Jeanne Moreau plays an undetected sociopath, a respected visiting schoolteacher in a French village, in the eerie black & white thriller Mademoiselle (1966).
An Italian laborer (Ettore Manni) has been blamed for the series of arsons, livestock poisonings, & other crimes plaguing the village. Because he's an outsider, & because he's been seducing women of the village, the men in particular are eager to believe it is him. His son, enrolled in Mademoiselle's school, has seen evidence that his teacher is the criminal, but he cannot speak up even when it comes to a head.
As the film begins, Mademoiselle is shown opening floodgates to inundate the village, so there's never a moment in the film that we, like the villagers, believe she's a normal upstanding citizen. But understanding her motivation is impossible though the structure of the film begs us to try.
She has no cause for revenge, no personal material gain, no increased standing in the community from her furtive crimes. Could she be inspired by sexual frustration or loneliness from being a single woman? Interest in observing the heroic behavior of the Italian hunk who braves all in a fire fight? If sexual frustration is at the heart of it, why does her capacity for evil deepen when the extreme edge of her sexual urges are finally achieved? Ultimately it may all come down to narcisisstic psychosis such as requires no comprehensible purpose.
At first her evil acts, which lead to deaths, seem catastrophically unfair to the afflicted villagers. She's a beautiful woman but by her deeds render her a Fury or hag out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or some similar psychological horror tale. Viewers may even begin to hope she is not merely discovered, but burned at the stake, since she does have a misguided sense of herself as some kind of combination Joan of Arc & Giles de Rais/Bluebeard.
The noirish widescreen black & white photography, & a good deal of night or storm scenes, underscores a mood of evil. And as the village becomes corrupted by their own terror & close in on their own evil act of mistaken vengeance, it begins increasingly to seem like Mademoiselle is an actual embodiment of demonic passions sent by greater powers to visit the punishments of Job on an unsuspecting village. A test they thoroughly fail to pass.
Having a script written by the great Marguerete Duras based on a story by the equally great Jean Genet, Mademoiselle is inescapably a brilliant & unsettling film made still stronger by Moreau's unusually brilliant performance & the stark cinematography of David Watkin. It's a genre-evading film since it could pass as an arthouse film, a sexual thriller, or subtle horror. Whatever its likely category is, above all it's a work of art.
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