Two years following the release of François Truffaut’s brilliant 1966 sociopolitical satire Fahrenheit 451, the French director once again mastered a novel adaptation with The Bride Wore Black. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s eponymous 1940 book, Truffaut’s film follows the exploits of Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) aka The Bride — a smart, calculating femme fatale whose thirst for justice cannot be quenched until she finds (and murders) her groom’s killers. While he Bride Wore Black might sound like a standard crime thriller, it’s Truffaut’s use of visuals and thematic subtext that elevates the film to a vengeful spiritual odyssey, one that strikes a perfect tonal balance between a fairy tale and a mythological story of otherworldliness.
The accidental, fluke murder of Julie’s life-long love, David (Serge Rousseau), represents the tragic loss which consumes her. After a failed suicide attempt, Julie symbolically descends into the underground to fulfill her dark obsession to murder the five irresponsible bachelors who are responsible for the loss of her “Prince Charming.” Given Julie’s charm and keen ability to manipulate the minds of the chumps, she’s able to avenge their destruction of the happily ever after life she longed for since childhood. Moreau executes Julie’s cold and calculated mission with obstinate focus, following Truffaut’s direction to “play it like a skilled worker.” (While the director struggled with production problems, much of his duties reportedly fell to Moreau and scriptwriter Jean-Louis Richard.)
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Wearing only white and/or black, Julie’s wardrobe evidences the stark, contrasting aspects of her heart and soul: innocent victim and avenging devil. While launching her attack on the first of her prey — the debonair Bliss (Claude Rich) — Julie dons a flowing white gown, evoking a supernatural, ethereal appearance. Bliss turns to Julie with the greeting “How do you do apparition?” and instantly desires the mysterious, assertive beauty in the midst of his own engagement party, further establishing him as a character deserving punishment. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard employs natural low lighting and creates a gauzy haze about Julie, while Claudine Bouché’s use of sporadic, quick cuts enhances the sense of mystery as Bliss falls from the balcony and Julie escapes. With her white scarf cascading through the sky like a ghost, Julie fades off to find her next victim.
The angel of death quickly finds victim #2, Coral (Michel Bouquet), a weak and insecure romantic who is ecstatic that a female of Julie’s caliber expresses interest in him, and falls easily into the trap of drinking poison set by his “fairy princess.” Wearing a black dress, white cloak and gloves, along with black ribbon in her hair, Julie aptly resembles the Princess of Death in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée. Immediately following the murder of Coral, Julie again rides on the train as if it is her chariot of death. This repetitive linearity is reminiscent of Truffaut’s similar technique in Fahrenheit 451 when Montag (Oskar Werner) rides the monorail.
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The fairy tale elements of The Bride Wore Black intensify as Julie embarks upon victim #3, Clément Morane (Michel Lonsdale). He presents a stronger challenge because Julie has to access him through his son, Cookie (Christophe Bruno), by posing as a teacher. Setting the stage well for this wicked encounter is the white brick exterior of Morane’s house, with its brown roof, garden wall and pebble driveway looking like a scene from Little Red Riding Hood. The camera glides across the miniature forest that surrounds this cottage, displaying the French countryside and allowing entry to a whimsical, enchanted world worthy of the Brothers Grimm. In keeping with the Little Red Riding Hood theme, Julie is an analog to the Big Bad Wolf. She starts by stalking Cookie and his mother in a predatory manner, even tricking the boy into revealing crucial information about his family. Just as the wolf disguises as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, Julie gains entrance to Morane’s household with the feigned persona of Cookie’s teacher, Miss Becker (Alexandra Stewart). After luring Morane into a closet under the stairs with a plea to find her necklace, she suffocates him, sealing the closet door jams with great fervor. For the falsely accused Miss Becker, there is a happily ever after ending when police free her and dozens of cheering children greet her on the playground, following Julie’s call of confession to the precinct. Julie then whisks off on a plane, like a witch on a broom, to continue her mission.
After the surprise arrest of intended victim #4, Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), interrupts Julie’s next adventure, she advances to victim #5, Fergus (Charles Denner), an artist. At this point in The Bride Wore Black, the mythological symbolism explodes simultaneously with the Hitchcockian similarities. When Fergus first meets Moreau’s character, the uncanny likeness of Julie to the woman of his dreams and portraits overwhelms him. This result is exactly what Julie intends when she alters her hair style to mimic his artwork. On the second day of Julie’s encounters with Fergus, he awaits the woman’s return for the opportunity to illustrate her as his muse, Diana the Huntress. This is an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) when Scottie (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with Madeleine (Kim Novak) and realizes how similar she is to Carlotta Valdes, the artistic object of his desire. Scottie then yearns for the return of Judy (also Kim Novak) and her re-transformation into Madeleine/Carlotta Valdes. In both films, a melancholic score written by Bernard Hermann plays in the background. Further emphasizing Fergus’ obsession in The Bride Wore Black is a montage of animated illustrations of Julie as Diana, which is reminiscent of Scotties’s animated dreams of Carlotta in Vertigo.
Julie does not become infatuated with Fergus in the same way that Vertigo’s Judy enraptures Scottie, but she seems to enjoy brief satisfaction in the man’s longing for her, all the while remaining resolute in her mission. Julie freely transforms into the mythical spirit of Diana to advance her murderous plot, while the spirit of Carlotta Valdes is a persona that Scottie subjugates upon Judy in Hitchcock’s film. In The Bride Wore Black, Coutard uses natural light and adds a rough under-lit dimension to give Julie a dominant appearance in her interactions with Fergus — a contrast to the voyeuristic soft lighting inVertigo. In addition, Diana’s connections with hunting mirror Julie’s hunting of the men who wronged her.
Leaving no deed undone, Julie confesses to four murders with the purposeful goal of imprisonment. This affords her the opportunity to deliver a lethal prison meal to Delvaux, the fourth target she misses earlier. Upon hearing the man scream, The Bride Wore Black comes to a close. Whether Julie manages to escape, kills herself or faces punishment does not matter, as she is victorious in her quest for the justice that men are powerless to provide. In a 2002 interview with James Lipton, Moreau emphasizes how her portrayal of Julie draws directly from Greek mythical figures. Much like Medusa, anyone who stares straight into Julie’s eyes is immediately under her spell. And like Medea, Julie displays a cold and “masculine” intellect, constantly outwitting her prey.
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One may speculate that the melancholy prevalent in Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black is reflective of Truffaut’s own personal emotions, as his marriage of eight years ended in 1965. With both films, the director emphasizes the self-absorption of the characters via a hyper-sexual form of narcissism in a society lacking real love. In The Bride Wore Black, cruel fate rips true love away from the innocent, suggesting that Truffaut believed pure happiness is only found in fairy tales.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.