Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 25, 2016
Today’s topic is probably not the one you were expecting to see on Christmas Day proper, but as a film programmer I’ve always enjoyed counter-programming. With that in mind, my double-feature recommendation for FilmStruck viewers comes in the shape of two black comedies: La Poison (Sacha Guitry, 1951) and The Player (Robert Altman, 1992).
La Poison concerns a 53-year-old horticulturalist who lives in a provincial Catholic village where divorces are not allowed. He has been unhappily married for 30 years, and one day hears an attorney on the radio bragging about all the clients he’s had acquitted in murder charges. Our protagonist, Paul Bracconnier (Michel Simon), hatches a scheme that, by twist and turn, results in a sensational front-page story that has unexpected results for the village.
While most Americans probably haven’t heard of La Poison, they probably have heard of it’s American remake, How to Murder Your Wife (1965), starring Jack Lemmon. The latter film involves a cartoonist who concocts a comic strip plot wherein the wife is drugged with “goofballs” and then buried in “goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine” at a nearby construction site. Although How to Murder Your Wife was a bigger success than La Poison, should you only watch one version you should stick with La Poison, as writer-director Guitry does a more elegant job of exploring the amoral hypocrisy of the characters he created.
Sacha Guitry (1885 – 1957) was the son of French stage actor, Lucien Guitry, and would eventually write over 120 plays. It was his desire to bring his plays to the screen that turned him into a director, screenwriter, and actor. His theater background probably helped anchor his camera-work, which although mostly static still had a big influence on the French New Wave – in part because, while static, his movies were far from boring. His star waned after being arrested and charged with Nazi collaboration, but these charges were later dismissed and at the time of his death he was back in the public’s good graces. It will probably not surprise anyone who watches La Poison to know that Guitry went through five marriages. This might seem a lot, but the recently departed Zsa Zsa Gabor had nine husbands, so it’s all relative.
In many ways, The Player might seem like it occupies a completely different universe than La Poison. After all, Altman’s satirical look at the cut-throat world of Hollywood executives is a parade of Tinseltown in-jokes with 65 celebrity cameos. The script by Michael Tolkin (who directed and released The Rapture the previous year) revolves around a paranoid studio executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) who murders a screenwriter he believes is sending him death threats. However, where La Poison and The Player dovetail in their murderous nature is that in both cases the murder results in a happy end. Actually, I should put “happy end” in quotes because those who read between the lines will get that these are both satirical works with something to say about amoral humans, and a system of corruption that ensures everyone gets a payout.
While La Poison doesn’t come with too many bells and whistles, those wanting to explore deeper into The Player can choose from a wide assortment of special features, including a 45 minute-long documentary on “Planned Improvisation,” a 21 minute interview with director Robert Altman, an almost hour-long press conference taken at Cannes, different trailers, five deleted scenes, and a 15 minute “Behind the Scenes” bit focusing on, well, “the Players.”
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