After his first feature-length film “The Clockmaker Of Saint-Paul”, Bertrand Tavernier attempted once more to portray violent crime as a reflection of contemporary political turmoil in his 1976 film “The Judge And The Assassin”. But whereas “The Clockmaker Of Saint-Paul” succeeded by remaining doggedly anti-dramatic, respecting its characters and keeping politics as a noticeable yet fairly discreet background element, “The Judge And The Assassin” takes an almost exactly contrary approach, sacrificing its chances of any genuine understanding of what the two titular characters represent in the historical context of late-19th century France by depicting the latter as a tragic victim of a combination of sexual abuse, insanity, poor understanding of how to treat the latter and political machinations, and the former as a pompous egotistical buffoon interested only in boosting his career and responsible for the aforementioned machinations to that end.
The film is based on the case of Joseph Vacher (Michel Galabru) – renamed Bouvier in the film, a serial killer and rapist whose spree across the French countryside from around 1894 to 1897 coincided with rising political tensions concerning both the rise of leftist social movements and the Dreyfus Affair, all of which seemed to threaten to push France on the brink of civil war. Add in Vacher’s birth in 1869 and the fact that both crises arose as consequences of dramatic events from 1870-1871 – the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune de Paris respectively – and the temptation to draw parallels between Vacher’s crimes and the state of the nation becomes irresistible. However, such an approach requires both psychological and political insight. Tavernier and co-screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost get the former mostly right, but it contrasts glaringly with the lamentably shallow satire with which they depict Judge Emile Fourquet (Philippe Noiret) – renamed Rousseau – and his efforts at social climbing and proving Bouvier sane in order to have him executed. From atop their privileged positions as inhabitants of a more modern, enlightened era, they sneer at the anti-Semitism, ignorance and snobbery of the 19th century French bourgeoisie, but make no attempts to look any deeper. In that respect, it’s not unlike Michel Hazanavicius’s skewering of post-WWII French colonial arrogance and then-socially acceptable prejudice in the hilarious “OSS 117” duology except that those films never made any pretense of having anything more profound to say.
This facile attitude is best represented by the character of prosecutor Villedieu (Jean-Claude Brialy), Fourquet’s cynical friend who, aside from openly admitting to have adopted anti-Semitic attitudes because of their fashionable nature and approval by the Church rather than out of personal conviction, also uses a young southeast-Asian man as a manservant and, it is implied, as a sex slave. His cynicism recalls Jean Rochefort’s scheming atheistic would-be Archbishop Dubois in “Let Joy Reign Supreme”, but unlike Dubois, it is less an actual character trait and more of an indictment of French colonial exploitation that lacks anything more to say about the subject.
This would be less of a problem if the scenes concerning Bouvier weren’t so seriously done, and if Michel Galabru’s portrayal of the man wasn’t so spot-on. Galabru’s long career has mostly consisted of supporting roles, often in bad French comedies such as the bafflingly popular “Gendarme” franchise. In Bouvier, however, he found a part that perhaps only he could play so uniquely. Over the top but never too much, never making any attempt at being frightening and never reducing his tragicomic character to a caricature the way Noiret does to Rousseau, Galabru succeeds in making Bouvier pitiable in his self-loathing and admirable in his self-positioning as an “anarchist of God”, defiantly ordering his guards around on the way to his execution as if he were the one leading them on a military parade. It is unfortunate that his performance is so out of synch with the rest of the film.
“The Judge And The Assassin” ends on a jarringly preachy note that accurately sums up Tavernier and his team’s lack of respect for both the characters and the audience. After Bouvier’s execution, Fourquet’s working-class mistress (an underused Isabelle Huppert) leads strikers at her silk factory into a “Commune” song as gendarmes prepare to shoot them. Just before they do so, the camera freezes for a few seconds on the workers’ children, the last of which is accompanied by a text summarizing the number of teenagers and children Bouvier raped and killed, comparing it to the far greater number of children who died in factories during the same period. Comparisons to Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” are inevitable at that point: That film ended with the titular character – inspired by fellow French serial killer Désiré Landru – drawing a parallel between his murders and the deaths of thousands of soldiers in the then-ongoing First World War, and calling himself an amateur in comparison to the politicians and military leaders behind it; another fictionalized juxtaposition of legal and illegal murder.
What made Chaplin’s film work was precisely the opposite of what makes Tavernier’s film fail: Tonal coherence and a small dose of humility in lieu of self-righteous sanctimony. If Tavernier wanted to make a dark satire of 19th century French society’s treatment of the mentally ill and fear of “the other”, he and his writers shouldn’t have put so much effort into making Bouvier sympathetic. When seen in the broader context, his actions alone would have sufficed as the symptom of a great illness within the country’s culture.