The cloddish boulevardier, the tarnished ingénue and la femme qui se venge, an Occupation triangle. Swathed in a series of black-widow gowns, María Casares is half steely aristocrat and half wounded sorceress; anxious about her lover’s (Paul Bernard) waning interest, she tests him by suggesting an end to their affair and is dismayed when he gladly takes her up on it. Dissolve from her exquisitely flat declaration of revenge to her comely instrument (Elina Labourdette), a sort of Gallic Eleanor Powell who tap-dances up a storm at the cabaret and then disgustedly rents herself out to the tuxedoed patrons. This is Laclos by way of Diderot, a style that might be Lubitsch after being dipped in acid: Paris is split between the socialite’s lavish penthouse and the prostitute’s barely furnished flat, outside is the rain-swept netherzone where cars slither in and out of shadows and the vengeful heroine is a cruel Cupid. Jean Cocteau’s voluptuous dialogue ("There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love") builds up a hothouse promptly chilled by the laconicism of Robert Bresson’s camera, two conflicting auteurs in continuous play. A most elegantly absurd chronicle of grace and disgrace, riddled with mysterious objects ("This is Cinderella’s slipper," the smitten Bernard exclaims of a rejection letter from his beloved) and incandescent gestures (when Labourdette revolts against her claustrophobic surroundings by turning pirouettes until she conks her head, it’s like an early Leos Carax short). Is there a funnier, more nightmarish sequence than the puppeteer’s revelation of her grand scheme following the lovebirds’ wedding, with Casares’ gloating grin sliding again and again into the screen as the distraught Bernard tries to drive off? The camera may dutifully ascend to pose the newlyweds on a divan surrounded by purifying bridal veils, yet the blend of flame and frost in Casares’ gaze is where Bresson and Cocteau really meet and meld. Cinematography by Philippe Agostini. With Lucienne Bogaert and Jean Marchat. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce