“I had become a free being, free of all constraints, aware that I could do whatever I wanted…”
[Original title: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier; also known as: Experiment In Evil, The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment]
Director: Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Teddy Bilis, Michel Vitold, Jean Topart, Micheline Gary, Jacques Dannoville, André Certes
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, based upon a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Synopsis: The solicitor, M. Joly (Teddy Bilis), is disturbed when his friend, the eminent psychiatrist and researcher, Dr Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault), makes a new will leaving his entire estate to a stranger, M. Opale. A few weeks later, M. Joly is closing up his house for the night when he observes a disturbing event: a young child, walking in the streets unsupervised, is suddenly attacked by a man. Joly rushes down to go to the child’s assistance. The man lets the child go and turns his attention to Joly who, when he catches up with him, is knocked down and viciously kicked. A number of other people, who witnessed the attack on the child, arrive on the scene, and the man retreats through a doorway to which he has a key. The shaken Joly realises that the door is a back entrance to the property of Dr Cordelier. The other pursuers want to call the police, but Joly persuades them to let him talk to Cordelier instead. He is admitted by Cordelier’s manservant, Désiré (Jean Topart), who tells him that the doctor is not home, but that he and the other servants are under strict orders not to interfere with the man, whose name is Opale. Joly insists that Désiré have the doctor phone him as soon as he gets home, whatever the time. However, Cordelier calls upon Joly instead. When the solicitor demands to know whether Opale has been arrested, Cordelier tells him that the police have not been informed of the attack on the child. Admitting that Opale is vital to his research, Cordelier gives his assurance that there will be no repetition of that night’s incident. Still deeply concerned, Joly calls upon Dr Séverin (Michel Vitold), the only Parisian psychiatrist whose professional reputation rivals that of Cordelier; although in all other respects the two men are entirely dissimilar. When Joly begins to request his help, Séverin denounces both Cordelier’s theories, and the fact that he gave up his clinical practice to pursue them. Joly explains Cordelier’s situation and asks whether he could be justified in sheltering Opale; confessing his fear that Opale is using some sort of threat or blackmail against Cordelier. Séverin reacts with derision, effectively dismissing Joly’s concerns; his only advice for the disappointed solicitor is not to meddle. Meanwhile, Opale is on a spree, wandering the streets frightening people and starting fights. All of a sudden, however, his actions spiral completely out of control, when he attacks an inoffensive stranger and ends up beating him to death…
Comments: After spending the 1940s wrestling with unsympathetic producers and studio interference, Jean Renoir gave up on Hollywood, travelling first to India to make The River, his first colour film, and then back to Europe to make a remarkable trio of Technicolor productions: musical comedies that nevertheless offered serious social commentary. And having demonstrated his mastery of widescreen, colour cinematography, Renoir then turned his back upon it and followed up with two low-budget, black-and-white, made-for-TV movies; evidently – very like Hitchcock with Psycho – finding a new challenge in the very restrictions of television work.
French TV had been courting Renoir for some time when he agreed to make films for that medium; although in approaching Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, his plan was to make a film that would meet the requirements of both television and the cinema, while working with a budget low enough to make his film commercially competitive with the dubbed imports that were filling French theatres.
At the time, as had already happened in America, there was open warfare between television and cinema in France, with the latter trying to starve the former of product. Only too aware of what the consequences of this stand-off had been for the studio system in the US, Renoir wanted to demonstrate that the two media could help each other. There had already been instances in France of films moving from the cinema to TV and then back to the cinema, often with attendances rising on the re-release, apparently as a result of the TV exposure. Why not make films intended to screen in both context?
Preparations for the shooting of Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier included Renoir rehearsing his actors for full week away from the cameras, preparing whole scenes and sequences as if for a play rather than a film, then working with his technicians for a week more. He used multiple cameras and multi-angles and depths, aiming to get full coverage in as little time as possible, and with as few re-takes as necessary (although the latter didn’t entirely work out as planned, as we shall see). Though making a film, Renoir wanted the energy and tension of a live television broadcast.
