The Testament of Dr Cordelier (1959)

The Renoir box leaps even further ahead from mid-period to late Renoir: by the time of this film Renoir’s kind of turned his back on the old French leftist tendencies of La Marseillaise and other 1930s films, having been to Hollywood, India and back to France, where he actually turned his hand to theatre for a few years before, at the end of the decade, deciding to give television a go. More to the point, a horror film for French TV, which I presume was made of somewhat sterner stuff in 1959 than it was elsewhere (though apparently it played cinemas before its TV broadcast). This is Renoir’s take on Jekyll & Hyde; I’ve never actually read Stevenson’s book, though from what I can gather Renoir’s film is actually rather closer to it than most others. He updates the story to late 1950s France, with Cordelier (Jekyll) as a psychiatrist trying to solve the problem of evil, unleashing Opale (Hyde) in the course of his experiments; however the story begins somewhat in medias res so, unlike most Jekyll & Hyde films, we don’t actually see these experiments until an extended flashback in the last third of the film. And Opale is not so much the dark side of an essentially good man so much as he is the liberated badness of a not terribly good man who’s done his best to repress that badness within him; neither is an entirely pure embodiment of good or evil. Shot TV style and costing about $75,000, or about the price of an American b-movie of the period, and kind of looks like one as a result; it’s rough around the edges but Jean-Louis Barrault is fun as Cordelier/Opale. Renoir apparently wasn’t happy with the finished result, and it’s certainly not a masterpiece, but it’s still interesting to see the old man trying something new late in life (and at the same time the nouvelle vague was preparing to take off too).

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