Before she was the "skirted terror" of '30s France, Violette Nozière (Isabelle Huppert) was a mirror image between photographs of Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, she sees her reflection and kisses it lavishly. The camera, after a slow zoom through the bars of a gate, finds her already in sneering putain mode, in black mink and slanted hat: "I need words that make me dream," she tells her gal pal in the lavatory, and goes into the café to taunt the dopes who deem Breton not "political." After a full night of vamping, she removes lipstick and stockings and returns to her cramped, working-class apartment a chaste student; a brisk lateral pan locates her father (Jean Carmet) next to a first-communion portrait, her mother (Stéphane Audran) executes a thorough soap scrubbing after finding her with a gold ring. How do we get to Violette watching with a glass of milk as her folks writhe on the floor after swallowing her poison? Claude Chabrol digs up gauzy Rosebuds for the heroine (bouncing on daddy's lap segues into bedroom peeping and a slap from mommy), yet she's too wily and human to be cast as a simple villain or victim -- diagnosed with syphilis, she coolly palms it off as a hereditary matter, and, confronted by a slew of accusatory faces, stands under the shower in full vulturette regalia. Chabrol very assuredly constructs a mordant two-part joke, first with the impeccably neurasthenic leading lady aflame over her seedy dream-lover (Jean-François Garreaud), then at the center of a sensational trial. (She has stone-throwing accusers outside the courtroom, but also pamphlet-passing acolytes who expose the auteur's theme: "It's the family that's on trial.") Begging for her mother's forgiveness and blithely planning a new life in her cell, Huppert's baby-fat monster is a neat landmine of familial tensions, and Chabrol knows just how far to push it -- a chair is introduced as having belonged to Marie Antoinette, then at the last minute the bailiff stops Violette from sitting on it. Cinematography by Jean Rabier. With Guy Hoffman, Lisa Langlois, Greg Germain, and Bernadette Lafont.
--- Fernando F. Croce