Alas, in the long run Renoir’s diplomatic notions came to nothing: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier was poorly received upon its initial television screening, so much so that it was two years before it played cinemas, instead of almost immediately as first planned. It was criticised particularly for its technical roughness, but some critics also took exception to its depiction of contemporary bourgeois life as both sterile and neurotic.
Nevertheless, this is an intriguing adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal story of a split personality (albeit one in which Stevenson himself is not credited, tsk!), built around the remarkable twin performances of Jean-Louis Barrault as the prim, repressed Dr Cordelier and his rampaging alter-ego, Opale.
This adaptation also manages to be something of a contradiction in terms: a modern updating of the story that stays closer to the novel than any other version I’ve seen. Since the impact of the narrative depends upon the reader not knowing the connection between Jekyll and Hyde, and since at this point everyone does know it, it is understandable that most film adaptations don’t bother to disguise the relationship, but follow Jekyll on his journey. However, the very unfamiliarity of Renoir’s approach, in more or less filming the book as written, gives his adaptation a paradoxical freshness.
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier opens with an odd framing device: Jean Renoir, playing himself, arrives at a television station to deliver an on-camera introduction to an upcoming program, “Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier”. The word “program” is ambiguous: it is unclear whether Renoir is presenting a film or a documentary, but in any event there is a clear implication that what follows is a true account of events recently taking place in the Parisian suburbs…
Renoir chose the ’burbs for his story quite deliberately: one of his intentions, he once explained, was to capture what seemed to him one of the puzzling contradictions of modern life, in which the middle classes retreated behind high walls and locked gates to live in seclusion from their neighbours, then put themselves in analysis in order to have their secrets and neuroses brought to light.
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier is scathing about the psychiatric profession, tending to depict its practitioners as exploiting the bored and foolish bourgeoisie; we see neither people with genuine problems, nor any suggestion that the people who are seeking analysis might be helped, in spite of the “international reputations” of Drs Cordelier and Séverin. That they have such reputations seems intended as another criticism of contemporary society.
Our story proper begins with the famous Dr Cordelier rewriting his will.
(We should note the duelling implications of the name “Cordelier”: the Cordeliers were an order of Franciscan monks. However, during the French Revolution, a group emerged called the Club des Cordeliers, whose members were in favour of the escalation of the Terror. The contradiction is evident, but so is the underpinning religious connotation.)
Cordelier’s solicitor, M. Joly, who is also a friend with whom he served in the army, is confused to see that he is leaving his entire estate to a stranger, one M. Opale. (Mind you, given what we see of Cordelier’s “normal” life, we might be inclined to wonder who the previous beneficiary was? – perhaps a medical foundation.) It is not M. Joly’s business, however—or at least, it isn’t until one night a few weeks later, when from the windows of his house he sees a small child being manhandled by a strange-looking individual…
The visual distinction between Cordelier and Opale is almost total, the former a smooth, thin, neat-as-a-pin, clean-shaven individual, the latter a hairy, tousled clown whose clothes are too big for him. In truth, I think they overdid the makeup on Opale, and something—well, less obviously makeup might have been more effective. As it is, Opale’s hairiness and padded cheeks (which actually interfere with Jean-Louis Barrault’s speech) draw too much attention to themselves.
But it is the physical differences that are most effective, and the most disturbing. This is also the only adaptation of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde that I know of to run with Stevenson’s suggestion of Hyde as a smaller, diminished version of Jekyll. Here, that notion is conveyed simply through Opale’s ill-fitting wardrobe: Cordelier’s clothes are too big for him. This, along with Barrault’s mannerisms as Opale, who almost dances around, twirling a cane and twitching his body, making odd, bird-like motions with his head, and occasionally losing control of his legs, initially hints at something playful, almost childlike; an idea reinforced by the film’s use of theme music, which (as is also the case in the following year’s Les Yeux Sans Visage) is disconcertingly light-hearted. As he skips and skitters through the streets, at one point literally kicking up his heels, Opale comes across as a perverse melding – could it be any other kind? – of Charlie Chaplin, David Byrne, and Torgo.
