Dr Petiot (1990)

“It’s the age of villains.”

Dr Petiot (Michel Serrault) is a respected French physician living in Paris during the German occupation of WWII. His waiting rooms are packed with patients, but by night he runs a lucrative sideline by claiming to assist wealthy Jews who wish to be smuggled out of France to South America. The Jews who trust Petiot never leave France, and instead they meet their grisly deaths at his hands. In many ways, it’s a perfect set-up. His victims are supposed to enter an underground network Petiot has devised, and even the families of the victims aren’t in a position to contact the authorities with their suspicions.

Petiot is a bizarre character. He treats many of his poor French patients with no thought of payment, and yet at the same time he murders Jews for their money. His anti-Semitism is clear, and he needs no more justification than that. Primarily, however, Petiot is an opportunist. He deals with the French Gestapo, isn’t perturbed by the German Gestapo either, and he also traffics in Morphine. Petiot doesn’t seem to be bothered by the hardships others complain about. During an electricity blackout, for example, he says, “What I like about this war is being plunged into black night.” He seems to be quite comfortable in the dark shadows and tunnels of Paris. At night, he rides around on a bicycle with his cloak billowing out behind him, and there are visual elements of the vampire, Nosferatu here. Some of the anarchic street scenes are remarkable, and the social chaos underscores Petiot’s ability to conduct his murderous activities. The film emphasizes Petiot’s ghoulish side, and the demented, gleeful ceremonial manner in which he conducts each murder. The film is not graphic however, but the story is unavoidably nasty.

Michel Serrault as Petiot is incredible, and his portrayal of this strange character makes the film. Petiot is manic, demented, and explodes into rage at any small frustration. Petiot is also a chameleon with the brains to cover his tracks, and only a veteran actor like Serrault could carry off this complex role with such skill. He’s both amazing and horrifying to watch. For some reason “Dr Petiot”–a French language film with subtitles–seems fated to fade away, so if you’re a fan of French cinema, seek out a copy of this little-known masterpiece while you can. The final scene will haunt you for a long time to come. Directed by Christian de Chalonge.

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