The first of many collaborations between director Claude Chabrol and actress Isabelle Huppert, Violette Noziere is a cross between a coming-of age period piece and a film noir told from the perspective of the femme fatale. Anchored by Huppert’s performance as a teenage girl drawn to a dark, seedy lifestyle while dreaming of a bougie, romantic one and the crimes she consummately commits to justify both, the film is a tale of class, moral, and familial betrayal that boasts Chabrol’s trademark use of a sharp cast, loaded silence, and dry atmosphere to leave its audience with a empty but upset feeling in their gut.
The film’s production design and cinematography are traditional and realistic, a visual style that Chabrol favors – stripping back the scale and grandiosity of setting allows for characters to shine, and Chabrol is best when extracting layered, incisive performances from his actors, as seen in Les Cousins and The Champagne Murders. Huppert’s performance as the title character is what colors the film, as you can observe from any poster or still from the film. Her Violette is steely, vampish, stoic, and spiteful, but all these qualities only peek out from underneath the façade of innocent everygirl that Violette masks her desires with when Huppert wants to. Violette’s role as a criminal (prostitute, thief, and murderer, in that order), thanks to Huppert, doesn’t stem from a mustache-twirlingly malevolent place – rather, the bored and bewildered expressions she wears during her passive moments connect her actions to an ennui that’s rooted itself deep in Violette, and the need to bury it drives her, since nothing else in the girl’s environment is half as motivational.
The characters who act as predator and prey during Violette’s misadventures, also well-performed by the actors and actresses behind them, are Violette’s mother, who serves as the next best thing to an antagonist, due to her suspicions of Violette’s exploits but helplessness to stop any of it, Violette’s father, an ineffectual man who represents everything she hates about their less-than-bourgeois lifestyle (and may be an effective source of trauma, if Violette’s admissions of incestuous abuse are to be believed), and Violette’s lover, a rakish leech who expedites Violette’s descent into prostitution and thievery, if only to help fund his day-to-day comfort. With company like this, the film doesn’t make it hard to empathize with Violette, crime and punishment and all.
More than a sordid crime drama or cautionary tale, Violette Noziere presents its audience with the pyrrhic victory of a coming-of-age story subverted. Violette never quite reaches the heights she dreams of (an expensive lifestyle stimulating enough to erase the boredom slowly weighing her soul down to murderous depths), but she represents a cathartic, youthful desire to violate all the rules you’ve been presented, joyfully and out of spite. Further than that, she manifests the dream of getting away with it all – the film ends with a statement mentioning her eventual vindication (after a shortened sentence) and return to a normal life. Violette may be a murderess who indlged in sex and violence to their violent ends, but she’s somebody that anyone who’s less than mature enough has the luxury of aspiring to be – given they don’t act on those desires the way she skillfully does. But the film, like Violette, coyly refuses to tell its audience to be inspired by her story, hiding in a frame of drab, grey, and lurid content – implying that you are to feel nothing, but giving you just enough of a tale to make you consider what you can get away with.