This film struck me as very ‘Shakesperean’ on several levels. For one thing one of the touchstones in the film by Jean-Pierre Melville is a school chum crush named Dargelos (boy) that is played by a woman. Later in the film a female character is introduced (Agathe) that looks just like a slightly older Dargelos. There are several plot twists that seem Shakespeare familiar, if slightly updated to the 20th Century (a mis-directed letter, all of the love objects are of the ‘she loves him, but he loves another’ variety, sleepwalking, poisoning…). The boy Dargelos is played by a woman, the same actress who plays Agathe, a later character. The writer (and narrator, Jean Cocteau) even takes a line from Macbeth: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”
This film had been on my radar for awhile: part of my attempt to fill in the many holes in my classic films to be viewed list. Coincidentally, the name Nicole Stéphane came up as I recently read Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Nicole Stéphane was Susan Sontag’s lover for several years, and was influential in introducing her to the French film scene. Stéphane was an interesting character, a member of the Rothchild family who, after seven films as an actress, became a producer after a serious car accident.
The film is from a novel by Jean Cocteau. The collaboration between Cocteau and Melville had its “creative differences”. This is an unusual film in the Melville repertoire. Only his second feature, most of the rest of his films defined the French noir genre.