Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this movie follows a courtroom search for truth in a world of dark passions, art and death. Beautifully shot, it reveals Bardot’s enormous talent for portraying tortured beauties, yet her beauty quickly fades as the depths of her character’s deepest motivations lead us to question whether we can ever find the truth in examining one life, or one relationship.
Apart from brief shots of Bardot’s cute derrière, there is no nudity in this film, which is refreshing, and in her role as Dominique, she turns in an Oscar-worthy performance.
Dominique, an intelligent girl, yet driven by the need for love more than ambition, is spurned by her father in favour of the ambition of her sister, Annie, a gifted violinist. Only after a failed suicide by Dominique is she is allowed to accompany her sister to Paris to study.
I think things started to go wrong for Dominique when her father doesn’t appreciate her emotional character. Yet she is only slightly jealous of her sister, and I don’t think that’s her main motivation; she is something of an idealist, perhaps even a visionary, driven by ideas of a future where spirits mingle in a world of equality and freedom. It’s a typical ideal for the 1960s, and yet she is too early to have a whole movement (the hippies) to support her. Feeling something of an outcast, she fights back and rebels against everything her parents stand for.
Dominique falls in with a group of creative beatniks, or indolent ‘dissolutes’ as her parents would think of them. While Annie begins a conventional marriage-oriented relationship with precocious student orchestral conductor Gilbert, Dominique shares her bed carelessly with many artists.
Dominique starts an affair with Gilbert, and I think both loved each other passionately, but at different times and in different ways. She wanted to give herself to a man completely, but she felt her duty ended where she had already supplied the sensual stimulation she believed a musician such as Gilbert needed. Although Gilbert’s character is not revealed to the same depth as hers, we see him as somewhat fickle, veering carelessly between the status and security of his ‘engagement’ with Annie and passionate nights with Bridgitte. Yet he is not free of an intense possessiveness, no doubt born from his insecurity as a young, ambitious man in his milieu of Paris artists. He is so praised by those around him that he feels no need to make choices about romance until it’s too late.
Meanwhile, Dominique has fallen in love with him. She loves him for his talent and ambition, yet she despises him for being in love with her. She cannot quite accept that a man might love her fully, even though Gilbert may not have ultimately been that man.
In the courtroom, a picture is drawn of a spoilt bitch who gleefully triumphs over her sister before dropping Gilbert and then picking him up again when he rekindles his relationship with Annie.
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Ultimately Dominique is dammed forever by her passion when she attempts to shoot herself in front of Gilbert but ends up shooting him instead. She gases herself and is only saved by luck. But the jurors are unlikely to believe her, since Gilbert is now dead, and the truth of what happened is too murky to discern. Although her defence lawyer argues that she is a victim of her passions, we see that where Truth cannot be reduced to a simple fact or set of facts, prejudice takes over. Most likely the jurors would have found her guilty, at the very least of manslaughter, and in those days, she would be lucky to get away with the ten years sentence that she received. An elemental spirit like Dominique would not have survived this, and knowing this, she takes her own life. The prosecution lawyer is left with the bitter taste of guilt in his mouth, knowing that there never was convincing proof of her guilt.
The movie reminded me of 12 Angry Men, another court drama, but one in which almost all action takes place in the room wherein the jurors are sequestered. Whereas in that movie, one vigilant juror ultimately steers the others away from prejudice toward reconciliation with the absence of any Truth, in La Vérité, Dominique’s sullen, lone rebellion has revealed that too often Truth is the result of prejudice alone.