The film opens with nuns singing as they climb a hill. But any similarity with the Sound of Music stops there. Jeanne Moreau is evil incarnate. Like the ex-girlfriend that is love and light to everyone she meets. But only you know the truth! She is lovely. She is beautiful. She wanders the hillside like Aphrodite blessing the ground on which she walks. Each carefully observed detail of the countryside is there in her natural and engaging charm (and heightened by use of natural sound only). Gentle and sensitive. The sort of person everyone wants to know. Do we fall in love with her in the first few minutes? She picks up some birds' eggs and gently crushes them. What? Some mistake n'est ce pas? Did we really see that? Have you ever refused to believe an awful thing because a person 'couldn't possibly be bad'? A friend, a lover, a spouse even. Or the upstanding member of a community. A politician? The velvet glove. Kennedy - Vietnam. Gandhi - bloody Partition. Catholic Church - Spanish Inquisition. The super-spin smile. The well-meaning malice. The invincible persona of goodness. And in the dark it conceals what we refuse to believe.
Am I too harsh - all over some eggs? The water-lock she opens girlishly. The lighted cigarette by which things burn. Is it wrong of us to suspect her childlike innocence? See her soft lips! See her run to help you in need! Comfort you. Always there for those less fortunate.
Mademoiselle works as a typist at the police station and also as a schoolteacher. Both respectable jobs. She's an upstanding new member of the rural hamlet where things go mysteriously wrong. A chaste girl, of course. (Except when she's having sex but if she doesn't get caught, does it 'count'?) She sweetly tells the children stories of Gilles de Rais. How brazen (for well-read viewers!).
Apart from the femme-fatale-in-overdrive aspect of this film, it is also visually satisfying in every possible way. Rampant open-air sex - in a thunderstorm - has never looked so good (or so convincing). Natural sound creates more atmosphere than an added soundtrack ever could. Dramatically, it has the long-drawn out obsession-tension of a Lady Chatterley (What is it with these woodcutters??) but with much more finely chiselled characters. While Moreau's poisoned chalice has similarities with her role in Diary of a Chambermaid, this Mademoiselle is altogether more accessible, more extreme, more downright nasty.
Some may find fault with the artistic overstatement. Or the fact that a cast of many nationalities has to somehow be made to gel. If you are turned off by the tone of it, you may even find it preposterous. But let it work its magic. Director Richardson is most ambitiously at his height of 'British New Wave,' and master-storymaker Jean Genet shines. Moreau is a monstrously formidable force. Mademoiselle is one of the most dedicated portrayals of female malice ever brought to screen. It is the femme fatale made real, and without any puritanical come-uppance to relegate her to the realms of noir fantasy.
David Watkin's (The Devils, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa) dreamlike photography icily dramatises the charged eroticism. The Panavision lenses "drool" over the bodice-ripping element, the fiercely animalistic sex. Fellow director Richard Lester once described it to Steven Soderberg saying, "Mademoiselle was the most beautiful black-and-white film I have ever, ever seen . . . they were using different stocks which had different flare factors and different qualities of the way the blacks and greys played for each scene. You were choosing stock to make something look great. It was very experimental." It has also been described as, "black and white widescreen noir," making effective use of the large frame, often placing the characters right or left at the limits of our vision.
Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that Mademoiselle is demonically possessed. The other view is that it portrays the havoc caused by repressed passions, and in which the church is complicit. This latter, more reasonable view, is supported by a careful reading of the film. The hypocrisy of the clergy is also hinted at in moments of humour. "Some are called to a life of suffering," says the priest sententiously. To which the hard-working old peasant woman retorts, "You seem to forget that I make your bed!" Whatever your feelings, it does give a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Come when I whistle."