Sunday, December 14, 2014

Monsieur Verdoux

If it is difficult to imagine Charlie Chaplin in any role other than that of the comic and the downtrodden, then Monsieur Verdoux stands apart as the defiant exception. Chaplin was around 50 years when he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator, in which he lampooned for us an otherwise controversial theme: Nazism.

Nearly a decade later, an idea for a story was presented to him, based on a real-life Frenchman who had made a living off the wealth of various widows would first court and then murder. Hardly stuff for a man who could poke fun at Adolf Hitler without openly delving into the horrors of genocide.

But Chaplin took on the story nonetheless, though on one condition: that he direct it. The finished product was Monsieur Verdoux, which was instantly recognised, then reviled, as a comedic take on an otherwise horrendous theme – murder then was hardly a subject of humour, and this black comedy to many seemed more unforgivable than Chaplin’s take on Nazism. Eventually it was a disappointment at the box-office: and, outside France and a handful of other countries, it was negatively reviewed by critics.

But like his next film, Limelight, it proved what a comic genius could do if he was allowed access to more serious themes. And like a child gaping open-mouthed outside at a magnificent cake in a shop display, Chaplin only slightly cropped up the dark overtones of the story into his film. Not for one moment, except in brief snatches, does he depict the gruesome in the plot: on the contrary, he playfully dabbles in both comedy and the macabre, while his comic absurdity is apparent in even the most cold-blooded and tensed up sequences.

The story was admittedly one of a kind for me. Henri Verdoux is at the outset a contented middle-class businessman who enjoys luxury without overdoing it: unlike the actual murderer on which he was based he is no playboy prodigal. At the beginning of the film we are told that a well-to-do woman has mysteriously disappeared – and that her husband is none other than Verdoux. 15 minutes later and we know not only her fate, but also the fate of nearly every other woman he comes into contact with.

To keep up his modest lifestyle, he has to resort continuously with what he later calls his “other means” of business, news of which never comes to the notice of his crippled wife (who is living, away from this all, in a large mansion-like house). Surreptitiously but methodically he carries on with his double-edged work (his charm works on every woman, even, one assumes, at the moment of their deaths!) as he manages to evade the police.

But in the end fate catches up with him when, while keeping up a flirtatious romance with a boisterous loudmouth, he decides to marry an old widow. The depression and the war comes and goes, and finally the story, while building up to a possible reconciliation between him and a girl he once saved from the streets, actually ends on a plaintive, sombre note.

Monsieur Verdoux demands our interest from the start not owing to any special d̩nouements that Chaplin shows off for us, but rather to his ability at maintaining comic absurdity even in the darkest moments, the peak of which, undoubtedly, is the scene of him entering the room of one of his lovers before, off-screen, he murders her Рall under an ominous moonlit sky.

As an  example of this there is a sequence where he tries to kill a spinster aboard a boat. Every time he gets up to lasso her neck, she turns around only to see him twitching, grinning, and chuckling like an idiot (with mannerisms not unlike those of the silent era Chaplin). When he finally does get the lasso around that neck – ostensibly to demonstrate how best to catch fish – a yodeller disturbs their revelry, and the two of them mutually look with disgust at the off-screen bunch of partygoers who observe them: we watch with suppressed guffaws as he then falls off the boat when the woman inadvertently rocks it.

But the comic quality of the film take up a more serious note towards the end. Like the ending of The Great Dictator, the war is brought up in Chaplin’s final speech. He calls himself an “amateur” in comparison to the various methods of mass killing scientifically tested out by governments: it is only when one lone individual goes on a killing spree that the law sanctions punishment. We never once beg to differ.

Ultimately our feelings towards him are summed up by the girl he once saved, who is present at his trial. We see her crying, but we are left wondering: are those tears of pity for Verdoux or his victims? In the end some may believe that they are for him, others for them. But whatever belief you may have, one thing you cannot deny – that no man was more able to depict a “Monsieur Verdoux” with both grimness and compassion than Charlie Chaplin.