Tag Archives: poison

Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962)

“I only remember loathing my husband even more than usual.”

Thérèse Desqueyroux, a 1962 black & white film from director Georges Franju, is based on the book by Francois Mauriac. The film begins with the acquittal of Thérèse Desqueyroux who’s been charged with the attempted murder of her husband, Bernard. We are not privy to the trial–instead the story picks up as Thérèse leaves the deserted Palais de Justice in the company of her lawyer. Thérèse’s father waits for them in the distance, and while an acquittal should be good news, Thérèse’s father doesn’t greet his daughter. Instead he shuffles her off in a chauffeur driven car admonishing her that she’s already damaged the family enough.

On the drive back to her home, Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) recalls the events that led to the accusation of attempted murder, and it’s a stroke of irony that the evidence of the intended victim, Bernard (Philippe Noiret), is the one thing that saves Thérèse from imprisonment. The film segues to Thérèse’s moody youth and idyllic days spent with her companion, Anne (Edith Scob). Anne is convent-educated, and Thérèse notes that Anne’s purity is “still largely down to ignorance. The Ladies at the Sacre Coeur placed 1000 veils between reality and their daughters.”

Thérèse, the richest girl in the area, then marries the very stodgy Bernard. One of the reasons for the marriage, Thérèse claims is “to have the joy” of Anne as a sister-in-law. People marry for worse reasons, but Thérèse’s passivity in the acceptance of her fate appears to play a part in the marriage which is welcomed by both families. Naturally the marriage is a disaster, and Thérèse grasps all of its ramifications only after the honeymoon which includes her husband’s “nocturnal inventions.” Thérèse  seems doomed to accept the boring life demanded of her by Bernard and his family, but this all changes when she meets the young man Anne loves, Jean (Sami Frey), someone with whom she can discuss Chekhov.

There’s an unexplored tantalizing undercurrent of lesbianism between Anne and Thérèse which would appear to be endorsed by Thérèse’s repulsive sexual experiences with Bernard. The plot doesn’t pursue this early hint, and ultimately Thérèse remains an enigma–even to herself . Just as Thérèse isn’t exactly sure why she married Bernard–a man who bores her to tears, neither is she clear why she tried to poison him.

The film emphasises the idea of hypocrisy–Bernard and Thérèse’s families are more concerned with appearances than anything else, so Thérèse is ‘freed’ from the legal consequences of her act only to face even worse condemnation at home. One scene however struck a false note. Thérèse returns home after the case is dismissed and teases herself with the possibility that Bernard would open his arms to her and ask no questions. That seems either impossibly naive (which Thérèse isn’t) or deranged. After all, what husband is going to accept a wife back at his side, in his bed as before, or even worse–cooking his food–when you’ve tried to off him by overdoing the arsenic?

While the book was published in 1927,  the film is set in the 60s. And the updating begs the question: why is an independently wealthy young woman corralled into marriage with a man she finds loathsome? Still in spite of that flaw, the film has aged well and Thérèse, whose main problem according to her in-laws is her intelligence,  is seen as a feminist heroine who is given no options–or at least considers no options–except marriage to a complete bore.  While marriage is seen by Thérèse” as a “refuge,” ultimately, as she’s absorbed into Bernard’s family, she loses all sense of identity and individuality.

Director Claude Miller has a remake in progress of the film which will star Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.

Thanks to www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

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The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)

 Victorian mystery

The 3 hour-long BBC television production The Blackheath Poisonings is a period piece set in Victorian England. It concerns the Collard and Vandervent families–joined by marriage and a toy manufacturing business. The extended families all live together in the sumptuous family mansion, and the matriarch, Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt) rules everyone with a rod of iron. Harriet has three children: Beatrix who is married to Roger, Georgie who is married to Isabel, and old maid Charlotte. Charlotte cast her eyes on the unreliable adventurer, Robert Dangerfield–a match most members of the family find quite unsuitable.

blackheath poisoningsThe atmosphere in the Collard/Vandervent mansion is suffocating and oppressive at best. All the inhabitants find methods of release, and some of the habits are inevitably destructive. It seems two of the family–related by marriage–are indulging in a passionate love affair under the very noses of everyone else. But just as the affair may be revealed, one of the family members dies a horrible death. Is it “gastric misadventure” as the puffy, old family doctor announces, or is poison the cause of death?

The sets, costumes and acting of this BBC production are all, as always, impeccable. The plot is initially very strong and compelling. Everyone is a suspect, everyone has a motive, and this makes for a fascinating story. The plot very cleverly plays with all the suspects, so that at first you think perhaps it’s one character, but then suspicion shifts to someone else. However, the denouement is far too rapid, disjointed and choppy. After the truth is revealed, the explanation seems preposterous. Many unanswered questions remain and consequently one is left with the lingering feeling of disappointment.

