A Woman Kills (La Femme Bourreau)
Dir. Jean-Denis Bonan (1968)
Two years after the execution of an alleged serial killer (and actual prostitute), killings happen again. This is contrasted with the life of the executioner in this avant-garde Parisian film.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Filmed as a response to the May 68 Protests in Paris that nearly resulted in a civil war, A Woman Kills was shelved for almost five decades before being released by Luna Park in 2010. A new blu ray of the film releases this year from Radiance Films, the new boutique label from former Arrow Video exec Francesco Simeoni, a label that I personally am very much looking forward to digging into. I was surprised to find a film that was equal parts transgressive and political, a commentary on the political system and society itself that feels as relevant today as it must have during its time. It’s an artistic film more than it is a narrative feature, but it is fascinating from a film history perspective and perhaps even moreso as a political commentary from a time that was rife with uprising and rebellion.
Experimental and unique, A Woman Kills serves as a rebuke of governmental overreach and the differences between a society and the institutions that try to rule it. Helene, the alleged killer, is vilified, eventually executed after being found guilty of a murder. Her executioner Louis, an immoral and troubled man by all accounts yet sanctioned by the state, is allowed to kill with impunity under guise of punishment and vengeance. Helene was raised in poverty, finding work as a prostitute because of a lack of options more than anything else. Louis is the son of a civil worker who becomes a civil worker himself after serving time in the military, where he killed many people for his country. Director Jean-Denis Bonan seems to argue that the service under a corrupt government is no more moral than the actions committed for selfish desires or necessity, and one should not be excused if the other is not. When doubts arise as to whether Helene was guilty at all, the concerns of society go to the potential future victims than to the potentially innocent person who was murdered by the state, and it turns out that not all is as it seems.
It is this kind of forward thinking, perhaps decades before its time, that categorized French cinema in the 60’s and 70’s. From Godard to Bunuel, the French directors from that time period did not pull any punches when it came to their critique of modern democracy and the French political system. While Bonan is no Godard, his efforts of exposition on the political struggles of the time are no less compelling. A Woman Kills is experimental in its composition and structure yet not its intent: the barely-linear plot is more of a series of intertwining scenes than it is a straightforward film, and while there are some brilliant shots within, it often feels more student film than a masterpiece. It is no less fascinating, however, as the scenes depicting Louis’ descriptions of execution methods contrast with fancy dinners and romantic walks, a further depiction of the detachment from these acts by those who do not have to live with them every day. The class structure of Paris is on full display, with some of its gutter dwellers being forced to walk the streets and sell themselves to get by while others walk those same streets in romantic revelry.
The trial-and-error nature of the film does, at times, make it less entertaining than it could perhaps otherwise be. It’s a worthwhile film, though, and seemingly influential if it wasn’t for the fact that no one got to see it for so long. The unique-for-its-time depiction of gender identity and sadism is fascinating, and its contrast with the political discourse of the time, along with the rubble-filled streets left from revolution, alludes to tales untold within the confines of the film. Filled with discordant sounds, macabre music, and tracking shots that feel as if they were filmed by a madman, there are as many shades of Polanski’s Repulsion as Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film’s soundtrack, a bizarre voiceover that describes much of the action taking place in a way that I have to imagine would have been controversial in 1968, is not one that’s going to make you want to go out and buy the album. It’s interesting a folky sense, and if you don’t speak French I imagine it would sound kinda cool. If you do, it’s, uh… less than desirable. Nevertheless, it is perfect for such an antagonistic film, a jarring reminder of the dark side of Paris and the depths of man’s madness.
For film scholars, A Woman Kills is must see: it’s film history, an interesting relic only recently discovered that feels more period piece than modern, and yet the importance of its bizarre message cannot be overstated. In a world that has seen The Great Resignation and the realization of society’s oppression of the lower and middle classes, A Woman Kills feels like it can speak to audiences today as much as in 1968. Thankfully, Radiance Films has brought it into availability at a time that is perhaps even more important than the time in which it was made. It will take a little bit of interpretation, but it’s a worthwhile avant garde film that will definitely be worth a watch for film history fans from every period of film.
Who this movie is for: Film history buffs, French movie nerds, Student auteurs
Bottom line: Bizarre, discordant, and transgressive, A Woman Kills is a fascinating lost film that has just recently been brought into general availability. Fitting alongside (though not nearly equal) the great French masters, director Jean-Denis Bonan crafts an interesting critique of late-60’s France with a violent finale. It’s definitely worth a watch for film history fans, and Radiance Films’ new bluray release, coming in June of this year, is a must own for anyone looking to beef up their collection. Check it out and order the region-free limited edition version of the film today at: https://www.radiancefilms.co.uk/products/a-woman-kills-le