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The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1959)
The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, a modernization of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” might seem a strange choice of material for French maestro Jean Renoir, but the director acquits himself beautifully, locating a thematic link to the material that lodges it firmly in his body of work. Made in 1959, using the multiple-camera setups that had been mostly relegated to television at that point, this horror film relies less on shocks than on a probing look into the psychic monster that dwells within us all. Appropriately for Renoir, who always strives to convey the full range of human experience in his films, Testament finds its conflict in the Doctor’s suppression of his instinctual impulses. To this director who likes to leave no point of view unrepresented, a man with two personalities fighting it out inside him is the perfect subject matter.
As with most Jekyll and Hyde adaptations, it is the lead performance that demands the most praise here. Jean-Louis Barrault’s turn in his double role might be the best of its kind. Barrault, a famed mime, defines his dark side Opale, with a preening saunter that is less overtly evil than self-impressed. He moves with the grace of a silent comedian and strikes with the force of a killer. It’s not until the film’s final act that the viewer gets a strong impression of Cordelier himself. In it, Renoir launches a lengthy flashback that lays bare the film’s thematic aspirations and shows surprising insight into the psyche of the heretofore elusive Cordelier . Throughout, Barrault convinces with a performance that is more than a collection of mannerisms.
Renoir’s trademark class conscience is as present here as ever. Not only do many scenes feature the Doctor’s servants as players, but the key moment of the doctor’s conversion tellingly comes when a woman’s disgust that her son is sleeping with her maid makes the good Doctor compartmentalize his own urges toward his housekeeper. The beginning of the film is even marked by an extra-textual introduction, in which the audience watches the director arrive at a television network to introduce the program to both his collaborators and his viewers. Ultimately, Renoir’s achievement is substantial enough that it negates both any foreknowledge of this familiar story and any qualms about the flatness of its visuals. By stressing the universal elements of Stevenson’s story, Renoir eradicates the creakiness of the plot, spinning the tale into something that still feels relevant.