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Malice Aforethought (2005)

 “I miss your healing hands.”

maliceThere is a point in all unhappy marriages when a certain pleasure is derived from making one’s spouse miserable. Dr. and Mrs. Bickleigh have reached that point. Set in the picturesque coastal British village of Wyvern’s Cross, Malice Aforethought is the story of the Bickleigh’s miserable marriage, and how Dr. Edmund Bickleigh (Ben Miller) decides to free himself from it.

It is the consensus of village gossips that Julia Bickleigh (Barbara Flynn) married beneath her. Julia, a rigid snob, who never fails to mention her family connections, agrees that her husband is a lowlife. Every chance Julia gets, she exposes her much younger husband to ridicule and public humiliation. It’s a way of making him behave. Dr. Bickleigh may have his professional status, but his roots are humble. Julia’s continuous insults always reach their target, and Bickleigh engages in a series of affairs as a form of defiance. The Bickleighs’ bad behaviour–her insults and his affairs–serve as a balance system in their relationship.

Bickleigh’s current amour is Ivy Ridgeway (Lucy Brown), and their affair is common knowledge–although Bickleigh and Ivy imagine it’s their little secret. Into this domestic maelstrom enters Madeleine Cranmere (Megan Dodds)–a glamourous bohemian whose artistic pretensions match Bickleigh’s. To Bickleigh’s smitten heart, Madeleine makes Ivy look like a dull country maid. Bickleigh promptly dumps Ivy and pursues Madeleine.

Madeleine, however, isn’t as naïve or as plaint as Ivy, and she also states that she can’t possibly marry a divorced man. Bickleigh concludes that Julia is standing in between him and happiness ….

If you are a fan of British mysteries (this one is set in the 20s), then you won’t be disappointed in Malice Aforethought. Bold characterizations mix with strong drama and a touch of black humour to produce 180 minutes of solid entertainment. The acting is excellent, the sets splendid, and the village scenery quite beautiful. But it’s the small touches that make this an excellent film–the maliciousness of the village gossips–two seemingly innocent elderly ladies, for example who parrot each other’s condemnations of the local doctor. Another humourous aspect is Dr. Bickleigh’s perception that he’s well thought of in the village. The Dr. and the seductive vamp, Madeleine deserve each other. The film is based on a novel by France Iles. If you enjoy Malice Aforethought, I also recommend Dandelion Dead.

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The Life and Crimes of William Palmer (1998)

 “He has more bottles in his wine cellar than in his surgery.”

lifeThe Life and Crimes of William Palmer is based on a true story, and you can discover why this 19th century monstrous rural doctor became so infamous if you watch this British television costume drama.

When the film begins, William Palmer (Keith Allen) brings home his sweet young bride, Annie (Jayne Ashbourne). He buys her a lavish gift, but this is not a sign of devotion–but a sign of out-of-control spending. They live in the small town of Rugeley in a house that also serves as Dr. Palmer’s surgery. They should be able to anticipate a modest income and a degree of respect from the community, but Dr. Palmer’s expensive tastes include an impressive wine cellar and a penchant for racehorses. It takes very little time for Dr. Palmer to find himself horribly in debt. And this is where murder enters the picture ….

Soon the bodies are dropping like flies, but interestingly enough, questions aren’t asked about the high incidence of deaths in the Palmer household until outsiders enter the drama in the form of various insurance companies. The story conveys the notion that both William and Annie come from rather problematic families. William marries the illegitimate Annie believing her to be an heiress, and Annie’s potty gin-addicted mother (who carts her pet chicken with her wherever she goes) drove Annie’s father to suicide. William Palmer’s mother is also slightly deranged, but she indulges William–except when it comes to lending him money. Neither side of the family is perfectly respectable, but in the rural setting, while rumours abound, Dr. Palmer is still above reproach.

The film includes some extremely realistic horrendous poisoning scenes. There is vomiting galore, and ghoulish Victorian style postmortems abound. It isn’t a matter of whether or not Palmer is guilty, but more a question of how this monster will be stopped. Palmer is fastidious, cold, and arrogant, and he dispatches his victims mercilessly. At times this can be relentless (the poisoning scenes are gruesome)–nonetheless, for fans of British costume mysteries, this is a riveting story. The acting is superb, the costumes are marvelous, and the sets are perfect. 160 minutes long, this is the sort of quality drama that British television is famous for. From director Alan Dossor.

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