Blu-ray Review: LA POISON (1951)

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Review: La Poison / Cert: PG / Director: Sacha Guitry / Screenplay: Sacha Guitry / Starring: Michel Simon, Jean Debucourt, Jacques Varennes, Jeanne Fusier-Gir / Release date:  Out Now

This offering from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series represents the first ever UK video release of this black comedy from Russian-born auteur Sacha Guitry, until now almost forgotten outside of France. And perhaps there was never one more worthy of the appellation – in over thirty films he acted as screenwriter, director and actor. He also wrote and acted in over a hundred plays.

La Poison marks a slight exception to the rule, with Guitry relinquishing the lead role to a popular character actor of the day, the Charles Laughton-esque Michel Simon, another prolific board-treader, best known for his work with the likes of Jeans Renoir and Vigo. Guitry does appear in the film, however, as himself, spending the first five minutes actually introducing his cast and crew to the viewer before the story begins, in what was by then a time-honoured Guitry film convention.

In a sleepy small town, Paul Braconnier wants nothing more than to do away with his wife (Germaine Reuver) – a slatternly, corpulent, and ill-tempered drunkard. However, it must be said that our Paul certainly isn't the most magnificent of catches himself, and she too has the same idea, procuring enough rat poison to 'kill seven people' from the local chemist. Paul is too fearful of the consequences of committing such a dark deed; until he happens to hear a radio interview with one Maître Aubanel (Jean Debucourt), a Paris lawyer celebrating his hundredth acquittal, of which many were domestic, 'crime of passion' murderers. A quick visit to the lawyer to find out the best way of dispatching his trouble and strife ensues, but who will murder who first and will they get away with it?

Running almost like a Gallic Ealing comedy, La Poison stands up incredibly well today, with a sharp wit, a snappy pace, and great performances from all concerned ensuring the viewer is kept entertained throughout its brisk 85 minute runtime. Despite being at times loathsome and idiotic, Simon's lead character still somehow manages to retain our sympathy; likely because we know that we're witnessing a powerhouse performance from a highly seasoned actor, or, just as likely, simply because the man is very, very funny. The supporting cast of small-town weirdos, excited by the new-found fame and prosperity that a murder brings to their principality, add a further dimension of questionable fun to the proceedings.

Revered in France prior to World War II, director Guitry found his popularity take a nose-dive after the occupation, during which he was accused of collaboration. Although officially absolved of this, the mud stuck and he found himself completely out of favour with the public and art world taste-makers alike. Whatever the case, La Poison reveals him to be in fact a key filmmaker of his generation, and hopefully this and subsequent releases planned by Eureka will lead to a critical rediscovery of his huge body of work.

Extras: 60 minute documentary on Guitry and the film / Substantial booklet containing archival imagery

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