François Ozon, “Mon Crime / The Crime is Mine” (2023)
On the surface, “Mon Crime” presents as a frothy light comedy romp paying homage to the films and stage theatre of France in the late 1920s and 1930s. Look a bit closer past Isabelle Huppert’s campy scenery chewing and Ozon’s film becomes a sly satire on male privilege and men’s exploitation of women in the film industry, and on the ways in which truth is over-ridden by the need to maintain one’s reputation and status in society and to preserve the status quo. Actress Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) and lawyer Pauline Mauléon (Rebecca Marder) are two unemployed buddies faced with eviction from their Paris flat after falling way behind on their rent. Verdier tries to audition for a role in a stage play but when she is propositioned by famous film producer Montferrand, she refuses and marches back home. Shortly aftewards, a detective turns up and informs Madeleine and Pauline that the producer has been found dead from a gunshot wound, and questions Madeleine. In desperate need of money and with no prospects in sight, Madeleine agrees to admit to the murder and Pauline, seeing an opportunity for herself, devises a convincing defence to persuade the jury to acquit Madeleine on the grounds of self-defence. At the trial, Madeleine plays her victim role and Pauline challenges the prosecutor, the judge and the detective who arrested Madeleine. Madeleine is duly acquitted and the public attention she gains leads to a successful stage career. Pauline is inundated with work defending women on charges of murder. The two find fame and fortune, and Madeleine is headed for the altar with lover Andre Bonnard (Edouard Sulpice), the son of a wealthy industrialist who disapproves of his wayward heir’s relationship with an actress with a shady past.
When it seems that both Verdier and Mauléon’s careers are on the ascendant, the two women are surprised by a sudden visitor: former silent film actress Odette Chaumette (Huppert) flounces into their lives claiming that she is murderer of Montferrand, and moreover is owed money by the dead man. Since Verdier and Mauléon have benefited from his murder, Odette demands her due or she will reveal the truth.
How Verdier and Mauléon overcome the problem that Chaumette presents is done cleverly and skilfully and at the end, all three parties gain career and financial satisfaction while corrupt judge Rabusset (Fabrice Luchini) ends up disgraced and other significant male characters get their comeuppance in various ways, as demonstrated by the end credits presented in the form of tabloid news headlines. The major downfall though is that the film ends up appearing too clever and smug for its own good, and there is plenty to criticise in its presentation of serious and often dark themes through a screwball comedy format. Some people may argue that issues such as the exploitation of women by more powerful men, and the way in which legal processes are abused by corrupt judges or by women claiming to be victims of crime and discrimination should be dealt with in a more serious dramatic format rather than through a light-hearted comedy romp of campy performances. Although the truth behind Montferrand’s murder does eventually emerge, it does so in a very massaged and distorted way, which may say something about Western societies’ handling of uncomfortable truths in general: they are swept aside and ignored, and may only emerge years later after the passage of time and the passing of a generation have made it more palatable to a new generation removed from the events and contexts surrounding such facts.
The film is a lavish visual spectacle in the style of films made in the 1930s with exaggerated acting and a fast pace. Tereszkiewicz, Marder and Huppert are surrounded by a very capable cast of male actors that include Luchini, Dany Boon and André Dussollier among others in their 60s at least. The sets, fashions and furnishings bring a distinct 1930s glamour to the film – though of course the majority of French people at the time were living very frugal, often impoverished lives. At one point in the film, characters are seen viewing an actual 1930s-era film in black-and-white in a cinema, demonstrating director Ozon’s fascination with films from that period and what they may represent for him: a time of mystery and glamour, a period where such glamour co-existed with lurid and sensational crimes of passion that the public was fascinated with for perhaps the first time, and ultimately a period in which films offered many chances to escape grinding Depression-era poverty and uncertainty, even if only temporarily, while in actuality the world was marching towards a war that would devastate Europe and produce horrors of mass imprisonment, mass murder and genocide.