Dear Readers, this is my post for The 1947 Blogathon. Be sure to visit our host sites Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy for more information and links to the other posts on a great year in cinematic history.
For those of you who have not seen Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin plays a murderer!
This film is inspired by real-life serial killer Henri Landru, according to the Los Angeles Times his head is on display at The Museum of Death in Hollywood, very creepy, not my cup of tea.
If you haven’t seen Monsieur Verdoux, see it. If you have, see it again. If you watch one Charlie Chaplin movie this year, watch Monsieur Verdoux. The film is pure genius, Chaplin at his absolute best. It is charming, hysterical, thought-provoking and disturbing.
As the film opens, Monsieur Verdoux posthumously recounts his career: marrying wealthy women and killing them to support his ailing wife and child. He quickly explains his motivations for his actions, “it was a strictly business enterprise to support a home and family. Let me assure you, the career of a Bluebeard is by no means profitable. Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”
“Optimism” is important.
The film then introduces The Couvais Family, an odd sequence. In The Art of Charlie Chaplin: A Film-by-Film Analysis, author Kyp Harness describes the Couvais Family: “one of Chaplin’s worst scenes ever, with awkward staging and incompetent acting- the film features one of Chaplin’s least accomplished casts- enabling it to resemble a community theater production on an off night. The purpose of the scene is exposition- to clumsily set up the premise that the Couvaises are concerned about their sister” (Harness, 177).
While Harness described the scene correctly, I do not believe he correctly understood the scene’s purpose. The moment does provide the necessary exposition, but I feel it is not an example of sloppy directing but a carefully designed moment. Chaplin was a meticulous director. Everything we see in his films is intentional, never accidental.
In my opinion, the scene’s direction is a conscious choice. To explain, I suggest we re-examine the moment through a Brechtian lens. Bertolt Brecht was a playwright, director, theorist, and one of the most influential figures in 20th-Century Western Theater. Brecht and Chaplin were friends, he credits Chaplin as a major influence.
Brecht’s “Epic Theatre,” political theater, demands intellectual engagement, not emotional engagement. Emotional engagement is prevented by an intentional theatrical device “Verfremdungseffekt” or “V-Effekt.” A device contrary to many theatrical conventions. V-Effekt demonstrates a non-realistic technique, making the familiar strange, alienating the audience (or spectator) from the narrative, thereby destroying character driven empathy. Throughout Monsieur Verdoux, there is purposeful distancing, the actors often drop character and address the camera, this is Verfremdungseffekt. Here is a short list of Epic Theatre’s hallmarks present in Monsieur Verdoux (by no means exhaustive):
- Large Narrative- Many locations/times
- Events told through a single storyteller
- Events set in the past draw attention to present events
- Characters blocked functionally rather than artistically
- Representational and Presentational Acting Styles used intermittently
- Actors not completely in character
- Signs and Placards (Newspaper Headlines) convey information
- Audience directly addressed by the actors
- Messages clearly signified
Epic Theatre’s purpose is inspiring change outside the theater. Intellectual engagement forces the spectator to consider the dramatic action in a larger world perspective, not from the characters’ perspective. This is also Monsieur Verdoux’s purpose.
If we view the film through this theoretical lens, it is quite clear that the stock characters and representational performance is intentional, not poor direction. The Couvais Family are merely performers, they are not worthy of your empathy. Chaplin does not want you to become emotionally invested at this point. This clumsy scene, when viewed as V-Effekt is quite elegant.
Monsieur Verdoux is a dapper ladies’ man, elegant, the exact opposite of The Little Tramp (as Andre Bazin notes). The film follows Verdoux as he woos unsavory wealthy women (with Pepe Le Peu-like fervor), robs, and murders them. It is a black comedy, wonderfully macabre, Vincent Price-esque. After he dispatches of his wife see Verdoux in a cafe meeting his former co-workers:
BANKER. What do you do now?
VERDOUX. A bit of everything real estate, stock market.
BANKER. You must have made a killing.
Verdoux’s personality is a dangerous juxtaposition. He is likable. We see glimpses of The Little Tramp when he feigns sweetness. His charisma is dangerous, he suggests, “pick a derelict, poison him then send him to a hotel. When a person is found dead in a public place, there’s an autopsy. You’d know the result without taking the slightest risk.”
The money supports his ailing wife and child. Do not misinterpret this fact. Monsieur Verdoux does not seek our sympathy. The film is not a Machiavellian argument contemplating whether the end justifies the means. Chaplin states at the M. Verdoux Press Conference:
Question: Mr. Chaplin, did you intend to create sympathy for the character of Monsieur Verdoux?
You may wonder, what is the point? Or to quote the film:
REPORTER. Give me a story with a moral.
Before I answer this question, let’s return to optimism. Consider Chaplin’s earlier films. What traits come to mind? Optimism. As The Little Tramp, Chaplin embodies innocent optimism despite insurmountable odds. Think of his theme song Smile, “you’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile” (hear Nat King Cole sing Smile). What a beautiful song. Like The Little Tramp, Verdoux maintains his optimism, amidst his troubles.
VERDOUX. Poor dear. Oh, well. Nothing is permanent in this world, not even our troubles.
