Robin Buss on black comedy in recent releases.
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, re-released after 40 years, is a notorious thriller about a murder plot, in which bodies disappear, then reappear, and nerves are racked as things go bump in the night. It has undergone a strange metamorphosis with time. In 1955, the British press experienced it as a real shocker, devilishly ingenious, extending the boundaries of what was permissible in the cinema. Today, it is liable to be seen as essentially a black comedy, and its convoluted plot as farcical rather than terrifying.
Black comedy appears to be the intention of The Young Poisoner's Handbook (which, English though it may look, is an Anglo-French-German coproduction). Based on the true story of Graham Young, it starts as a satire on the horrors of suburban lower middle-class life. Graham (Hugh O'Conor) is a schoolboy with a passion for chemistry, and nothing in common with his dreadful family. They respond by alternately ignoring him and clipping him round the ear. Almost by accident, after the failure of an experiment with antimony, he decides to poison his stepmother and records her decline in meticulous detail.
So does the camera, altering the mood from black satire to horror. After his stepmother's agonizing death, Graham is exposed and packed off to "Harshhurst" hospital, where the film reverts to satire. The target now is a liberal psychiatrist (Anthony Sher), who over some years working with Graham, decides that the patient can safely be released. "Rehabilitated", he gets a job in the storeroom of a scientific firm and resumes his experiments in his colleagues' tea mugs. The message may be that some psychopaths are beyond cure, but the film does not focus on this or any other motif, and leaves one feeling rather as the London critics of 1955 felt about Les Diaboliques: well-made but nasty.
Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun also shifts in mood from comedy to tragedy. In the late 1930s, Kotov, an old Bolshevik (played by the director) is relaxing with his young wife and his family in their country dacha. The idyll is interrupted by the arrival of the wife's former boyfriend, whose playacting charms everyone, except Kotov - and his dislike appears to be motivated by jealousy. Only in the last quarter of the film do we learn Dmitri's real mission: in the era of the Stalinist purges, not even a hero of the Revolution is immune.
This is a beautiful and subtle film, finely constructed to suggest how life could continue under the Terror, apparently unaltered from the days of Chekov, with barely a hint of the underlying menace. It was made as a coproduction between two French producers, the Russian Ministry for Cinema and Studio Trite, which Mikhalkov co-founded, partly to make up for declining support from the state. If nothing else, it demonstrates that coproduction is not necessarily incompatible with high quality cinema, rooted in a national culture. This, it seems, is how European cinema will have to learn to survive.