But the suggestion of mere playfulness is immediately undermined. As Opale swaggers along, he becomes aware of the small girl hurrying down the street towards him—and she of him. Immediately, instinctively, alarmed, she presses into a shadowy corner and hopes to go unnoticed. And Opale, very deliberately, walks past as if he has not seen her—only then to turn and pursue her up the street…
(This is a very odd scene: this child isn’t just wandering aimlessly, she’s going somewhere; briefcase in hand, no less!)
There is a tendency these days, I note, to over-read this scene, and make Opale’s attack on the girl out to be worse than it is; I’ve even seen it interpreted as sexual assault, which is nonsense. In fact, it is vital to the correct interpretation of the film to understand exactly what Opale does here. Certainly there is a sadistic aspect to his allowing the child to think she has slipped by him and then pouncing upon her, but he does no more than handle her roughly, swinging her around and then forcing her to the ground—all the while looking around not, it seems to me, in fear of being caught, but to see who is paying attention.
In short, he deliberately creates a scene—and notice where he does it: directly underneath the windows of M. Joly.
Joly is the first to come to the child’s aid, and instantly Opale shifts his attention. He taunts Joly, poking him with his cane, tripping him up, provoking him into a chase that Opale could, clearly, win easily if he chose to, but never drawing away from him. Instead, he leads him directly to Cordelier’s back door – what in this version everyone knows is Cordelier’s back door – and waits there for him. Then and only then does Opale become truly violent, knocking Joly to the ground and kicking him several times before retreating into what we learn is Cordelier’s laboratory, and to which he has a key.
Various other residents, who also heard the commotion and rushed to the child’s assistance – though her parents are not among them – have caught up with Joly. They want the police notified, but Joly’s first thought is his client’s reputation: he persuades the others to let him talk to Cordelier.
It turns out that Cordelier’s manservant, Désiré, knows all about Opale, though he has never seen him, and is under strict instructions not to interfere with him. A dismayed Joly insists that Cordelier must phone him as soon as he gets home. He then goes out to disperse the small crowd of interested individuals.
By this time the girl’s mother has turned up, very vocal about monsters and police dereliction, not so much about parents who let their young children wander around the streets at night (or send them out?). Joly’s response to the situation is rather worrying—effectively positioning him as part of the problem. Having just remarked to Désiré that, “We must avoid a scandal at all cost!”, he proceeds to quiet the mother by slipping her some folded notes, “For any expenses”. This immediately placates not just her but the rest, who were clamouring for the police and justice a moment earlier, but now decide that Joly can be trusted to handle the matter. And that’s the last we hear of it.
In Jean Renoir’s world, everyone, it seems, is in the wrong; only the degree of wrong differs.
Instead of phoning, Cordelier calls upon Joly. He immediately takes the wind out of Joly’s sails by stating flatly that reporting Opale to the police is out of the question. Opale is, in effect, a “living experiment”, vital to Cordelier’s work; he further contends that in willing Opale his estate, he is only repaying the debt he owes him. Joly voices his fears for Cordelier’s safety, suggesting that if Opale is aware of the will, he might murder Cordelier. Cordelier downplays Opale’s capacity for violence, only admitting that he is sometimes subject to “attacks”. To Joly’s pleading about the will, Cordelier responds wryly that when he made it, he was of sound mind and body…
But it is not only Cordelier’s safety that concerns Joly: he demands to know what Cordelier will do if Opale commits further violent acts, a question to which Cordelier has no immediate answer. Eventually he promises Joly that there will be no repetition of the night’s incident.
Joly is less than satisfied with the situation, so he calls upon Dr Séverin to ask his expert opinion—but is again left without reassurance, as Séverin speaks scornfully of Cordelier and waves away Joly’s concerns. Whatever this film ultimately makes of Cordelier, there is no doubt of its opinion of Séverin, an entirely materialistic rationalist, who not only denounces Cordelier as “idiotic” and “paranoic”, but insists that his theories – which have as their basis the existence of the human soul – would, “Mark the end not only of medicine, but of science and progress.”
