The titles fill the screen: “Between 1893 and 1898,” they tell us, “Bouvier killed twelve children. In those same years more than 2,500 children under fifteen died—assassinated—in mines and textile factories.”
The closing titles, of course, merely underscore the social and political message that has pervaded the entire film. Bouvier may be an assassin, but the world he inhabits—and which condemns him—is populated by assassins who are far more deadly than he. Indeed, this point is made explictly by the judge’s clear-sighted Royalist friend; citing an observation taken from Octave Mirbeau, a popular author of the period, he says, “We are all assassins, at least potentially, only we channel this criminal impulse through legal means: industry, colonial trade, war, anti-Semitism.” Reiterating this message in somewhat different terms, in one interview Tavernier described the confrontation between the judge and the assassin as the clash of “two violences: a crazy, tormented, uncontrollable, and unconscious violence and a legal, repressive, and hidden one.”
In the clash between these two “violences,” there is never any doubt that the “legal violence” of the judge will prevail. Like the marquis du Pontcallec in Que la fête commence, Bouvier—a far more marginal and helpless figure than the aristocratic Breton nobleman—is obviously condemned less for his very real crimes than for what he is and for what he represents. “He is poor,” remarks the judge’s friend; “he doesn’t stand a chance.” His marginality, however, extends far beyond his poverty. For he is also obviously mad. And it is here, in respect to Bouvier’s madness, that Le juge et l’assassin bears such a telling resemblance to Moi, Pierre Rivière. That is, like Allio’s film, Le juge et l’assassin also investigates the ways in which criminal insanity is defined, treated, and, to some extent, created by society. If Rivière’s seeming sanity baffled the experts, they proved no more perspicacious or effective when it came to Bouvier. Transferred from one medical or psychiatric clinic to another, Bouvier was mistreated, misunderstood, by a variety of “experts.” He underwent, said Tavernier, “all the official possibilities of repression of the era: the army, the church, the asylum, the prison, the psychiatric hospital as well as the regular hospital. I did not invent anything: he really went through all this.”
Doubtless exacerbated by repression, Bouvier’s madness, like that of Pierre Rivière, raises, of course, troubling questions concerning the social roots of insanity. As portrayed in the film, Bouvier is clearly an exceptional being frustrated by social and economic barriers; despite himself, he is driven to commit horrendous crimes that appall him as much as they do his executioners. Veering between moments of mad ravings and lucid incisiveness, he is often prey to acute remorse: after one murder he desperately prays to the Virgin; to avert still another, he deliberately scares away a potential victim. In addition to these indications of a moral conscience, he displays linguistic gifts that rival those of Rivière. Throughout the film, in fact, we hear extracts from his letters, based on real letters by Vacher, that reveal a talent for telling poetic and rhetorical effects.
Bouvier’s talents, as well as his moral sensibility, prompt the inevitable question: to what extent did the misery and solitude of his life—the hardships of a rootless existence in which he was obliged to beg for food and shelter each night—lead to violence? Citing the debt he owed Foucault in respect to his exploration of this issue, Tavernier remarked that “mental illness is due to many factors which are not only psychological but also social. Sometimes madness catalyzes, to the state of paroxysm, certain traits of a society.” Viewed from this perspective, Bouvier’s madness can be said to “catalyze” the social madness of a country in which the poor receive less compassion than Bouvier reserves for his victims. Implicitly condemned throughout Le juge et l’assassin, this social madness surrounds the vagabond as he tramps throughout France. In the countryside, starving peasants live in dark and cramped hovels along with their beasts; in the cities, young women—like Rose, the judge’s mistress—must choose between a slow death in the factories or the bed of a wealthy man. Emphasizing the inextricable links between social misery and crime, Bouvier himself denounces the France of his time in an elegant play on words: “It is better,” he declares, “to be a slaughterer than to make slaughterers.”
If the madness of Bouvier/Vacher can be said to have “catalyzed” the madness of a world characterized by injustice and misery, his case also pointed to other collective “dramas” and “passions,” to use Tavernier’s words, of the 1890s. The most unforgettable of these dramas, of course, was that of the Dreyfus Affair. And, indeed, Tavernier never lets us forget that behind Bouvier’s trial lurks that of the Jewish army officer accused of treason; behind the “legal violence” of the judge, that of a society bent on restoring and maintaining order. Rapid tableaux serve as constant reminders of the violent passions that raged during the 1890s. From their pulpits, preachers denounce the arch-Dreyfusard, Emile Zola, while army battalions burn his books; a homeless man is denied food at a church soup kitchen because he is illiterate—and thus unable to add his name to an anti-Dreyfus petition. Even Bouvier’s mystical outburts, in which he identifies with the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, echo a polarizing debate that was sparked by the Dreyfus Affair. On the Dreyfusard Left, anticlerical Republicans saw the Maid of Orleans as a secular patriot whose humble origins made her a daughter of the people. On the Right, where hatred of Dreyfus was often bathed in anti-Semitism, Joan of Arc was not only celebrated as a “saint” but turned into the antithesis of the Jew.
Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema – Naomi Greene