‘A Woman Kills’ (1968) reviewed

Jean-Denis Bonan’s violent 1968 film delights in being difficult, writes Lee Realgone.

On the surface, A Woman Kills should appeal to lovers of murderous central characters, of mysteries, and dark crime thrillers. It has been pitched variously as a film that owes a debt to American noir and the French Nouvelle Vague, and it does have elements of both, though not enough to hang a definite hat on either. This is many things, but never a clear “genre film”.

As far back as the days of silent movies, cinema-goers have always loved villainous figures and anti-heroes. From Lon Chaney’s parade of grotesque figures and the Universal Monsters, through Paul Muni’s Scarface, Norman Bates, Travis Bickle, Hannibal Lecter and Joaquin Pheonix’s Joker, those on the darker side of life have always held a fascination. We’ve flocked to see tales of murderers, hired killers, and those on the wrong side of the law year after year. We’ve marvelled at the emotionally broken and, sometimes, even championed the drastically unhinged. Such characters have allowed us to live vicariously through them, with the very best performances allowing for a degree of sympathy, and even empathy.

On the surface, Jean-Denis Bonan’s 1968 film A Woman Kills should appeal to lovers of murderous central characters, of mysteries, and dark crime thrillers. It has been pitched variously as a film that owes a debt to American noir and the French Nouvelle Vague, and it does have elements of both, though not enough to hang a definite hat on either. This is many things, but never a clear “genre film”. Bits of noir collide with European arthouse; there are hints of erotica; at other times a tuneless folk song about murder underscores calmer visuals that, in one scene, seem better suited to a French romance from Guy Guilles – a strange move for a film so wantonly loveless. The film’s final act even brings in a bit of traditional action with a chase through the streets and across rooftops. At other times, its audio teases the viewer just as much: a vast amount of the film’s dialogue is related via a dour voice-over or police telegrams, and there are moments when actors converse, but the viewer is intentionally shut out. This makes a very cold film seem even more detached.

The most obtuse example of this detachment comes at approximately twenty minutes in, when we are confronted by a shot of a pot boiling on a stove, whilst things of importance are discussed off screen. Presumably this is a visual metaphor for the character’s state of mind; we being forced to watch something simmering whilst other things occur. Even when dialogue takes place in a more traditional environment, Bonan rarely uses any of this to allow us to get any closer to those on screen. One of the film’s set pieces involves a scene where a man goes into explicit detail about different methods of execution whilst a woman eats. Here, the viewer is denied any real connection, not only due to the unsuitable dinner table topic, but also due to a static camera shot being half blocked by a massive plant. It’s as if Bonan delights in being difficult; his being more concerned with art than an easy narrative, makes A Woman Kills a film that’ll chiefly appeal to those who are far more into early Resnais than Truffaut.

A great deal of the film’s violent plot is relayed in detail via the aforementioned voice-over, further distancing the viewer from any action, and the dialogue often plays beneath shots of prostitutes undressing. This, apart from anything else, creates an upsetting juxtaposition of sexuality and violence which would certainly have troubled the UK censor, had this film been submitted for a certificate in the late ’60s. It suits the starkness of the film, but even viewing it in 2023, it lends a rather unsavoury tone that’s more matter-of-fact than sleazy or voyeuristic.

There are times when the arty approach of A Woman Kills works far better, as is the case when a hand held camera shows point of view shots which slowly move down staircases or pass through alleyways, or atonal strings add a free jazz soundtrack to some of the film’s better exploratory shots. Unfortunately, these moments are never dominant enough to save everything, as effective as they might be. As for any previous noir claims, the stark black and white often looks brilliant, and the heavy use of shadow is deftly applied whenever appropriate. Those who are well versed in one of cinema’s greatest sub-genres will surely recognise shots of half-shadowed faces used to depict a darker side to the human psyche, and despite this technique now being almost cliché, its definitely one of the highlights of Bonan’s very visual style.