Verdoux (the character) is optimistic, but the film is not optimistic, smiles cannot fix everything. The script often references Schopenhauer a 19th-century German Philosopher, who termed his philosophic viewpoint “Pessimism.”
VERDOUX. What book is that?
THE GIRL. Schopenhauer.
VERDOUX. Do you like him?
THE GIRL. So, so.
VERDOUX. Have you read his treatise on suicide?
When faced with death, the optimistic Verdoux, believing himself poisoned violently fights for life:
VERDOUX. I’m poisoned! I’m dying. Telephone my wife.
“Schopenhauer believes that a person who experiences the truth of human nature from a moral perspective … will be so repulsed by the human condition… The result is an attitude of the denial towards our will-to-live, which Schopenhauer identifies with an ascetic attitude of renunciation, resignation, and willessness, but also with composure and tranquillity” (Wicks, N.P.).
After his wife and child die, Verdoux fully understands the truth of human nature, denies his “will-to-live.” Verdoux’s world is broken, irretrievably broken.
THE GIRL. But that’s giving up life.
VERDOUX. We must all give it up sooner or later.
THE GIRL. Yes, but not before our time.
VERDOUX. Why? Must you know the reason for everything?
THE GIRL. It might help a little if we did.
VERDOUX. Life is beyond reason.
THE GIRL. That’s why you must go on. If it’s only to fulfill your destiny.
The film’s action takes place during the 1930s and 40s, but in 1947, the world was still reeling from World War II. Chaplin, ever the social documentarian, can no longer “smile.” He cannot turn a blind eye to the atrocities of war. Look at the beginning of the film. Verdoux murdered his wife Thelma three days ago, and the neighbors chat, clearly showing more concern for their laundry than their missing neighbor.
WOMAN 1. How long’s he going to keep that incinerator burning?
WOMAN 2. It’s been going for three days.
WOMAN 1. I haven’t been able to put my washing out.
Later in the film we see footage of Nazi Germany, remember that economic depression, isolationism, and self-concern were key players in The Third Reich.
In a world of oblivion, only Verdoux shows concern for the defenseless. The above scene contrasts with Verdoux almost stepping on a caterpillar, “Oo-la-la! You’ll be stepped on. Be careful.” Verdoux is a vegetarian and shows immense compassion for bugs and animals, to his son Peter:
VERDOUX. Peter, don’t pull the cat’s tail. You have a cruel streak. Where do you get it?
PETER. I’m only playing with him. He likes it.
VERDOUX. He doesn’t. You play too rough. Remember, violence begets violence.
Verdoux’s greatest danger is his ability to compartmentalize, while, at times incredibly compassionate, he thinks little of the women he kills, as it “strictly business.”
VERDOUX. That’s business.
REPORTER. Others don’t do business that way.
VERDOUX. That’s the history of many a big business. Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify my good fellow.
Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.
The film criticizes Nazi Germany, but it also criticizes a capitalist economy. Following the Great Depression, munition manufacture was a key player in American economic turnaround. How does this differ from Verdoux remedying an economic depression?
During his sentencing, Verdoux addresses the court:
VERDOUX. However remiss the Prosecutor has been, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you, Monsieur, I have. And for thirty-five years I used them honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces. And done it very scientifically. As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless… Upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say. I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.
Let’s return once more to V-Effekt. One cannot help but notice it is Chaplin, not Verdoux, addressing the audience, not the court. By distancing the spectator from the narrative, Chaplin forces the audience to consider the facts on a larger scale. Verdoux’s crimes are humanity’s crimes. Verdoux does not want our absolution for his crimes. He has “peace with God, My conflict is with Man.”
At this moment, the film shows its true brilliance. A lovable murderer took us in hand and let us laugh at his comic foibles. We, temporarily, get lost in his narrative. Then we are violently taken away from Verdoux and his little troubles. In a passionate speech, he holds a mirror up to society and shows us while we laughed at Verdoux, we laughed at ourselves. For, we the audience, are all no better than Verdoux, trapped in a tragic world, out of necessity we justify murders every day.
In The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux Andre Bazin notes, as Verdoux goes to his execution, he stumbles, and for a brief moment we are reminded of The Little Tramp.
The innocent optimist, destroyed by a capitalistic system, a mere pawn, just as we all are. Society has killed innocence and optimism.
Chaplin: I intended to create a pity for all humanity under certain drastic circumstances–I think–in catastrophe–conditions bring out the worst in humanity and I’ve been intensifying that in this picture, I wanted to show that anytime we have a depression or anytime that we have a national catastrophe, that it brings out these cancerous conditions… I intended that the feeling should that you have is sympathy for the whole human race (Chaplin & Hayes, 107).
This film is absolutely brilliant.
Hulu offers a streaming version for their members. Both iTunes and Amazon have a digital rental for $2.99.
Bazin, Andre, and Hugh Gray. “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux.” What Is Cinema? Vol. II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California, 2005. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. Understanding Brecht. London: Verso, 1983. Print.
Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957. Print.
Chaplin, Charlie, and Kevin J. Hayes. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2005. Print.
Harness, Kyp. The Art of Charlie Chaplin: A Film-by-Film Analysis. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008. Print.
Wicks, Robert. “Arthur Schopenhauer.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/>.