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Violette: The dark side of Huppert and Chabrol

Cannes, France –- This time last year, the betting for best actress in the Cannes Film Festival was solidly on Isabelle Huppert. It is again this year, too. The solemn-faced young French actress with the big eyes and the remarkable subtlety is the early "best actress" favorite for her performance in the title role of Claude Chabrol's "Violette Noziere."

There seems to be special sympathy for Huppert for two reasons. First, because she was passed over last year after a great performance in "The Lacemaker." Second, because "Violette Noziere" is the first film Chabrol has ever had in official competition here, despite his stature as one of the leading directors in the French New Wave for the last 20 years.

The fact that Claude Goretta, director of "The Lacemaker," is on this year's jury will certainly not handicap Huppert. But neither will her performance, which is such a complete change from the character in last year's film that Cannes regulars are astonished. In "The Lacemaker," she seemed completely shy, withdrawn and finally totally defeated as a young Paris beauty-shop assistant who meets a student from the Sorbonne, falls totally in love with him, and then pines away into silence and madness because of his unspoken criticisms.

This year, as Violette Noziere, she plays a murderess as famous in France as Lizzie Borden was in Massachusetts – although Violette poisoned her parents, an altogether more French method of murder than chopping them up (which, as Lizzie Borden discovered, you can't do, even in Massachusetts).

Chabrol has always specialized in films involving murder and the guilty secrets of the French bourgeoisie. His best movies include "Le Boucher," in which a retired French army butcher continued to practice his trade against the residents of a provincial town, and "Un Femme Infidele," in which the respectable husband of a cheating wife carved her lover up, somewhat to their mutual astonishment.

Now, with "Violette Noziere," he has made his darkest film –- darkest not simply in terms of the night streets his young character walks, but dark also in the depths of her passions. She seems, by day, to be an ordinary schoolgirl. She does her homework, she lives at home in the incredibly small apartment of her parents, she clears the dishes and seems well launched on the road to a bourgeois marriage.

But there is a hidden, sexual nature buried in Violette. Listening to her parents make love through the thin walls, writing herself erotic love letters, she feeds on obsessions that eventually send her sneaking out into the streets at night. And there she lives a secret life as a prostitute –- her lips painted a garish red, her dresses invariably black and slinky, her hat slouching down over one eye in an imitation of the actresses she admires.

Violette's parents do not discover her deception for a long time, in part because they are stupid and self-deceived, in part because they spoil their child with too much freedom. To be fair, too, they're at the mercy of an accomplished liar; Violette can maintain perfect composure while making up the most preposterous stories, right there on the spot. And after she poisons her father, she calmly tells the police it was because he committed incest against her.

Chabrol is brilliant at stories like this; his characters feed on their obsessions and all of the respectability surrounding them seems only to act as a goad. What's remarkable in this film, though, is not Chabrol's vision, which remains consistent, but Huppert's performance, which is so assured, so complex it's hard to believe she worked this transformation in character after "The Lacemaker."

Among the other early favorites for best actress is Ellen Burstyn in Jules Dassin's "A Dream of Passion." The film, which has been generally well received, is a comeback of sorts for Dassin – the American veteran director who bas lived in recent years in Europe with his actress wife, Melina Mercouri. In this film, Mercouri is an actress playing the role of Medea, who killed her own children. As a publicity stunt, she's talked into visiting an American woman (Burstyn) in prison. This woman actually has taken the lives of her children.

The first meeting is simply a publicity stunt, and a disastrous one. But Mercouri grows fascinated by the American woman, and at the end of the film the two women and the role of Medea seem to merge.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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