Séverin is a larger-than-life individual: untidy, his clothes ill-fitting; hot-tempered; rather loud, rather…violent; a chain-smoker and a pill-popper, who clearly has something going on with his nurse-secretary, and whose office is the epitome of ugly modernism. While Séverin scornfully rejects the idea that he has anything in common with Cordelier, beyond the mere fact of their mutual qualifications, we might be tempted to suggest who he does resemble…
Speaking of Opale, he is out looking for trouble…
(Jean Renoir and Jean-Louis Barrault weren’t, necessarily, but found it anyway. Renoir wanted a cinéma verite feel to his film, so some scenes were shot in the streets without alerting the locals; some of the incredulous stares at “Opale” are quite genuine. However, this approach backfired rather severely when Barrault improvised a grab at a baby in its mother’s arms. Let’s just say that this was one scene that did need a re-take, although they kept the idea…)
About this time a pattern begins to emerge in Opale’s behaviour. We notice that while he bothers women, and provokes able-bodied men into chasing him, his real attentions are focused elsewhere: upon the weak and vulnerable; children, the elderly, the disabled. A sequence showing him annoying various people lurches suddenly into the realm of genuine horror when, instead of merely teasing or tripping or otherwise bullying an elderly man stricken with a cough, Opale explodes into outright violence, knocking the helpless man to the ground and kicking and beating him—so severely, that he breaks his cane over his victim’s body. A necking couple disturbed by Opale minutes earlier rush to the scene, and discover that the man is dead…
Another direct reference to Stevenson’s novel follows, an allusion to the suggestion that there was simultaneously nothing physically wrong with Hyde, yet something terribly wrong; something indescribable that repels anyone who sees him. This is a touch that most films ignore, particularly since they almost always – not entirely always – take the easier path of having something very obviously wrong with Hyde. Here, however, despite Opale’s very distinctive appearance, the young couple are unable to give a proper description of him to the police; the woman simply repeats over and over that he was somehow “dreadful”.
The victim, it turns out, dined that evening with M. Joly—so maybe the attack wasn’t so random? When alerted, Joly presents himself at the police station, and is horrified to discover that he recognises the murder weapon. He tells the Commissioner that the cane belongs to a man called Opale, and further – albeit with a twinge of professional conscience – he reveals his address, which he knows from Cordelier’s will.
The police rush to Opale’s residence: it is not entirely clear whether this is actually a brothel, or an apartment building that also lets rooms to working-girls; though the decor suggests the former. Either way, there’s no kept woman in this version of the story, just the unfortunate tart who lives down the hall. Seeing the police arrive, several of the other women rout out Suzy from the room in which she is hiding, telling her that the cops have come for Opale and she needn’t be frightened any more.
Opale is not there, however; though there is plenty of evidence of his presence. By the time Suzy steels herself to face the Commissioner and his men – we should note, to their credit, that the police are non-judgemental and even polite when dealing with Suzy and the others – the Commissioner has already examined with disgust a bra ripped in two, a broken shoe, and a selection of whips. He also finds the other half of the broken cane.
We cut to Joly tearing his hair out over Cordelier’s obstinacy—more so since the doctor’s focus is not upon the murder, but on proving himself right and Séverin wrong, via his work with Opale. Joly tries to get Cordelier’s attention by suggesting that Séverin, his enemy, will take the opportunity to destroy him professionally, but Cordelier observes rather cynically that Séverin will be hampered by his professional ethics. Despite everything Joly can say, Cordelier remains fixated upon the experiment he is to carry out in front of Séverin, which, he insists, will justify his life’s work. Joly’s only consolation is Cordelier’s promise that once the experiment is over, he will blot Opale out of his life…
On the back of this conversation, Cordelier challenges Séverin to observe his experiment, which he offers to conduct at Séverin’s office the following day. Séverin accepts, and invites Joly to be present. The solicitor responds by asking if he may call upon Séverin first, but once there he finds that the psychiatrist cannot or will not tell him anything about the nature of the experiment.
Joly does not know that Opale arrived at Séverin’s office only moments after he did, and is now lurking downstairs. Opale ducks out of sight as Joly emerges and heads for his car…but then a man on crutches passes him by. What’s a sadist to do…?
While other passers-by assist the injured man, Joly runs to call the police. Opale, far from trying to get away, has gone up to Séverin’s rooms, where he harasses and gropes the secretary and the maid, before forcing his way into the office. Séverin is interested enough to finally lay eyes on the mysterious Opale, but demands to know why he is a day early? Opale responds that Cordelier can’t make it the following day after all, but will be along in a few minutes… Séverin finally agrees to hear what Opale has to say, shooing away his worried staff and ignoring their remonstrances.
When Joly leads the police upstairs, it is Cordelier who answers the door, and who breaks to them some grim tidings…
Up to this point both Joly and the police, in their different ways, have conspired to keep Cordelier’s name out of the paper, but with Séverin’s death and his staff talking about the mysterious “experiment”, Cordelier finds himself news-fodder. He reacts with sour amusement—possibly because of the paper’s tendency to attribute his failure to alert the police to his relationship with Opale to “a scientist’s absentmindedness” (!). However, we are also informed, via the same article, that Cordelier has renounced his experiments, and is considering a return to private practice.
It should be emphasised that Opale does not kill Séverin, who seems rather to have collapsed from shock, perhaps had a heart-attack; although quite possibly it was Opale’s revelations that did the damage. Séverin’s poor health is brought to our attention from the beginning. Cordelier’s decision to give up his secret life as Opale at this point has a particularly grim significance. It is not Opale committing murder that bothers Cordelier, but the fact that Séverin’s death has robbed him of his audience and the pleasure of being proven right.
Later, passing by Cordelier’s house, Joly is pleased and relieved to find that he has ordered the back door to his laboratory bricked up. A further sign of Cordelier’s old life being resumed is his hosting of a dinner-party: once a regular event, we learn, but a custom since fallen by the wayside. Joly, inevitably present, proposes a toast to Cordelier, implying that he has been busy dispensing Cordelier’s money – money no longer destined for Opale – to charitable concerns. Cordelier has the grace to look acutely uncomfortable as his guests applaud him.
(The brief glimpse we are offered of this stultifying gathering, which presumably represents Cordelier’s pre-experimentation “normality”, explains a great deal…)
Joly is woken the same night by a phone-call from a panicked Désiré: cries of agony are emanating from the laboratory, but the doors have been blocked so that Cordelier’s servants can’t get in. They are hesitant to take action on their own initiative, and are both relieved and frightened when Joly prepares to break in. He, Désiré and the gardener manage between them to force away the furniture stacked against the door. There is no sign of Cordelier, but crouched against one wall is—Opale…
After a violent struggle, there is a stand-off. Désiré threatens to call the police, while Opale retorts that if he does, it’s the end of Cordelier: a statement Joly interprets as blackmail. Finally Opale agrees to reveal Cordelier’s whereabouts, but only if he is left alone with Joly, and only if the others take no action without Joly’s permission. When the others have withdrawn, Opale gives Joly an envelope annotated in Cordelier’s handwriting. It contains a recording—not his will, but his testament…
In revealing Cordelier’s motives, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier again goes back to Stevenson’s novel. Cordelier, publicly the very model of virtue, has for many years been locked in a losing battle against his own vile impulses, sexual and otherwise. This version of the film discards the longstanding cinematic convention of representing Cordelier’s struggle by positioning him between a “good” woman and a “bad” woman (thankfully, since no-one has ever been able to reconcile the resulting contradictions), showing him instead subjected to fairly ordinary temptation—at least at first.
Cordelier chooses two “incidents” to illustrate the dilemma in which he found himself—and that he considers them to be of comparable magnitude is one of this film’s most horrifying touches. In the first, comical rather than not, Cordelier is fooling around with his maid when they are interrupted by a patient: a middle-aged woman who tearfully and ashamedly reveals that her seventeen-year-old son is, “Ill, very ill”—as evidenced by his fooling around with the maid…
This interlude, which pulls Cordelier up short by making him ridiculous in his own eyes, serves a secondary purpose in the film overall, not only highlighting Cordelier’s hypocrisy – having only moments earlier wiped his own maid’s lipstick from his mouth, he loftily assures the mother that he is capable of turning her son from his “unhealthy” activities and setting his feet back on the moral path – but also suggesting the repressive attitude of society at large, with normal sexual desire and curiosity treated as something shameful, even sick, to be denied and hidden away.
And this leads directly into the second “incident”, which is as far from comic as it could be. In another slap at society at large, and the psychiatric profession in particular, we learn that it is a common thing for therapists to have “adventures” with their female clients; the implication is that bored, neurotic wives, with too much money and time on their hands, amuse themselves by entering therapy…and then “therapy”.
Cordelier has always felt – or professed to feel – disgust at this situation, but he too has his temptations. We see him with an attractive patient, whose smiles, rapid breathing and uneasy movements on the couch spell out a clear invitation to Cordelier. He could accept it, but he is terrified that the woman might talk; so instead he drugs her into unconsciousness and then assaults her. He would rather be a rapist than risk a scandal, and the loss of his public reputation as “a doctor of virtue”. “Many more incidents of this type followed,” says Cordelier’s recorded voice…
In a subsequent fit of conscience, Cordelier gives up his practice and devotes himself to research—specifically, to “the problem of evil”. After many years of work, he develops a drug that is “purely physiological” in its action, yet capable of curing “moral infections”. It is produced on the back of his study into narcotics, known and newly discovered, and their effects upon the will, the memory, thought, consciousness—and even upon the soul…
Cordelier recounts how he shared his theory and his findings with Séverin, hoping that his rival’s very different views and beliefs would make him capable of offering an impartial opinion. Instead, Séverin reacted with ridicule and abuse, even accusations of Cordelier taking man “back to the Middle Ages”, on the basis of his contention that there is such a thing as the soul. Séverin sends Cordelier on his way with the enraged assertion that he is, “A threat to the existence of the world, to morality, to life!”
Cordelier realises that he has to prove that his theory is not just a theory. He cannot experiment upon animals, as they do not have souls—
(—which is my favourite stray detail in the Spencer Tracy version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, in all other respects as conventionally religious as the Production Code could possibly have desired, but clearly indicating that animals do have souls; although granted, it doesn’t seem to notice that it has—)
—and he cannot ask someone else to take the risk. He must experiment on himself…
It’s strange how iconoclastic Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier seems to be, simply through sticking to its source. It even refuses to gratify the viewer with another cinematic standard: the dramatic transformation scene – though you could imagine Jean-Louis Barrault wanting one – instead having Cordelier collapse in agony and curl up on the floor. One camera shift later, he rolls over as Opale.
As we see Opale examining himself in the mirror, he hear Cordelier explaining that while as Opale he retained Cordelier’s thoughts and perceptions, his feelings about everything were completely different. He was above all suddenly aware that he was free…
At this point the narrative cuts back to the present, to Joly’s horrified denial. Opale agrees that he is not Cordelier; that Cordelier has, in fact, vanished, ceased to exist; and that is the tragedy…
Joly becomes almost hysterical, refusing to believe that Cordelier, his friend, a respected doctor, a man who he has known all his life, could be, “A monster, a rapist, a murderer…a vile fraud…an accomplice to evil.” Opale responds by showing a scar on his arm, the result of an accidental injury inflicted by Joly during their military days. Overwhelmed by his sense of betrayal, Joly finally demands to hear the rest of the story; immediately revealing his lack of understanding of what Opale is by rejecting a priori any idea that he can justify his actions.
Opale describes his sensation of lightness, once freed from society’s constraints. For a time here we are close to the Fredric March version of the story, with the jaunty musical theme playing as Opale almost dances around the laboratory, posing and posturing in front of the mirror in obvious joie-de-vivre.
Once he ventures outside, however, there is no mere enjoyment in his actions; or rather, there is no point at which his enjoyment does not take the form of inflicting pain upon others. This is Cordelier’s last, most terrible secret, his profound capacity for cruelty.
