Georges Franju’s surrealism, like Buñuel’s, slides from one institution to another with ease, so that the punitive asylum and the bloody scientist’s castle are here, simply, the family house. The eponymous maiden (Emmanuelle Riva), just out of her trial and in the back of a limo headed home: "What confession do I start with?" Adolescence in the countryside is a sun-dappled mirage, a fascination with the blonde next door (Edith Scob) segues into marriage to her friend’s brother (Philippe Noiret) and "the inescapable suffocation of the province." (At the ceremony, the bride flinches as the chapel doors slam shut behind her.) Alone, miserable, and surrounded by the Landes pine forests that are the bourgeois family’s fortune, she figures that sometimes it takes a few drops of arsenic to get through to a dreary fellow. To avoid scandal, the would-be poisoner is cloistered away in the murky wing of the manor, disintegrating in bed surrounded by ashtrays. "For the sake of family, I agree to deceive my country’s justice system," declares the husband. "A Madame Bovary who bites back" is how Franju described Mauriac’s mysterious heroine, a slight lass with a "deranged power inside," a hard feminist quietly stupefied by her own anarchic impulses. The filming is pitilessly lucid, with Wyler severities for interiors filled with heavy furniture and Melville’s swift tracks and fades (Léon Morin, Priest). Franju adapts the text with meticulous fidelity, and yet finds a hundred Franju images: A deaf old crone ringing a bell, Scob cradling the bird she just shot down, a priest frozen mid-sermon, an off-screen death that halts a suicide. Liberation comes at last in Paris, with the husband still confounded by "the two Thereses" and a dissolve from the teeming city streets to the blasting sky above dry trees. Lean has the stiff upper-lip precedent in Madeleine, Fassbinder follows accordingly with Effi Briest. Cinematography by Christian Matras. With Sami Frey, Renée Devillers, Jeanne Pérez, and Hélène Dieudonné. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce