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La Poison – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Discovery continues to be a large part of why I enjoy sitting down and watching films released by The Criterion Collection. La Poison comes from writer/director Sacha Guitry, someone I was unfamiliar with, but thanks to the collection of extras on this Blu-ray release, along with the film, I have a new understanding of him and the history he was a part of. That in mind, there is also a great, darkly hilarious film here. It takes on the idea of a marriage gone sour, before devolving into an interesting look at French ethics circa 1950. Intelligent and made with a good level of tension to go with the witty humor, La Poison was an interesting film to catch up with, and it’s now available from Criterion.

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Film:

La Poison tells the story of a gardener (famed Swiss actor Michel Simon) and his wife (Germaine Reuver) got to a point where the two plotted to kill one another. After thirty years of marriage, these two have had it and begin the film considering how to do away with each other. Eventually, the gardener finds himself making some moves to conspire with an unknowing lawyer on how to handle a dastardly deed such as this, ultimately resulting in a finale where someone takes on the French legal system.

This is no doubt a strange film. Even the opening finds a way to be unconventional. Rather than spelling out the opening credits, director Guitry had himself filmed walking up to each cast and crew member, introducing them by name. It’s a fun introduction, honestly, which also sets the stage for a film that is very much a farce. There was no surprise by me to learn Guitry was a prolific playwright, given the staging of this movie, but it was still plenty effective.

Much of the first half is dominated by conversations between two or three people. Each character trades fun dialogue with the other, allowing for a bouncy atmosphere that lets us take in who the husband and wife are and why we should tolerate their schemes. It called to mind something along the lines of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, given the handling of a story that involves two people who dryly converse about killing their significant other with the other villagers.

The second half was more engaging, as things began to feel less slight and more meaningful. There is a sequence where death is literally on the table and the way Guitry mines tension out of this sequence is quite great. However, the legal proceedings that lead to the film’s ending make it a movie worth the sort of praise it has. Guitry, having been wrongfully charged with collaborationism with the Nazis during WWII, finds a way to incorporate his opinions on the French government in a way that is interesting to observe in 2017, as well as sharp-witted and enjoyable.

Through all this, while the cast as a whole works for what the film is going for, Simon stands out easily. Simon had a reputation for being this great talent who never considered himself above anyone else. It shows here in how he presents himself, the way he speaks to people and even the sort of attitude he holds onto throughout the film, including more dire moments. For an 85-minute film, Simon makes up a lot of that time and turns something that could have been a mere satire into a dark comedy fit for a special edition Blu-ray release to be examined by film buffs years later.

Often one finds that comedy has a funny way of aging on film. There are certain standouts, due to what the laughs are built on. La Poison still works, as there is intelligent dialogue and some funny ideas involving the whole murder plot that doesn’t really age. Moreover, with a short runtime, this is a film that moves through its story and provides plenty of fun along the way.


Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Clarity/Detail: This 1080p digital restoration was made from a 35mm fine-grain film print that was carefully restored for this release. Given the age and that nature of a film like this, it is understandable that a new 4K transfer may just not have been possible. That doesn’t stop La Poison looking better than it likely ever has. A god majority of the film looks good, as characters are seen cleanly, with enough detail in the surroundings and their costumes. Some areas show a level of noise that is easy to look past, but still noticeable.

Depth: The dimensionality of the film plays well, as you get the sense that Guitry, a playwright, found specific ways to block his characters, which plays well for a movie where people need to stand in some locations. You can see some smooth transitions in the various planes as a result.

Black Levels: It is the dark areas where you see signs of the film’s age and just how able people were in restoring the film. Still, there are some good shadows and other elements to highlight as far as the black levels are concerned.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Facial textures are great. Plenty of detail can be found in the characters we meet, which was impressive enough.

Noise/Artifacts: This film has been cleaned up, with no traces of scratches, stains or warped images. Lots of grain, but that comes with being an old 35mm-shot film.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): French LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: This is not the rangiest film, but there is enough depth and clarity to the audio track that allows viewers to enjoy La Poison for all the dialogue scenes that make it work. There are no real signs of distortion to impact anyone’s viewing, so enjoy what this mono track works with.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: You can hear all the discussions clearly.

 

Extras:

A great video interview, an excellent documentary and an episode of a French TV show do plenty to provide all one needs to learn about this film and those involved.

Features Include:

  • Video Interview – Olivier Assayas (HD, 17:00) – The acclaimed director (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours) talks about director Sacha Guitry and how he was one of the great masters of French cinema. Presented in English.
  • On Life on Screen: Miseries and Splendor of a Monarch (HD, 1:01:00) – This documentary film by Dominique Maillet focuses on the life of Sacha Guitry and his collaboration with Michel Simon. Interviews with various film historians and novelists are seen here. Presented in French, with English subtitles.
  • Cineastes de notre temps (HD, 1:07:00) – This French program looks at the life of Guitry, along with many of his collaborators. Presented in French, with English subtitles.
  • PLUS – An essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau and a tribute to Guitry by filmmaker Francois Truffaut

 

Summary:

This was a happy discovery. La Poison is an enjoyable dark comedy that shows off the playful side of a director with good reason to be angry. It features a strong lead performance and a sharp script that has a lot of fun with its premise and eventual results. The Criterion release of this film does all you would expect. The video and audio presentation is about as good as can be for a movie like this. There is also a solid collection of extras for fans and those curious to enjoy. This obscure French film is one to look out for.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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