Adapted from pulp thriller The Damned Innocents by Richard Neely, Innocents with Dirty Hands begins a little too generically, as if the auteur behind the masterful Hélène cycle were simply going through the motions and weakly imitating his earlier work. Its international stars, Rod Steiger and Romy Schneider, also seem at first somewhat listless in their roles, as if suffering the effects of too much St Tropez sun, while Italian actor, Paolo Giusti, as leather-jacketed, kite-flying writer Jeff Marle, appears to have accidentally stumbled off the set of an Italian Giallo movie. However reservations are quickly dispelled as Chabrol’s mastery of technique and scene-setting atmosphere draws us inexorably into another high-class tale of infidelity, deception, jealousy, murder and revenge.
Like the director’s earlier film Les Noces rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973), the plot of Innocents owes a debt to The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the seminal works of both literary, and film, noir. As in those earlier works and many of Chabrol’s other films, the story explores the changing power relations within a triangle of characters. This time the murder plot unfolds at a breathless pace in the first act as the handsome stranger inspires the frustrated wife to fulfil her femme fatale potential and murder her impotent husband, after which the focus turns, as in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to the aftermath, as twist follows twist and the guilty are punished for their transgressions. It’s here that the story moves into unchartered territory as dead men return from the grave, sexually renewed and looking for vengeance. Even James M Cain’s imagination never ran this deep and dark.
In contrast to the central storyline, Chabrol introduces comic relief in the shape of the two investigating policemen, Lamy and Villon, who discuss the crime over dinner, brandy and cigars, making lecherous jokes and misogynistic comments, somehow managing to come to the right conclusions but completely missing the point. Their utterly cynical view of human nature, whilst amusing, seems somehow more depraved than the crimes committed by their quarry. Julie’s defence lawyer – a marvellous cameo from Jean Rochefort – is similarly ironic in outlook and so adept at his job that he gets Julie off despite the weight of evidence against her. This is justice played as a game, to be won by wit and skill regardless of right or wrong: “the truth is whatever people want to believe,” explains the lawyer.
Chabrol, with the help of regular collaborators – cinematographer Jean Rabier and composer Pierre Jansen – heightens the suspense effectively, especially at night in the garden, where wind blown trees cast shadows and the dissonant score keeps our nerves jangling. The modernist architecture of the couple’s villa, an abstract space far less rooted in place than Chabrol’s earlier thrillers, appears to close in around its occupants as the plot darkens. The winding staircase at its centre takes on symbolic significance as a site of power from the top of which Louis regains his authority during the revelatory flashback. Indeed, the geometry of the location, the artificiality of much of the dialogue, acting and the intrusive camera moves, convey a surreal, dream-like quality, as unsettling as a nightmare.
Adding to this unnerving quality is the fact that we are never quite sure of whose point of view to settle on and therefore who to root for. Romy Schneider’s enigmatic Julie exploits her luminous sexuality to gain gratification, money and power. We should despise her and yet despite this we feel sympathy for her plight as her world comes crashing down around her. Rod Steiger’s Louis, though a broken down alcoholic, has our pity too when we watch the brutal way with which he is dealt by those he trusted. Even the two detectives and the judge have our support as the upholders of justice.
But what is Chabrol’s attitude towards all this? Is Innocents a misogynistic film or a film about misogyny? Certainly, Julie is portrayed at first as cold and calculating and driven by the basest of motives; for her transgression she is punished, escaping official justice perhaps, but left grieving, friendless and alone. “Oh the fickleness of women!” exclaims her defence attorney after Julie tells him she would do anything to have her husband back; and yet her treatment at the hands of men makes her actions understandable. Only in the final chilling scene do we realise Chabrol has something more in mind than sexual politics. As Julie rises in the darkness at the command of a distant voice and walks towards a flickering light, the story enters a metaphysical realm previously only hinted at – not least in the film’s title. It’s the final stage on a spiritual journey that has seen her progress, in a Christian sense, from sin to suffering to redemption and finally to what? Judgement perhaps? Chabrol leaves us guessing.