Claude Chabrol’s Juste Avant La Nuit opens with an arresting S&M scene between married Charles (Michel Bouquet) and Laura, his mistress and wife of his best friend. When their play goes horribly wrong, resulting in her death, Charles returns to his loving wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and their two children, and proceeds to struggle, immeasurably, with his guilt. His conscience drives him towards several confessions with his wife and best friend, both of whom, surprisingly, discourage him from turning himself in to the police…
Claude Chabrol’s films are addictive: finish watching one and you’ll want to see another, like episodes in a current-day box-set TV drama. Chabrol was the rebel of la Nouvelle Vague, unashamedly populist, often exploiting the conventions of melodrama or Hitchcockian-thriller. He delighted placing tormented, often-glamorous characters in beautiful magazine-style houses and locations, and then letting them grapple with their bourgeois malaise. But Chabrol’s magic extends beyond glossy entertainment: his films offer intelligent, nuanced observations on guilt, redemption and the aspiring classes. Juste Avant La Nuit is no exception.
Chabrol takes a sharp nail and scratches away at the ‘conventional’ marriage of Charles and Hélène. Bouquet plays the increasingly haunted Charles with a straight back, battling his need to confess his affair and its consequences with his desire to be the good father, the good husband and the good friend. His confession, when it happens, is met with forgiveness and understanding. Here, Chabrol’s genius steps in, and twists the tale into a disturbing exploration of the question: What is justice? Chabrol rocks the boat of bourgeois assumptions, suggesting through one character ‘that justice has more than one interpretation.’
Audran reigned as Chabrol’s leading actress between 1968 and 1971, and this is the last film of the ‘Hélène cycle’ (she starred in all but one of the cycle, playing characters called Hélène in La Femme Infidèle and the hugely popular Le Boucher). It is difficult to resist pointing out her appealing trademark-pearlescent green and blue eye-shadow: here, in Juste Avant La Nuit, it crowns her cool ‘regard’ as she battles emotion during her husband’s confessions. Audran plays Hélène with a heart that is as loving as it is cold, and with a humour as dry as a Martini next to potted-plant. Whether irritated whilst baking a cake that’s going wrong, self-consciously playing a game with her children or fighting her despair, Audran registers a fine Seventies heroine. She’s glacial, shining and pragmatic, the last of which leads to the film’s shocking conclusion.
Director: Claude Chabrol
Helen Van Kruyssen