stylistic devices Truffaut reveres as a result of his love for Hitchcock.
Much of Hitchcock's art relies on point-of-view, the director showing action as seen by the protagonist. When the audience and the characters share a single eye, audiences naturally begin to identify with the person through whose eyes they see; Hitchcock often undermines our complacency by forcing us to identify with a peeping tom (Rear Window) or murderer (Psycho). Halfway into The Bride Wore Black, the camera begins to follow a young mother and her son walking home from school; although we do not see Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) following them, the boy's glances directly into the camera lens make us realize Julie's presence as that of the camera. To a limited extent Truffaut can make use of point-of-view and the consequent audience identification with Julie to prevent us from watching her with detachment, judging her without contemplation. She is after all, systematically murdering the five men responsible for the accidental death of her husband just following the wedding ceremony. The relative innocence of the five men is established quickly, so Julie's singular passion could appear unreasonable were we not given insight into her character, a share in her reactions, through point-of-view. Truffaut's desire is to create a moral ambiguity with regard to pedestrian questions of good and evil: we are not allowed to judge either Julie or her victims guilty or innocent and can only concentrate on the chilling mechanics of Julie's bitterly romantic quest.
Hitchcock's films often concern individual therapy and emotional redemption through bizarre and indirect encounters with melodrama. In North by Northwest, Thornhill's adventure with the spies almost kills him, finally leaves him a more complete man than in the beginning of the film; Jeffries in Rear Window is more mature for his journey into depravity, as is Marnie after experiencing for a second time the trauma of her youth. Truffaut is too intelligent to afford dramatic consummation only to Julie's desire for revenge, and some indirect therapy does take place in The Bride Wore Black, Truffaut suggesting that at least three of Julie's victims die more realized human beings, better for having known her. On one extreme the first victim sees Julie and briefly questions the nature of his expedient marriage plans; most seriously, the painter (brilliantly played by Charles Denner) falls deeply in love with her. Julie is cognizant of her potential for redeeming these men, but she painfully subordinates any feelings of mercy to her solitary desire for revenge. "I am," she says to her third victim suffocating in a broom closet, "already dead. I died when David died." Her love comprised the whole of her life and, once destroyed, she allows no possibility for individual renaissance.
But regardless of point-of-view and our knowledge of the intensity of her purpose, Julie's killings if understandable, are nonetheless private acts in which we cannot share. Flashback sequences, so purgative and cathartic in Hitchcock, are coldly detached in The Bride Wore Black, existing in a no-man's-land between Julie and the audience; the slow motion sequence is stylistically justifiable only if we interpret Coutard's contemplative panning as emerging from a half-memory of Julie's too personal for us to experience. The last shot of the film also deprives us of the vision we are accustomed to: Julie's final killing is very much her own, and though we will make of it what we can, our own conclusions are of decidedly secondary importance.
The Bride Wore Black is perhaps less an homage to Hitchcock than Truffaut's own attempts at working Hitchcock-style, planning every shot and cut in advance of the shooting. Coutard's claustrophobic framing suggests "plan-sequence," sketches of shots realized by the camera, and there are no traces of the nouvelle vague hand-held technique of Truffaut's films through Soft Skin. A shot will follow a telephone wire in close-up through two rooms, stopping briefly at a closeup of the phone, then dollying into a medium close shot of the victim, unaware his phone wire has been severed. In this respect, The Bride Wore Black is a calculated film, one difficult to fault because it is plainly exactly what Truffaut wanted it to be.
The workingout of stylistic change is often a laborious process, and The Bride Wore Black reflects much of that in its shaky moving shots and occasional harsh cuts. But anything made with any kind of style is good to see these days, given what Hollywood is releasing, and the pleasure of having a new Truffaut around is diminished only by the Boston release this week of Bunuel's Belie de Jour, and Chabrol's incredible The Champagne Murders, about which we will have more to say later.