Blu-Ray Review: A Woman Kills

An Unreleased French Thriller Makes its Debut Fifty-Five Years Later

Photo courtesy of Radiance Films

It isn’t often you come across a synopsis that makes you wonder if it may have been ahead of its time, let alone come across a filmmaker who was ahead of their time. Still, in the case of A Woman Kills (La Femme Bourreau), I became intrigued by both prospects. Despite Hélène Picard’s conviction and death sentence for a vicious string of murders of sex workers two years earlier, the crimes continue. While Paris fears the ghost of serial-killer Hélène Picard, the policewoman in charge of the investigation, Solange (Solange Pradel) fears a copycat or worse, doubting the investigation led to the correct culprit. Carrying out an affair with Louis Guilbeau (Claude Merlin), Hélène’s executioner, Solange begins to notice something isn’t adding up about her mysterious new lover. 

The box art for A Woman Kills
Image courtesy of Radiance Films

Resurfacing thirteen years ago and given a loving restoration by Luna Park after being shelved for forty-five years, Jean-Denis Bonan’s serial killer thriller A Woman Kills is making its Blu-Ray debut courtesy of Radiance Films. The 1968 movie made waves when it sought distribution, not only for its content but how that content relates to and uses footage from an important period in French history: May 1968. The May cultural protest that occupied Paris universities was born from consumerism, capitalism, America’s decision to invade Vietnam, and even Charles de Gaulle’s reelection some years earlier. De Gaulle’s campus closures during this time helped unite the students, leading blue-collar factory workers, manufacturing technicians, and shipping workers to abandon their jobs. By the third week of May, nearly eleven million people were on strike, and de Gaulle was forced to flee France by the end of the month. 

When Bonan sought distribution, no one wanted to touch the film. The way he tells it, on the A Woman Kills Blu-Ray documentary featurette “On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan,” it wasn’t because producers didn’t like the film, but because the movie is difficult to categorize. Bonan started as an editor for French news reports that played before the movies at the cinema, helping to create a ten-minute newsreel on a weekly basis. The sound editor on those reels was none other than Jean Rollin, director of Zombie Lake and many erotic vampire films.  

While Rollin drifted into more exploitative horror fare, Bonan wanted to use aspects of the genre to depict French society allegorically. This made way for his short film Sadness of the Anthropophagi (Tristesse des Anthropophages), a consumerist tale about the auto-mat consumption era, a pre-cursor to fast food, where the bourgeoisie end up paying to eat their own excrement. As you might imagine, Sadness of the Anthropophagi was not received well by the censor boards in France. It was rendered unplayable in French theaters and ineligible for export. This censure would continue to suppress Bonan’s work throughout his career and ultimately led to distributor decisions not to move forward with A Woman Kills. 

Solange gazes into the camera in A Woman Kills
Photo courtesy of Radiance Films

A Woman Kills is a film made out of Parisian unrest, a commentary on the socio-political climate as well as the transgressive nature of the time. Though it’s fifty-five years old, A Woman Kills plays more modern, though obvious comparisons to film directors of the time can be established. Hints of German expressionism and French new wave are felt through approaches that include Godard’s Alphaville in the narration and Breathless in Bonan’s visual style. The tight spaces in the apartment building and hallways ring Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and the erotic surrealism captured by Luis Buñuel in Belle de Jour is also on display. Yet, themes of the film speak to current events in a way that almost feels precognizant. The US is undergoing a similar bourgeois upheaval through the Great Resignation, and after undergoing the pandemic, the moral implications of a blameless government more concerned with potential lives lost than owning up to the fact they’re potentially culpable is eerily sound. In real life, it was through poor handling of communication, while in the film, it’s through a wrongful execution. 

Bonan’s film doesn’t exactly tread new ground, per se. It’s mainly an investigative thriller and one where there isn’t as much of a surprise for the audience as there is for the characters. Hitchcock had already found success with films like Psycho and Vertigo, both indicative of the kind of pursuit Bonan sets up in A Woman Kills. Like Sleepaway Camp, Psycho, or Dressed to Kill, A Woman Kills also dangerously likens gender identity/confusion in a way that implies psychosis. It’s a bit more ambivalent, contextually, also suggesting wartime PTSD as a way for the film to stand against the Vietnam war. Bonan’s use of a non-conforming outsider also fields a bit more depth with the backdrop of societal discord, as if using the divergent, progressive lifestyle to go against societal expectations strictly because it was considered unacceptable. 

A woman buries her head int the chest of a woman looking at the camera in A Woman Kills.
Photo courtesy of Radiance Films

Watching A Woman Kills was fascinating. Despite the disjointed introductory scene being a little hard to follow, the narrative became much clearer as the film moved along, and, for a movie of its time, it ties its themes to the plot in expert fashion. Horror and cinema history buffs and the Criterion crowd are likely to love A Woman Kills because it’s an engrossing time-capsule film that serves as a missing piece in French cinema. More casual horror fans may be less appreciative of the lost work.  

A Woman Kills is part of the new Radiance Films boutique label, spine number eight in their collection, spearheaded by former Arrow Video executive Francesco Simeoni. This is the first time the film has been made available on disc and the first time it’s been seen by people outside of France. The disc is utterly stacked with extras, including six short films from Jean-Denis Bonan, La vie brève de Monsieur Meucieu, Un crime d’amour, rushes of an incomplete film; the above-mentioned Tristesses des anthropophages, Mathieu-fou, Une saison chez les hommes. Also, the aforementioned thirty-seven-minute documentary “On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan,” audio commentary from film critic Kat Ellinger and film scholar Virginie Sélavy, and an introduction to the film from Virginie Sélavy as well. Wrapping up the package is a reversible sleeve with exclusively commissioned artwork and a loaded limited edition booklet featuring essays and interviews about the film and the director’s short films. 

A Woman Kills releases on Blu-Ray on February 7.  

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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