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Les Noces Rouges

Wedding in Blood  
Claude Chabrol
1973 || 95 mins

In a small town in provincial France, the deputy mayor, Pierre (Michel Piccoli), is having a passionate extra-marital affair with the mayor’s wife, Lucienne (Stéphane Audran). Both are trapped in unhappy marriages to partners they detest. Pierre’s wife Clotilde (Clotilde Joano) is chronically ill and can’t bear physical contact. Lucienne’s husband, Paul (Claude Piéplu), is an ambitious politician; more interested in business schemes than his wife and stepdaughter Hélène’s (Eliana De Santis) feelings. For a time, the lovers are able to carry on their affair undetected, but then Paul discovers his wife’s infidelity. Seizing his opportunity, Paul blackmails Pierre into supporting a shady land development proposal he stands to profit from. Backed into a corner, the couple plan an unexpected surprise for Paul on a quiet country road outside of town…

see also articles on:
Top 10 Chabrol Movies || Claude Chabrol Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Based loosely on a real murder case that took place in the town of Bourganeuf, Les Noces rouges is a compelling study of an extramarital relationship that escalates into murder as its two participants strive for freedom in a society where bourgeois respectability is everything. Told with the refined precision of a master storyteller, this is a quintessentially Chabrolian concoction of bittersweet irony, noir atmosphere and chilling suspense. Initially banned at the time of its release, the film paints a scathing portrait of a local politician whose corruption and boorish personality make him a worthy victim of murder. No wonder the Gaullist government were reluctant for the film to be in circulation during an election contest of doubtful outcome!

From the opening Chabrol skilfully establishes a vivid sense of place. A rapid series of shots of the town give an impression of somewhere shuttered, staid, and dull. A game of bridge is about as exciting as it gets for the locals, but behind closed doors passions run high. “Don’t touch me,” the sickly Clotilde tells her husband, Pierre, driving him out of the house and into the appreciative arms of Lucienne with whom he is free to unleash his pent-up passion. This contradiction between the mundane world of school recitals, football matches and committee meetings and the sexual lust of the two lovers lies at the heart of a story about the responsibilities placed on individuals by the expectations that come with social status and how somebody might prefer to murder their spouse rather than face the embarrassment of public disgrace.

When we first encounter the two lovers, however, consequences are the last things on their mind. Indeed, like a couple of mischievous teenagers, they get a positive thrill from the threat of discovery. With no time for tenderness in their stolen moments, they tear at each other’s clothes like animals in heat, crawling around in the undergrowth outdoors to retrieve clothes before some passing children discover them. It is no small achievement that Stéphane Audran and Michel Piccoli succeed in making their characters likeable even while we are laughing at them. Interestingly, both Piccoli and Audran, along with Claude Piéplu, had appeared in Luis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie just the previous year, and something of that film’s farcical quality seems to have found its way into Les Noces rouges. Like Bunuel, Chabrol delights in exaggerating the absurdity of bourgeois’ passion, and, in its way, Les Noces rouges is as damningly satirical of that social group as the Spaniard’s more obviously humorous work.

After Pierre murders his wife and Paul finds out about his wife’s affair, the tone becomes darker. Farce makes way for suspense as husband, wife and lover engage in a battle of wills. Paul, a figure of mockery in previous scenes, now shows the cunning that has made him such a successful politician, blackmailing Pierre into supporting his crooked land deal in exchange for keeping quiet about his discovery. The shifting balance of power in the relationship harks back to Chabrol’s classic Hélène cycle of films, however this time Hélène is a child, an onlooker uninvolved in the adult intrigues. Eliana De Santis, a French Jodie Foster, is a beguiling presence as Lucienne’s daughter. She represents, perhaps, a younger, more innocent version of Lucienne. Her misguided attempt to protect her mother’s reputation is an act of idealism that ends in catastrophe, but it does at least forces Lucienne to face up to what she has done, allowing the possibility of future redemption.

As they’re driven away, the lovers hold hands in the back of the police car for what, we can only imagine, will be the last time. “Why didn’t you just leave?” Asks the detective. “Leave? We never dreamed of leaving here,” Pierre replies. Trapped in unhappy marriages, yet unwilling to jeopardise their position, they never considered an alternative. Gripping and stylish, Les Noces rouges is a fascinating insight into human folly and moral corruption.

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