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LE TESTAMENT DU DOCTEUR CORDELIER (1959)

"It wasn't only a sensual satisfaction which pushed me to become Opale again, but above all an irresistable need for cruelty...."
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Director: Jean Renoir

Starring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Teddy Bilis, Jean Topart, Michel Vitold

Screenplay: Jean Renoir, based upon a story by Robert Louis Stevenson

Synopsis: A lawyer, Joly (Teddy Bilis) is disturbed when his friend, the eminent psychiatrist and researcher, Dr Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault), makes out a Will leaving everything to a mysterious stranger, Opale. Outside his home, Joly sees a man attack a little girl. When Joly pursues him, he sees the man enter a building belonging to Cordelier. Joly confronts Cordelier's manservant (Jean Topart), who says that his master is out, but that he has given orders that no-one is to enter the laboratory when Opale is in there. Joly is horrified at discovering the man's identity. When he later talks to Cordelier, he is told that Opale is the basis of an experiment which will prove Cordelier's theories. Although deeply worried about Cordelier's connection with the clearly insane Opale, Joly holds his peace until Opale goes on a spree of violence, beating to death a complete stranger. Joly identifies Opale to the police, who find his apartment - with its evidence of Opale's sadistic sexual tastes - but not the man. Meanwhile, Cordelier makes an appointment with Dr Severin (Michel Vitold), a professional colleague who has always ridiculed his work. However, it is Opale who comes to Severin's office. Joly sees him enter and calls the police. They arrive to find Severin dying, and being treated by Cordelier who says he did not see Opale. A few days later, Cordelier holds a dinner party. When it is over, his servants are woken by appalling screams from Cordelier's laboratory. They call Joly, who breaks in, and learns a terrible secret.

Comments: Jean Renoir's modern reworking of "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" was clearly conceived as a showcase for its star, the fabulous Jean-Louis Barrault, whose physical abilities are given full reign in the manic activities of Opale. However, the film has some interesting points to make about the society in which it was set. Renoir's Paris of the late fifties is shown as being as rife with sexual repression and hypocrisy as the Victorian society which gave birth to the original tale. (One of Cordelier's patients comes to him because her seventeen-year-old son is "sick, deeply sick" - i.e. he's been having sex with the maid.)

Similarly, Cordelier is most closely related to John Barrymore's Jekyll. He's an apparent saint aware of his own sexual and violent impulses, but who is too concerned with his public reputation to give in to them as himself. The strength of these negative forces is neatly demonstrated by the fact that after the initial transformation, Opale must take stronger and stronger doses of drugs to revert to being Cordelier, who in contrast can be turned into Opale by the slightest provocation.

Barrault's Opale is blood-brother to Fredric March's hedonistic Hyde, whose cry of "Free! Free at last!" is echoed by Opale's statement that he feels "light, light, light". And there is sympathy for Opale, even as there is for Hyde at first, as a force for freedom in a repressive society. But after a time, Renoir's obvious pleasure in Opale - giving him an attractive name and an inappropriately upbeat score, letting the camera linger on his activities - becomes uncomfortable. This is not the social and sexual anarchist of Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932): this is a killer and a sexual sadist. Renoir seems to be suggesting that it is better to be that way, than to be like Cordelier. The fact that there appears to be no middle ground is a damning indictment of the society portrayed.

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