JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL, 1971
Starring: Michel Bouquet, Stéphane Audran, François Périer
Charles Masson, an advertising executive, is having an affair with his best friend's wife. He accidentally kills her during one of their S&M games and, though the police do not suspect him of her murder, finds it increasingly difficult to live a normal life with his wife and two children.
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Claude Chabrol is one of the many great French directors who came of age after World War 2 and first broke ground as part of the Nouvelle Vague. Dubbed "the French Hitchcock," he remains a prolific film maker, his work known for its dark, suspenseful tone. Juste Avant le Nuit perfectly captures this sense and is one of Chabrol's darkest dramas. And examination of loss and guilt, it stars Michel Bouquet, a successful advertising executive who is having an affair with Laura (played by Anna Douking), the wife of his best friend Francois (Périer.) We only catch the slightest glimpse of this relationship in the opening scene. Theirs is a dangerous affair, built around sado-masochistic desires. Laura play acts the role of a victim ravaged by an unknown assailant while Charles, showing little emotion and remaining fully dressed, puts a hand to her throat and chokes her.
This results in Charles accidentally killing Laura, leaving her body in the small apartment they use to meet. It's a jarring, uncomfortable opening; the viewer is given no insight into who these people are and we are left confused by Charles' seemingly nonchalant attitude. Indeed, it's hard what to make of Michel Bouqet's performance as he seemingly sleepwalks through the film, projecting an aura of seemingly domestic bliss with his wife Helene (Audran) and their children. But he seems cold, cut off from everyone, not that anyone seems to notice. It is only in the latter half of the film, and Charles' guilt over Laura's death begins to weigh heavily upon him, that we see the genius of the performance. Desperate to be punished for his misdeeds, he first confesses to Helene about his affair before finally admitting his crime.
Stéphane Audran's performance as the caring wife won her a BAFTA award in 1974, and the development of her character is startling. Though Charles secretly hopes for her condemnation, she instead provides support, keen to prevent her husband from admitting his crimes to the police. It is quite depressing to watch the attitude these characters have to death. Even Laura's widowed husband François does not seek revenge when Charles confesses all to him in a tense scene, both men hidden by shadow as they walk down a country street, François' face seemingly made of stone as he remains stoic. His and Helene's acceptance of Charles' act only punishes him more; in fact, one could say that is François' revenge, leaving his friend free to consider what he has done.
What begins as a staid, slow drama quickly winds itself into a suspenseful thriller as Charles, never once suspected by the police, still comes face to face with crime and punishment, his own guilt driving him to a sort of mental masochism. In giving us no build-up to the murder itself - omitting the act completely, in fact - Chabrol instead places us the muddled mess of the aftermath, watching those left behind wander aimlessly through their existence. Spouse, friend, killer - all are left broken by Laura's death.
Chabrol often puts his camera in the centre of the room, right in the middle of the conversation. The most visually striking scenes take place in Charles and Helene's home, a modernist wet dream designed by François. The house itself is a confusing ring of rooms built on top of each other, fitting perfectly yet arranged in a manner that seems curious. It can be seen as an excellent metaphor for Charles' own state of mind - functioning but jumbled, a strange mishmash of emotions and thoughts.
The slow pace of Juste Avant le Nuit may be difficult for some, but as Charles begins his spiral into despair and self-loathing we are whisked away on a twisting narrative, unsure of where it will take us. Claude Chabrol's assured direction means he is willing to take his time, building up the tension and drama, moving towards an emotional final act. It is a wonderful example of French film making - self-assured, character-driven storytelling that gazes into the heart of the human condition and doesn't like what it sees.