Renoir marathon: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier/ The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959, Jean Renoir) B
And so are marathon takes us a long 2 decades following the sweep and romanticism of La Marseillaise, to a time when Renoir’s immediate importance within French cinema was perhaps beginning to wane somewhat. Younger, more contemporary directors who used to look up to the great craftsmen, such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, were finding their own way into popular culture in France and soon it would be their own films that captivated film lovers the world over. Renoir was not running out of steam however. The young, ambitious storyteller and visual artist was now experienced and adept at blending genres and adding his own visual flourishes. Working on a smaller than usual budget, Renoir chose to retell Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but set in present day (late 1950s) Paris. The names of the two iconic characters were also changed to Dr. Cordelier (Jekyll) and Opale (Hyde). The actor chosen to star was famous French theatre performer and mime Jean-Louis Barrault.
Told mostly from the point of view of Dr. Cordelier’s long time friend and notary Maître Joly (Teddy Bilis, lovable), Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, as one can already imagine, follows the tragic end to a great researcher’s life and career as he tampered with his own inner dark side via extreme medical experimentation. Curious about man’s demons, the doctor Cordelier produced a liquid formula which not only unleashed a more brutish emotional and psychological facet of his self, but also physically mutated him into a more bestial version of himself. The viewer’s inside view into this tragedy begins the day the good doctor brings his testament to Joly, the latter whom is positively puzzled upon reading that his friend’s belongings and estate are to be left in the hands of a certain Opale. One evening shortly after this curious discovery, Joly looks outside his window to witness a strange and terrifying site: an odd looking man with a cane viciously attacks a young girl across the street (ironically, just prior to this harassment, Joly was shaking his head at the very thought of a child left to walk the streets alone at night). He and some other pedestrians race to protect the girl and give chase to the hideous madman who, despite moving with a certain limp, seems nonetheless gifted with considerable physical grace and strength, not to mention that he swings his cane like a club. The predator becomes the prey and takes refuge inside doctor Corderlier’s residence. The simple fact that this man, or thing, had a key to access his friend’s home is enough to have Joly worried sick and upon learning that there is indeed a connection between Cordelier and Opale, he begins to plead for the doctor to rethink his plan of leaving everything he owns to Apole. Things go from bad to worse once this social outcast Opale begins to attack and even murder more and more people, sometimes in broad daylight!
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier is very different from the other films we have studied in the marathon thus far, at least from a purely visual standpoint. As discussed on the documentary-featurette on the DVD I own, Renoir was working with a budget and overall production value of a television show, not a feature length silver screen project. This certainly shows in some of the lighting, which doesn’t come off as nearly dynamic or cinematic as, say, La Marseillaise or any other popular Renoir movies. Truth be told, it did requite a few minutes for me to grow accustomed to the visual style of this effort, but I eventually became comfortable with it. In fact, it does succeed in making Cordelier a bit of a unique experience, almost as though we were watching some live footage of everything that transpires on screen. Granted, a pseudo-documentary style is at odds with a sci-fi/horror film (and the few films I’ve seen which adopted such a technique I haven’t enjoyed), but Renoir does give the viewer something of interest nonetheless. The cinematography and editing certainly give the onscreen action a ‘in the moment’ feel and rush of energy that is at times quite surprising. The impact of the violence is aided by Jean-Louis Barrault’s strong performance as the vile Opale, whose physicality is peculiar and frightening all at once. He hops around with a slight limp and yet in actuality is rather nimble on his feet when the circumstances require him to be so. There is a false sense that Opale might not be capable of producing such sudden acts of aggressiveness, therefore when they do in fact occur, the effect is doubly shocking since the viewer isn’t sure how he mustered such a forceful and effective attack and the attacks themselves are oftentimes especially violent. No blood is shown onscreen, but Renoir also does not shy away from demonstrating the rage and lunacy of Opale’s violent streak. Both Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance and Renoir ‘s directing shine in these brief but sometimes explicit scenes. The music which accompanies Opale as he stalks his victims is oddly playful, as if he were performing some sort of circus act, which is somewhat fitting given how his abnormal movements make for a physicality resembling acrobatics.
The grade I have awarded this film, B, is a different from the usual B I give movies I watch and review. Cordelier is not a case in which ‘a few things here and there didn’t quite work but overall is the movie was good.’ Rather, the resulting grade is due to an entire section of the movie which I didn’t find particularly compelling and another which I find tremendously rich with character development and thematic texture. Most likely unique again is the fact that is it isn’t the first two thirds which thrilled me only to be left wanting for more by an underwhelming conclusion. It was the opposite. There are moments of brilliance throughout the first hour of the movie and I want to stress that so as to not have people believe I was bored to tears for 60 minutes. Most of these moments were due to the eerie presence of Opale. Overall however, I felt the movie was going through the motions of a Dr. Jekyll and Hyde tale. There was no mystery really, even though Joly and other side characters are confounded by all the happenings. Was it because I knew that this was a retelling of a story I very familiar with? Had it something to do with the pacing of the first two thirds, which showed a lack of momentum in a section of a mystery story that should never have been missing such a critical ingredient? Then again, if there was to be no mystery for the audience, then I also felt the writing in the first hour failed at building any emotional and psychological links between Dr. Cordelier and his darker half which resonated with me. This void reaching the tipping point with me in a scene where Cordelier reads a newspaper article describing the recent events involving himself and the infamous Opale. His reactions to each sentence in the article, although explained later on, made me care very little for the character of Cordelier. In other versions of the tale I feel empathy (or is that sympathy?) for the character of Dr. Hyde, something I failed to muster for Cordelier. I wouldn’t want to fault Jean-Louis Barrault for this however, who gives a fine enough performance as the doctor. I think it was more the script during this section of the movie that didn’t I didn’t find compelling.
Oddly enough it was the final third of the movie that grabbed me. The reason I say this revelation is odd is due to the fact that the last 30-35 minutes consist of either Joly listening to a recorded message from his friend Cordelier who confesses his sins or Opale, who seems to have suddenly controlled his urge to maim and kill, doing some explaining himself with re-enactments of the doctor’s past playing onscreen. If there is anything in movies, especially thrillers and horror films, that can kill pacing and momentum, it is scenes of exposition or explanations. And yet it is the voice over and flashback scenes of how and why the doctor began his horrible experiment, as well as how his testing subsequently corrupted his conscience, which inject some depth into Barrault’s interpretation of Dr. Jekyll and makes Opale come across as all the more a sad and pathetic experiment. Call me crazy but it was this nearly half hour of back story which held my attention the most. It’s strange, violent and even sexual at times. There was an added layer of depth when, based on what I was seeing and learning, I figured Cordelier never really was a great guy to begin with.
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier gets a pass, but mostly due to Barrault’s Opale and the bizarre but compelling final 30 minutes of the film. Saying the earlier parts tried my patience would be too harsh, but I did find they lacked a certain dynamic. It was as though the movie, while it knew perfectly well that the audience had clued in on what was going on (even if you haven’t read the original story), was still attempting to build s sense of the mysterious. That never quite worked for me, but the few elements I positively highlighted in this review were strong enough for me to give the film a recommendation, although not with my usual enthusiasm.