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La Nouvelle Vague on Television: Le testament du docteur Cordelier (1959)


Original French poster art.

Le testament du docteur Cordelier/The Testament of Doctor Cordelier is a French television film from 1959.  Written and directed by Jean Renoir, the film is a retelling of the classic tale from Robert Louis Stevenson: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Known alternatively as The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment and Experiment in Evil, the film shifts the period setting of the novel, Victorian London, to present-day Paris.  It follows the dubious activities of psychiatrist Dr Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault) as he publicly proclaims his hatred of people enacting upon sexual desire and rejects the advances of women, while simultaneously taking advantage of unconscious female patients in his care.  This repression and guilt lead him to rely upon self-medication to cure these instinctual sexual urges, which then manifest as an alternate personality: the monstrous Monsieur Opale (also played by Barrault).

Cordelier’s friend and lawyer Maître Joly (Teddy Bilis) is suspicious when he is instructed by Cordelier to leave everything in his will to the mysterious Opale.  Several weeks later, Joly interrupts a strange man attacking a young girl and chases the man to Cordelier’s house; a member of Cordelier’s staff refuses to let Joly enter.  Several more attacks are traced back to Opale, who then appears at a meeting scheduled between Cordelier and bitter rival Dr Séverin (Michel Vitold), where he murders Cordelier’s antagonist.  Joly later discovers Opale in Cordelier’s laboratory and the truth is revealed.  The transformation from one personality to the other has become excruciatingly painful and requires a higher dosage of the drugs needed each time, resulting in an impossible situation; Opale can only become Cordelier once again if he takes a final, lethal dosage.  Opale thus commits suicide and, in doing so, in Joly’s words: “He has dealt himself justice.”

Le testament du docteur Cordelier differs from conventional cinematic versions in two key ways: any romantic interest is removed completely and the scenes in which Cordelier transforms into Opale are diluted.  Renoir’s adaptation, though unauthorised, is actually much more faithful to Stevenson’s source text in this way.


Dr Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault) prepares his medication.

On top of this, though he was no stranger to television, Renoir utilised the new lightweight camera equipment available within television production to make a statement about the domestic market, which had imposed self-restrictions and was being flooded with international dubbed content.  Though Renoir had been asked to create a television play, he wanted to create a film that cost little to produce and could be aired on television as well as enjoying a cinematic theatrical run.  The film did indeed play in theatres throughout Europe, largely under the English titles The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment and Experiment in Evil.

In this revisionist approach, Renoir was echoing the rising stars of La Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave, who were just beginning to produce their first films of this movement – with a focus on location shooting, experimental film form and socio-political themes – thanks to the affordable and lightweight nature of modern recording equipment.  This technology also allowed the back streets of Paris become a character in Le testament du docteur Cordelier; the combination of external and studio shoots was an unusual approach for television production at this time.  It is also interesting that Renoir chose to record the film in black and white, a distinct characteristic of La Nouvelle Vague, with stark, minimalist backgrounds.  This is especially the case when comparing the film to Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe/The Luncheon on the Grass, which was also directed by Renoir in 1959 but uses colour to great effect.  Named after the 1862 oil painting by Edouard Manet, originally titled Le Bain/The Bath, this erotic comedy uses texture and colour to mimic the impressionist style of the art that inspired it.


Edouard Manet’s Le Bain (1862).

The lack of colour in Le testament du docteur Cordelier could also have been a nod to Renoir’s professional rivalry with Alfred Hitchcock.  Renoir bookends the film with a cameo; beginning with the filmmaker entering a studio and being prepped for recording, a panel reads: Jean Renior présente. This is, of course, a play on the American television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 to 1962, and its successor, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which was aired between 1962 and 1965.  To placate studios, Hitchcock would return at the end of the programme and didactically comment that the police eventually caught any villains who may have appeared to evade justice.  In a mischievous twist, which was possible due to the popular source material of Le testament du docteur Cordelier, Renoir simply remarks at the end of the film: “As for Cordelier, who had paid with his life for the terrible frenzy of spiritual research, was it not he who had the finest part?”

In regards to the actors, though Joly is the eyes and ears of the audience throughout the film, a neutral character that closely follows the demise of his friend, the dual roles played by Barrault are sublime.  Set against the repressed, austere and controlled movements of Cordelier, Barrault’s poetic, agile and expressionistic turn as Opale recalls his wonderfully haunting performance as Baptiste Debureau in Marcel Carné’s sweeping epic Les enfants du paradis/Children of Paradise (1945), in which he plays a mime in love with a stage beauty.


Jean-Louis Barrault as Opale on set.

Le testament du docteur Cordelier is an often-overlooked retelling of the classic struggle between good and evil.  Unlike most adaptations, in staying true to Stevenson’s novel, it is a play in psychological horror, touching on repression, guilt, desire, morality, and pride.  These themes are imbued by a stunning central performance from Barrault, which is in turn enhanced by the beautiful black and white cinematography, minimalist backgrounds and unusual use of exterior shots–creating a character of Paris–for a television film.  The fact that the film had a life beyond the box, with a theatrical release throughout Europe, is a testament both to its hybridity and longevity.

Originally published in Unsung Horrors for We Belong Dead.

About Rebecca Booth

Rebecca has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. In addition to her role as Managing Editor at Diabolique Magazine, she co-hosts the international horror podcast United Nations of Horror, as well as X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log. She has contributed to several popular culture websites such as Wicked Horror, Den of Geek, and Big Comic Page, and has contributed essays to following publications: Unsung Horrors (We Belong Dead, 2016), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), and the forthcoming A Filthy Workshop of Creation: Sin & Subversion in Hammer's Gothic Horrors (Electric Dreamhouse Press, 2018).

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