François Ozon’s The Crime is Mine puts Women Front and Centre on the Stage

Genre defying French director François Ozon heads back into 8 Femmes territory for his witty and distinctly feminist adaptation of the 1934 play Mon crime by Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil. The adaptation isn’t particularly faithful but retains the 1930s setting to make a comment on the strictures placed on women in that era and how ludicrous men believed the smallest act of transgression – such as being a young, beautiful, and ambitious woman was tantamount to instantaneous guilt. The Crime is Mine is a breezy farce with many homages to classical cinema and stage productions, but beneath its frothy exterior lies commentary about social expectations for women both young and not-so-young.

The curtain quite literally opens on an expensive house in a well-heeled Parisian suburb. There is some kind of commotion and we see a young woman, our heroine, Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) leaving the property in a state of distress. Arriving home to her tiny apartment shared by her best friend and burgeoning lawyer, Pauline (Rebecca Marder) she explains that the famous producer who asked to meet her, Montferrand (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) had limited intentions in giving her a decent role but quite specific intentions for paying her to be his mistress, a proposition he tried to physically force on her.

Pauline has spent most of the day ducking her landlord for rent owed. The two friends are penniless, and their ambitions are constantly stunted. Pauline is not taken seriously as a law practitioner because of her gender. Madeleine is simply grist for the mill in a world filled with predatory men who both desire her and castigate her for being desirable. Added to this, Madeleine has a clueless beau, André Bonnard (Édouard Sulpice), the son of a wealthy industrialist who owns a tire factory. André has never worked a day in his life and refuses the idea of having to. He declares he adores Madeleine and would do anything for her, short of jeopardising his inheritance by marrying her. In fact, he has accepted an offer to be the husband of a not-to-attractive heiress and hopes Madeleine will continue their relationship as his live-in mistress, a proposition that Madeleine roundly turns down.

Things become thorny for Madeleine when it is revealed that Montferrand was murdered and his wallet stolen. Madeleine is the instant suspect having been the last person at his home before the death and is lacking a decent alibi. Overzealous investigating judge Richter Gustave Rabusset (Fabrice Luchini), decides Madeleine is guilty and shot him with a pistol taken from her home by an unscrupulous cop. Even though she is innocent of the crime, Madeleine under the tutelage of Pauline, admits to it on the basis of self defence and a trial is undertaken.

The court scenes are simultaneously hilarious with Madeleine hamming it up on the witness stand and damning of the French justice system. Pauline defends Madeleine who becomes a symbol for oppressed women across French society and after she is proven to have acted in self defence. Madeleine becomes a cause celebre with film and stage roles flooding in.

There is one hitch to Madeleine and Pauline’s newly found success. Silent film star and ageing screen goddess Odette Chaumette (Isabelle Huppert in full La Huppert mode) is actually responsible for Montferrand’s murder and when she sees what it has done for the young starlet is desperate for a piece of the action – monetary or career wise. Madeleine has stolen her crime and she wants it back.

Ozon is playing elaborate games in The Crime is Mine. Not only with a terrific script but formally with scenarios plunging in on another through a variety of cinematic and stage styles. Versions of the crime play out as melodramas, silent film antics, slapstick comedy, and screwball comedy. Despite the playfulness of the film Ozon never forgets it is about women who struggle for acceptance. He cannily recognises how the Papin Sisters and Violette Nozière were media sensations. In a particularly meta touch Isabelle Huppert’s big acting breakthrough was by portraying Violette Nozière is Claude Chabrol’s 1978 film. He also styles Madeleine as Louise Brooks for ‘Suzette’s Ordeal’ the smash hit play in which she has the leading role.

Huppert, Tereszkiewicz, and Marder are the essential trio of the film but are ably supported by the male cast including Dany Boon as Palmarède, a kindly father figure to Madeleine who is forever grateful to whomever dispatched Montferrand. Olivier Broche as Trapu, the prosecuting judge’s secretary who is well aware what a sizeable fool his superior is, and both André Dussollier and Édouard Sulpice as Monsieurs Bonnard senior and junior respectably.

Ozon has stated that he believes The Crime is Mine to be “about the triumph of sorority,” a work that champions women and their rights. The courtroom scene reminds the audience that women at the time had no voting rights, could not open their own bank accounts, and could not file for divorce. Pauline’s closing argument is an appeal for all the women of France but is blocked by the prosecutor stating, “For years women have been blithely killing men,” ignoring the shocking rates of crime against women. As Madeleine is acquitted many women start to think of her as a heroine who did something they have long wanted to do – fight back against abusive men.

The Crime is Mine is at once delightful and extremely funny, but also an indictment of weak men who abuse their power: whether that be a powerful producer or a young man who holds a wedding proposal over his lover’s head like a trophy she can never win. The film’s brilliant meta takes on the film and stage industry are intelligently sewn into the visual style of the film with so many references to delight cineastes. Ozon might be a difficult director to pin down in terms of style: his work ranges from entries into the French New Extremity, adaptations of classic literature (Angel), neo-noirs (The Swimming Pool), queer gems (Peter von Kant), serious dramas (Everything Went Fine) and a plethora of other films. One thing that remains certain is that he adores cinema and the stage and loves his mysteries. All the world’s a stage (or film set), and Ozon is one of its great impresarios.

Director: François Ozon

Cast: Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Rebecca Marder, Isabelle Huppert

Writers: François Ozon, Philippe Piazzo, Georges Berr

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!