Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Violette Noziere (Isabelle Huppert) as a character in Claude Chabrol's film is that she is so ordinary. As you can see from her photo, the real Vilolette was no beauty; as you can tell from her story, she was no evil genius. She was just a plain girl in her mid-teens who lived a somewhat awkward life with her lower-middle class parents in Paris in the early 1930s, who slipped out and pretended to be older so she could carry on with older men. She met a slick, useless young man with whom she fell completely in love and to whom she gave money and emotional support. When he threatened to leave her, she poisoned her parents, killing her father and nearly killing her mother.
Her story is the kind of sordid affair that frequently inspired fiction by James M. Cain, whose protagonists also found themselves tied up with emotional Gordian Knots. But Cain's hapless lovers/killers were snakes, beguiling us with the intensity of their stares as they looked in each other's eyes—Violette is a lizard, a colorless Gila monster crawling along from moment to moment. She fascinates us not because we wonder how she can escape her fate or what will happen when her passion finally bursts forth, but because we know that she is neither imaginative nor smart enough to avoid slouching toward the guillotine.
The film moves along with the same relentlessness. The crime is not presented in the larger than life manner of a Bonnie and Clyde shootout, but just as another episode in another day in another life of silent desperation. Mother Germaine (Stephane Audran) seems to be always on the verge of admitting to herself that something is wrong in the way her husband, Violette's father Baptiste (Jean Carmet), relates to the girl. (We see Violette and Baptiste chatting casually as she is topless and he has a hard time controlling his eyes.) Violette visits her doctor, who tells her she has syphilis. When her parents find out about it, she convinces them that the only way she could have contracted the disease was by inheriting it at birth from them. They swallow her story and what she tells them is medicine. It's the poison.
We also spy on Violette with some friends of near her own age. They claim to be students but they do have plenty of time to hang out at cafes—the mall?—sipping drinks and conversing about nothing in particular. This is how she meets Jean Dabin (Jean-Francois Garreaud), the counterfeit millionaire who soon reveals his need for money and his entire lack of interest in earning it. Violette supplies it by stealing from her parents and blackmailing older men of her acquaintance.
It's remarkable that Chabrol is able to bleach all the sensation from what was one of the most sensational crimes of the Parisienne1930s and still keep us fascinated. Written by Odile Barski, Herve Bromberger, and Frederic Grendel, based on the book by Jean-Marie Fitere, the film is not the overheated crime, but the clinical autopsy. Director of photography Jean Rabier and production designer Jacques Brizzio remind us that things and places are not colorful and exciting merely by virtue of being historical.
There's a creeping ennui to Violette, a lethargic dullness which allows us to see life through the girl's eyes. Before she meets Dabin she feels trapped in her parents' bog of an existence and nothing really seems to matter to her. After she falls in love—if that is really what it is and not just a desire for love that is so strong because everything else is so weak—she has to follow the path of least resistance because that is the only way she knows how to go.
It's a fine and observant film, and an exhausting one.