Looking beyond the arthouse feel of those visuals – which some people will doubtlessly love and others hate – when viewed through a modern eye, it’s also really hard to feel any of Bonan’s intended shock value surrounding the central character. In a future echo of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill, the film’s main protagonist dresses as a woman to commit murder, and much like De Palma’s far superior effort, that basic device reinforces some very dangerous assumptions with regards to the relationship between gender identification and mental state. With the whole thing written off due to “mother issues”, this outdated stance can just as uncomfortable as any levels of violence actually portrayed. To call A Woman Kills bleak would be a massive understatement, and to dismiss it problematic would seem a little trivial. This is a piece of retro cinema that offers an occasionally fine visual, but more often than not, leaves the viewer floundering in a directionless mire of unpleasantness.

Although the film was shot in France at the time of the well documented student protests of 1968, it remained unreleased for decades. Considering how difficult it is to watch and how Bonan had already upset the censors with his short film Sadness of The Anthropophagi, it’s unsurprising that he struggled to get a distribution deal. It was considered “lost” until it was rediscovered in 2010, and as a film on its own, it’s unlikely to ever reach the status of “lost classic” since, being kind, it’s pretty much a dog’s dinner. However the February 2023 Blu-ray release from boutique label Radiance Films is still of possible interest to archive/cult film fans due to a couple of its superior bonus features.

The most essential of these is a full length audio commentary with Virginie Selavié and Kat Ellinger, where the two film historians talk at length about the connections between the film and Jean Rollin’s work, other films that tie in with a cross-dressing theme from the same period, and of how this film includes small details that pin-point it to a very specific moment in time. Regular buyers of boutique Blu-rays will already know that Kat has a rare gift of making the film fan interested in pretty much anything due to her very friendly and accessible demeanour, and this commentary is no exception. Her vast knowledge and the connection that she obviously has with Virginie makes the 68 minutes fly by.

Also enlightening is a 37 minute documentary exploring The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan where the director discusses his early work, the recurring theme of escape within his films, his friendship with the legendary Jean Rollin, and being censored by the National Centre du Cinema. Naturally, this feature devotes time to discussing A Woman Kills, and even though Bonan’s own thoughts don’t necessarily make the film any more palatable, potential fans will surely be keen to hear his reminisces on simultaneously making a low budget feature and filming the student riots.

For those keen to delve deeper into Bonan’s uneasy world, the disc also presents a selection of his short films from 1962-67. These include a rough student film The Short Life of Monsieur Meucieu, which shows off a raw talent and an early affinity with surrealism; film rushes for an uncompleted project; Mathieu-Fou, a well made short telling the tale of a forlorn farmer’s wife’s affair with the hired hand, and A Season With Mankind, which is assembled from some of Bonan’s unused documentary film footage. In terms of blending the real with the surreal via a narrative voice-over, it just about works as a film in its own right, but is hardly essential viewing. Most importantly, audiences can experience the notorious Sadness of The Anthropophagi, a piece that presents a dream sequence of a Christ-like figure being beaten, and scenes that depict the eating of faeces, years before Pasolini’s Salò. This, at least, gives a much broader insight into how Bonan was keen to push cinematic boundaries at the time and take the surrealist ideas of Buñuel to his own audience.

This is a Blu-ray release that’ll strongly divide opinion. There’s definitely an argument that it’s bonus materials are far preferable to the feature itself, but those willing to invest a lot of time attempting to unpick the dark threads of A Woman Kills and its particularly difficult narrative might just discover something of interest. It’s unlikely, but then, there are people out there who’ve found a love for Peter Greenway’s A Zed & Two Noughts and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of A Holy Whore...

Before the arrival of this Blu-ray release, it’s unlikely that all but the keenest cinephile had even heard of this film. It was certainly very brave of Radiance Films to choose it as one of their earliest catalogue titles but, thanks to their efforts, A Woman Kills will certainly become familiar to far more lovers of arthouse cinema – for better or worse.

❉ ‘A Woman Kills’ (Jean-Denis Bonan, 1968) is available as a limited edition Blu-ray via Radiance Films, and makes its streaming debut on ARROW from 5 May 2023. Run time: 69 minutes. Language: French w/ English Subtitles. Preorder A Woman Kills on Blu-ray (Amazon)

❉ Lee Realgone has been a keen viewer of cult cinema for decades. He spends a lot of time watching Blu-rays from Indicator and Arrow. At other times, he does pretty much everything at the music website Real Gone.

❉ Find REAL GONE on Twitter at @realgonerocks. Like REAL GONE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/realgonerocks 

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