Classic Film Review: Reviving the end of the Nouvelle Vague — “A Woman Kills” (1968)

Little-seen if occasionally revived, Jean-Denis Bonan’s “A Woman Kills” is an arch, experimental and titillating French thriller from that seminal year in modern French history, 1968.

It’s not particularly revolutionary, as one might expect from an era of demonstrations and riots in the streets. But it’s a fascinating artifact, almost a spoof of French “New Wave” (Nouvelle vague) cinema style that’s more Godard than Truffaut

A female serial killer has been executed, our narrator tells us. Helene Picard (a fictional figure) killed prostitutes, was apprehended and got the guillotine in March of 1968. She was 25 years old.

Then street walkers start dying again. Some “sadist of the Pigalle” is chasing and strangling victim after victim.

The Algerian war vet prosecutor (Claude Merlin) who became “society’s official killer” in bringing her to justice, was troubled and is getting threatening letters now. So is an assistant to the superintendent of police, Solange Lebas (Solange Pradel).

She frets so much she goes home to shower. And then turn that into a bath. Either that’s how “dirty” she feels, or this was Paris in the ’60s, and if there isn’t nudity, what’s the point of labeling your work “a French film?”

An unseen narrator sorts through the case, listing and showing us legions of leggy victims, presenting a very myopic view of how the authorities gather evidence and mull over crime scene films in the police department’s screening room.

An unseen singer accompanies himself on guitar lamenting the vision of “a girl whose throat is being slit,” which sounds more romantic in French, because everything does.

Sound effects, of a storm that we never see happening, or a cat supposedly in this or that apartment, seem almost randomly tossed into the mix.

Our narrator seems to be piecing together a profile of a killer as he speaks of an orphaned character “with a penchant for violence and homosexuality.”

That was something like accepted-wisdom in society of that era and earlier. Think of the Leopold and Loeb murder filmed as “Compulsion,” or the homicidal homosexuals in film after film, even the James Bond epic “Diamonds are Forever.”

So the psychology introduced here, with characters talking of the trauma of their upbringing or experience in the Algerian War, is dated and crosses the line into “That’s messed up.”

It’s no shock when this short feature (68 minutes) or long short (the specialty of writer-director Jean-Denis Bonan) has a character cross-dress in the third act and lets us think, if only for a minute, that this is part of the massive police effort to capture this serial killer.

The film, finally making it onto BluRay, has all these quirky/artsy touches and a finale that is bracing and bizarre and shockingly violent.

Morality is represented, and challenged, and many touches — that voice-of-news-authority narrator, the almost random sound effects and jumping from setting to setting, shifting points of view — seem designed to undercut what we or “justice” can know about a crime or a criminal.

But it’s a fascinating black and white snapshot of1968 f Paris and an engrossing if untidy tale of injustice and second guessing justice and policing those who police us.

Rating: unrated, bloody violence, sex, nudity

Cast: Claude Merlin, Solange Pradel, Myriam Mézières, Jackie Raynal, Catherine Deville, Velly Beguard

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jean-Denis Bonan. A Radiance release.

Running time: 1:08

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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