Mademoiselle (1966) Blu-ray Review: Lust and Terror In France

Someone is wreaking havoc in a French provincial village. The cattle’s drinking water has been poisoned, fires have been set to barns and houses, and literal flood gates have been opened, sending river water pouring down into the village. That someone is the young schoolteacher known only as Mademoiselle (Jeanne Moreau). That isn’t the spoiler it seems to be as we see her open those floodgates from the film’s opening moments. The film’s mystery isn’t who is doing these things but why. That isn’t that hard to figure out either, actually.

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Mademoiselle is an unmarried schoolteacher and probably a virgin. The culture at the time, and certainly the omnipresent Church have told her that sex before marriage, even thoughts of sex, are verboten. A terrible sin. She is in a few words, deeply sexually repressed. When a handsome, muscular, sweaty Italian woodcutter named Manou (Ettore Manni) comes to town, her loins are set ablaze. But with no outlet for these desires, and with the feelings of deep guilt that come with them, Mademoiselle takes to destroying the village.

Also, she’s a sociopath. As she sets fire to a bar, with the fires blazing in her eyes, she lets loose with one of the few smiles we see on her face.

The police have no leads and the townspeople begin to blame Manou. He is a foreigner after all, and they can’t be trusted. Also, rumor has it he has bedded every woman in the village. The men all tease each other that when their wives aren’t where they should be, they are off in the woods with Manou. The wives, for their part, openly lust after him. Manou admits to his friends he often finds time for them.

Mademoiselle knows what she is doing will be blamed on Manou. She deeply desires him, but the guilt of this knowledge makes her want to destroy him.

In a flashback, we see how she first came across him. Walking through the woods one day, she spies him sleeping. The camera moves in close, lingering over the sweat in his armpits, the rippling muscles of his chest. His taut stomach where his shirt has been pulled up, and the loosened belt opened his pants just slightly. Looking at this, her eyes pop out and her tongue wags.

It is not a subtle film in its imagery. Later when the two meet, Mademoiselle stares openly at the bulge under his shirt. He lifts it to reveal a snake. He unfurls it and holds it out to her, phallic-like. You can touch it, he says. It won’t bite you. She reaches for it and it curls into her hands. You don’t have to have studied Freud to understand that symbolism.

Subtle it isn’t, but it is effective. Cinematographer David Watkin creates stunningly beautiful black-and-white compositions. Moreau’s performance is bold, exquisite. When she finally does make love to Manou, she goes for it completely. She kisses his muddy boot and licks his face. Howls like a dog in heat. It lasts from the afternoon through the evening and well into the morning. The film juxtaposes this with the townspeople hunting for Manou, ready with their pitchforks.

Mademoiselle is cruel to Manou’s son in her class. She chastises him for being stupid, and for the way he dresses. She calls him out in front of the class over and over and makes him stand in the corner or face a tree at recess. She otherwise seems to be a decent teacher. In another flashback, we see her tutoring the boy lovingly. This was before her loins got the best of her. Her cruelty, her unabashed joy at destroying the village is maddening. I was literally red-faced watching her do these things.

Reading reviews of the film, both contemporary and modern, it is interesting to see the differences in opinions. Some, like me, loved the film for its bold imagery and fine performances. Others absolutely hate it. The symbolism is too obvious, they say, the meaning too simple. Only a moron would think it has something deep and meaningful to say. They have a point, the film smacks you across the face with its philosophy. But as I say, it is effective. It worked for me.

MGM presents Mademoiselle in a fine-looking transfer. I could find no details on either the audio or video for this release. There are no extras.

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Mat Brewster

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