Once re-transformed, Cordelier has clear memories of what has gone on, but feels absolutely no guilt or remorse. Everything that has happened, seems to have happened to someone else; he feels untouched, unstained, by Opale’s “debauch”. However, he decides he cannot, will not, risk it again, and abruptly destroys his drug.
“A drunkard’s promise,” comments Opale scornfully. Cordelier not only risks it again, but throws himself into his double life, being “saintly Dr Cordelier” in public, and living out his darkest fantasies as Opale. He is quite content to go on like that, as long as he is in control; the only drawback is the physical pain of the transformations; but soon he is not in control. One morning after a double transformation, and all that happened in between, he wakes up in Cordelier’s bed as Opale…
Back in the present, Opale explains that an ever-stronger dose became necessary to turn him back into Cordelier, while he could transform into Opale with barely any warning and no preparation—“Because the miracle of staying double is as much a matter of moral strength as of chemistry”—and moral strength is what Cordelier so conspicuously lacks. There is a dose, one final dose, that will turn Opale back into Cordelier; but it will also kill him. Opale asks Joly to decide for him: shall he remain as he is, a monster, or die?
Joly – now addressing his companion as, “Cordelier, my friend” – asks about his religious convictions. Opale contends that his experiments have proven the existence of the soul, adding that he is quite sure that, separated from his double body, his soul will be immortal. Joly counters that if this is the case, he cannot commit suicide. He urges him to expiate his sins on earth, to suffer for Opale’s misdeeds while in the form of Opale—“For the heinous crime of tampering with the Creator’s work.”
Opale seems to consider this—then violently thrusts Joly away and drinks the fatal dose…
So how are we to interpret this? Is Cordelier merely fleeing the earthly punishment that Joly prescribes, or is he conversely deliberately condemning himself to damnation? Or could his actions indicate his rejection of the conventional religious dispensation of the soul, in seeking to free it from its contaminated earthly prison? In spite of his insistence upon the existence of an actual immortal soul (as opposed to what the arch-rationalist Séverin regards as mere “consciousness”), Cordelier does not follow his theory through to what we might regard as its logical conclusion, but separates a belief in the soul from a belief in God.
And the absolute conclusion of the film only adds to the ambiguity, as once more we hear the voice of Jean Renoir:
“As for Cordelier, the formidable ecstasy of spiritual research cost him his life. Was he perhaps the lucky one?”
Having pondered that, I find myself more confused than ever about the take-home message of Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier. Are we to envy Cordelier because with death he has found full understanding, or because alone, it seems, in this passionless and hypocritical society, he has found a way to “ecstasy”?
But if I am not sure what we are supposed to think about Cordelier, there is something I want to highlight about Opale, something that particularly struck me upon this viewing: one possible interpretation of his behaviour.
I noted at the outset the contradictory nature of Opale’s attack upon the little girl. This is a recurring factor all throughout the film: never at any point does Opale really seek to conceal what he has done, but on the contrary draws attention to himself. He attacks the child directly below Joly’s windows, and then leads him quite deliberately to Cordelier’s back door; even waiting there until Joly catches up. When he beats the man to death, he does it knowing that the necking couple are just around the corner, and that they’ve had a good look at him.
And outside Séverin’s building, though he does duck out of sight when Joly emerges, he then not only attacks the man on crutches, but having done so he looks around to check that Joly has seen him—and that he is watching as he goes inside. He is aware, via Cordelier, that Joly knows his address, and that in all likelihood he will recognise the cane, too.
In short, everything that Opale does seems calculated, not to conceal the connection between Cordelier and himself, but to ensure its exposure.
And here, perhaps, we have the most unexpected facet of Opale’s true nature. It is a commonplace to interpret him as the physical manifestation of everything that Cordelier has been forced to keep in check for years, all his lusts and his sadism; but now I can’t help wondering whether Opale is meant to represent something repressed even longer, and even more stringently; the first casualty in Cordelier’s war against himself: his honesty.
This review is part of the B-Masters’ examination of the lesser-known side of French cinema. Click here for more!