Monday, January 26, 2009

Monsieur Verdoux

In 1940, Charlie Chaplin finally joined the sound era with The Great Dictator, a sort-of farewell to his beloved Tramp wrapped in a scathing indictment of the Nazi menace. It came out before America joined the war and before anyone knew the extremes to which Hitler had taken his anti-Semitism. Though its final scene abandoned all narrative in favor of a preachy (though certainly heartfelt and inspiring) speech condemning Nazi policies, it remains one of the comic master's finest films.

Yet that same scene ignited a firestorm of controversy. America, still rooted in its isolationist policy, heckled the flowering speech (the term "comrades" get thrown about a bit, which wasn't the best of moves), and the Senate itself denounced the film. The increased scrutiny, aided by numerous scandals involving the filmmaker, forced Chaplin into hiding, of sorts. Finally, in 1947, he released his follow up to The Great Dictator and the first film to feature not even a resemblance to the Tramp, Monsieur Verdoux.

The result is perhaps the most ahead-of-its-time film in Chaplin's oeuvre, above even The Great Dictator. A comedy so black it often hits too hard to be funny, Monsieur Verdoux is a bleak look into a society that seems to care nothing about crime. Oh sure, we read the newspapers in horror and say "where did it all go wrong?" but we don't do anything about it, nor can we turn away from violence. Chaplin mercilessly attacks this mentality by setting the story in 1930s Europe, but he injects dramatic irony into the equation by dropping clues about what the future will hold for the continent over the next decade and a half.

Chaplin plays the titular Verdoux, a banker fired after 30 years due to the Depression. To support his invalid wife and child, he hatches a scheme: he'll marry rich, bourgeois women, murder them, then collect the insurance money. And I thought Arsenic and Old Lace was dark before its time.

Verdoux cuts a swath through self-absorbed aristocrats, who blush at his flattery and prattle on and on about their empty musings. He does so not out of sadism--though he is certainly evil, and though he certainly hates the vanity of those he kills--he does so because, in his mind, society has left him with no other choice. These early moments play out with a cold horror that supersedes laughter; the emotionless way Chaplin presents this man's calm madness is unsettling.

The character is so startling that he keeps the film from being funny for most of the first hour. Then Verdoux actually begins killing people, and Chaplin suddenly opens the floodgates and the film becomes hilarious. Consider his numerous attempts to kill the apparently invulnerable Madame Bonheur. He poisons her drink and waits for her to drop, only for her to continue speaking and accidentally swap glasses with her beau. Then Verdoux takes her fishing and, after listening to her ridiculous chatter (when he offers to bait her hook, she shouts "you don't expect me to eat a fish that's been eating worms, do you?!"), he makes to strangle her before he hears a nearby yodeller and ceases his efforts. Another fantastic scene is Verdoux's wedding to one woman, only for Mme Bonheur to show up as a guest.

Despite all this beyond-black comedy, Chaplin finds a few places to display his trademark sentimentality. When he picks up a woman fresh out of jail, he serves her a glass of poisoned wine, but when she tearfully speaks of her invalid husband, Verdoux realizes he's about to kill this innocent, sweet woman for no reason and swaps out her glass.

Unfortunately, the film also contains the director's total lack of subtlety when he's got something on his mind. When police finally capture Verdoux and sentence him to death, he gives one final speech to explain his actions. In it, he compares his crimes to the horrors of war and ends with "As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison." It's not as long and not nearly as disconnecting as his final speech in The Great Dictator, and actually it's quite insightful, but it still fails to properly explain Verdoux's actions even within the context of the exaggerations of satire.

But the only real flaw of the film is Chaplin's adherence to old-school style directing. Using simple pans and the occasional tracking shot, he ends up making the film seem like little more than a filmed play, and the strange floating camera movement calls attention to itself, and not in a good way.

Nevertheless, Monsieur Verdoux remains perhaps Chaplin's most interesting film, as much for its context as its content. As a comment on a wayward society and its oblivious bourgeois, it plays like an over-the-top version of Rules of the Game, yet it makes a sadly timeless commentary on violence in all societies and the fact that a man like Verdoux seems plausible even outside the desperate times of the Depression. Even if Chaplin refuses to show us what he means and chooses to tell us in disconnected speechifying, you have to respect the man. He was already on thin ice; The Great Dictator suffered a terrible backlash, then he endured all those scandals blown out of proportion by a reactionary media. For him to not only move completely beyond the Tramp but craft a character who could not be less like his iconic figure took some serious gall. However, set aside all the fluff that surrounds the film and you're still left with a misunderstood masterpiece that is possibly more relevant today than ever before.

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