It was in October 1965 that Hélène Picard was arrested for murder, found next to the mutilated body of a prostitute known only as Cathy; an unstable and violent thief who had grown up in the care of the state, she was sentenced to death the following January, the execution carried out on 22nd March 1968, yet two months later a series of murders bearing the same hallmarks began, Brigitte on the first day of May and Angèle less than two weeks later.
A former soldier who fought in the Algerian War and now works for the Ministry of Justice, Louis Guilbeau was the man who executed Hélène Picard; a paranoid, delusional fantasist, he enthuses over the details of hanging, electrocution and beheading over dinner with Solange Lebas, the lawyer with whom he has somehow begun a relationship, assistant to the superintendent who is investigating the new killings.
There are two apparent solutions to the problem raised by writer and director Jean-Denis Bonan in A Woman Kills (La femme bourreau), shot on 16mm on the streets of Paris in the summer of civil unrest of 1968 marked by demonstrations, strikes and riots but unreleased for forty-five years: that the wrong person was executed, or that a copycat killer has taken up where Picard was curtailed and convicted.
The narration by Bernard Letrou in the style of the bullet points of a police report, the verified facts presented without emotion or bias, it is a contrast to the visuals, images of the city and characters going about – crucially – their lives, the editing dreamlike and abstract as scenes overlap like memories, the camera creeping along narrow cobbled alleys at gutter level then switching to scenes of women unaware they are being watched, bathing, dressing, simply going about their daily business.
The opening interview between “society’s official killer” Guilbeau (Claude Merlin) and Lebas (Solange Pradel) conducted in starkly lit monochrome, no soft edges to blur his manic disposition or shadows in which to hide himself, it is a realism at odds with the electric illumination of Paris at night, the landmark of the Moulin Rouge, a cinema screening Barbarella, every stranger the camera passes a potential suspect.
The killer painting their face on like a mask to blend in with their victims, another performer in a city of façade, “city of solitude, melting pot of cultures,” the deliberate style of the first two thirds falters in the final act, abandoned in favour of an ungainly escape across the rooftops followed by a frantic extended chase sequence, A Woman Kills as frustratingly unpredictable and inconsistent as the characters it presents, any judgement or condemnation left to the viewer.
A Woman Kills is streaming on Arrow now