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The story is extremely simple. When a woman is murdered in a bar, the bored wife of a local employer becomes obsessed with her fate and discusses it with a witness, an unemployed man who used to work for her husband. Without much secrecy the two progress into an intense but unconsummated affair, never even kissing. Yet, like all affairs. it has to end.
What counts is the way the story is told. Visually it is striking, in atmospheric black and white widescreen set wholly in bleak winter light in an unromantic little Atlantic port. Workmen in berets and women in headscarves trudge about, while the rich travel in nothing more exciting than a Peugeot.
Aurally, the score is mostly the Diabelli sonatina labelled "moderato cantabile" that the woman's child is learning, its light charm a contrast to the darkness of the story. In the bar the jukebox blares out jazzy Latin numbers while sirens from ships and factories interpose a melancholic note.
Of the two principals, Jeanne Moreau is the perfect incarnation of a sexy bourgeoise full of unfulfilled longings: the film is worth seeing more than once for her alone. As her nearly-lover, Jean-Paul Belmondo performs manfully and is always interesting to watch, but looking gloomy without animation and conversing literately without any cheerful obscenities are not what we want from him (he was not so happily cast in "La Ciociara" the same year either).
Talking is what the two lovers do, this being a French film, but like "L'Année dernière á Marienbad" the dialogue is from a novel not from life. By inserting this layer of artifice over what might have been said in reality, the couple are distanced from boss's wife and out of work man and their affair becomes not real but a product of imagination. While highly dramatic, the agony of the wife is however close to the truth of a woman's heart into which men, whether unfeeling husband or cautious lover, can never quite see.
PS For people who enjoy bourgeois rituals being disrupted, like the wedding reception in "Melancolia" or the post-opera gathering in "El ángel exterminador", the dinner party at the climax of this film is a small joy. Shortly beforehand, the wife nips out to the local bar that is full of working men and downs several wines. Once at table, after just managing the fish, she loudly refuses the meat and rushes away to be sick. Not the perfect hostess in 1950s provincial France.
PPS Not a few similarities with the 1956 film "Le Sang à la tête" based on a Georges Simenon book "Le Fils Cardinaud". In both, the major employer of a West Coast port loses his neglected wife temporarily but publicly to a young working man.
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