Although La Marseillaise (1938) or The Elusive Corporal (1962) may be the best films in the astonishingly well-packaged (and priced) 3-disc Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition released earlier this year by Lionsgate, The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (1959)–based on the Jekyll and Hyde story–is undoubtedly the most Halloween-friendly. It’s also a pretty fun and fascinating film, both as a dark variant on Renoir’s typical themes and as a technological experiment: the film was shot with multiple cameras and long takes to capture the actors’ energy with few interruptions and prove that feature films could be made cheaply with television methods. (Hitchcock would himself use a black-and-white television crew to film 1960′s Psycho.)
Foremost among its pleasures is actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault’s (Children of Paradise) performance as the Jekyll/Hyde character Cordelier/Opale, oscillating between the stately, aristocratic scientist and his diabolical alter ego. It’s the kind of role that can inspire brilliance (see Fredric March in Mamoulian’s adaptation), and Barrault is remarkable, suggesting a deranged mime who moves in a series of spasms and ticks before breaking into wild, inexplicable violence. Yet over the course of the film, Opale also seems tinged with tragedy, a victim of his own unchecked passions.
“I wanted to tell a story about rich people,” Renoir said in 1961, ever the chronicler of social relations. Cordelier is a wealthy psychiatrist obsessed with proving the existence of the soul. He develops a serum that transforms him into Opale, who saunters through Parisian suburbs, attacking children, babies, prostitutes–even a man on crutches. But the story’s true protagonist is the aptly named Mr. Joly, an affluent lawyer who insists on believing in Cordelier’s innocence and best of intentions, and attempts to resolve conflicts with a combination of isolating, hushing and paying off bystanders. Cordelier’s real nemesis is his colleague SÈverine, who opposes his ideas in the name of modern science in an office jammed with chic, abstract art. Not that the film is a simple satire of the rich; Renoir’s notorious empathy merely shows the flaws in his “good” characters and suggests elements of nobility even in his “evil” ones.
Renoir is famous for his long shots, and much of Cordelier is framed at a distance from the action with actors moving in clusters; but this time out, the visual tone compels less of a Bazinian appreciation for the complexity and depth of the image than a horrified feeling of helplessness in the face of random violence. Yet the film doesn’t feel like a horror movie–Renoir never downplays the savagery of Opale’s actions, but he does offer darkly humorous counterpoint in the form of a jagged, loopy score that sounds like a woodwind circus juxtaposed with a theremin. The jaunty music underlines the absurdity of Opale’s prancing, nonsensical, almost cowardly attacks on the defenseless in a way that flirts with black comedy.
Unlike previous versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story, Renoir’s version effectively becomes a narrative about intervention–how far will Cordelier’s friends and associates tolerate his behavior and how willing are they to look closely enough to discover the truth and its consequences? In learning about and accepting Cordelier’s predicament, Joly must also accept the fallibility of his own aristocratic idealism and the darker recesses of the human psyche in his friend, and (perhaps even more provocatively for him) a great philanthropist. “I can’t go back to being a good person,” Opale laments near the end of the film, “but I can’t stay like this.” Renoir’s ultimate jumble of character sympathies, ethics, and rationalizations results in a film as thought-provoking as it is technically adventurous.