Monsieur Verdoux

Posted by schnolis on May 16th, 2009 filed in Reviews

MONSIEUR VERDOUXI find it difficult to review most movies that are 60 years old. There are so many contextual elements that are foreign to me. My understanding of history in general is sketchy and follows the arcs of wars and enormously significant events like The Great Depression. What can I say? Growing up I was much more interested in science and technology. Still, I enjoyed Monsieur Verdoux (pronounced ver-DOO) and some of its points.

Monsieur Henri Verdoux (Charlie Chaplan) is a French banker who’s been hit hard in advance of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He loses his job, and cannot find work to support his disabled wife and child. Out of desperation, he begins courting, and sometimes killing, wealthy women to bilk them of their money. He’s got a litany of false names, homes, businesses and strange jobs, many of which require his perpetual presence out of town. All of these deceptions have been kept from his family and friends who think he is doing legitimate work.

Several important things happen to Monsier Verduox, though. Some families of the women who strangely vanished have contacted the police, who themselves have detected the unlikely disappearances. His money, which he aggressively funnels into the stock market, is dwindling as the market begins its eventual crash. As a result he must work more diligently to try to swindle more money from women. And eventually, many years later, the police catch up to him. Ironically this happens a result of the one noble deed we witness Henri make in the film. His is arrested while having dinner with a young woman whom he assisted when she was further down on her luck than he was.

It is not until the arrest that things finally make sense. We learn that Henri has adopted a perverted sense of principles that allow him to do things unconscionable in a civilized society. He offers the argument that he is simply acting in the best interest of his family, and that all nations routinely do this very thing. Countries that kill thousands in seemingly justified wars are guilty of the same crimes as he, only in far greater numbers.

On some principled level I agree with him. Our governments and corporations make decisions all the time that profoundly impact individuals. It happens when hard times begin, fiscal cuts are made, jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed, insurance is forfeited, and our health and lives are the final price we pay. Our recent market crash is surprisingly relevant to this very story. Our government is paying billions of dollars of our taxpayer money to bail out corporations that took foolish risks. We don’t yet know the outcome of this current crisis, but it’s pretty clear regular, hard-working people will lose everything, through no fault of their own. We could have a Monsieur Verdoux out there right now, and that’s a chilling thought.

What I liked: Eventually understanding Henri Verdoux, and how dire circumstances can push us beyond normal societal limits. He’s a simple character whose moral framework slips off the path that most of us tread our entire lives. All of society is built upon everyone buying into this method of co-existence, or paying the price for nonconformity. With enough ingenuity and resourcefulness, though, it’s possible to avoid the penalty, and people can be hurt in the process.

What I disliked: It was difficult to get a read on the character of Henri Verdoux for most of the film. His misogynistic attitude and the occasional situational comedy moments soured my liking for the ending. His points, when ultimately made, were poignant and thoughtful, but getting there was an odd road. I wonder if Charlie Chaplin is just a taste I haven’t yet acquired?

Rating: 6 of 10

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