Lost for 40 years, Jean-Denis Bonan’s thriller “La Femme Bourreau (A Woman Kills)” receives both a restoration and wide release, courtesy of Radiance Films.

Art imitates life when it comes to timing. One can never predict how something will be received and, even things prognosticators think is a shoe-in, could fall flat. Sometimes the politics of the day get in the way, other times it’s the way a piece of art is viewed based on the artist’s prior creations. Anyone in the film industry who’s paying attention has some opinion on writer/director Zack Snyder based solely on the critical and fan-based reactions to his DC Extended Universe films and their handling. But this isn’t a new thing. In 1968, French writer/director Jean-Denis Bonan faced a double-barrel issue of socio-political unrest in the form of the May ’68 student strike, as well as pushback from the censors based upon his previous release, the short film A Season for Mankind (1967). At this time in history, this meant that Bonan’s project, La Femme Bourreau (A Woman Kills), was shelved indefinitely. Or, it was until it was given its first screening in 2010 when added to a repository show. Now, thanks to home release boutique Radiance Films, A Woman Kills is not only receiving a first-time Blu-ray release, but a wide release outside of France with a selection of informative materials both on-disc and off.

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A still from LA FEMME BOURREAU (A WOMAN KILLS). Photo courtesy of Justin Cook PR/Radiance Films.

After several gruesome murders of prostitutes took place, justice seemed to have arrived with the capture of Hélène Picard, who was found with a victim. Strangely, after her execution, the murders commenced once more. Is Picard actually innocent or did she inspire a copycat? All investigating officer Solange (Solange Pradel) knows is that the killer must be stopped before they kill again.

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A still from LA FEMME BOURREAU (A WOMAN KILLS). Photo courtesy of Justin Cook PR/Radiance Films.

Going through the bonus materials ahead of watching Bonan’s A Woman Kills, a film I hadn’t heard of prior to Radiance’s announcement, helped to lay the groundwork for the often unsettling film I experienced. It’s not unsettling because of the content, that aspect has grown far more explicit in the time since Bonan conceived of the film, but for the way it goes about telling its story. The narration that serves to catch the audience up reads off information like a modern procedural, cold and focused entirely on the details of time, place, individual, and event. It’s a disembodied voice that watches over everything, omnipresent and omniscient, being put to work as a mechanism to shorthand a great deal of information or actions that also serves as a metaphor for a larger system. What that larger system is, within the historical context of Bonan’s views on capitalism and the civil unrest among the students that year, could very well be that of the government, seen as the culprit that established the mores that first instilled the idea of what gender should be and then utilized its populace as cannon fodder for political gain. Some of this is explored specifically through the character of Louis Guilbeau (Claude Merlin), a man in a relationship with Solange whose past traumas, which never get treated, draw him to her. Though much of the film shares traits of works by fellow surrealist Jean Rollin (Le viol du vampire), aspects which give the film a certain otherworldly quality, the lack of details in other respects do trample on the solidity of the narrative. For instance, the manner in which Guilbeau is introduced makes little sense nor is it clear why Solange would fall in love with him. Perhaps this is undercut specifically to make way for the thematic elements, but doing so, especially when the killer utilizes behaviors considered deviant by the populace in the film, lessens the significance of their relationship and the narrative’s eventual revelation between the characters and the crimes. Again, the film is unsettling not for the content (it titillates without sexualizing, a fascinating thing as there’s quite a few erotic moments), but for the method of telling its story. Are we watching a killer commit heinous crimes or are we observing the horrifying results of governmental control? Especially as so much of the film feels improvised in the cinematography, long takes, and seemingly unexpected blocking, each bringing a sense of stillness or slowing down even amid a chase sequence, it’s as though Bonan and cinematographer Gérard de Battista (Level Five) want the audience not just to watch, but to observe and think on what they see.

Keeping in mind two things — Radiance Films has 14 films under their banner as of this writing and A Woman Kills is the second release I’ve checked out — A Woman Kills demonstrates exactly what physical media proponents want out of restorations. First, a restoration affords viewers the ability to see a film in their area that may have never been available before (this is something Arrow Video does well and Radiance Films founder Francesco Simeoni worked there for 12 years). Second, it does so with an improved quality. In this case, and according to the liner notes, A Woman Kills is presented in 2K high-definition, restored by Luna Park Films from the original 16mm lab elements, and overseen by Luna Park Films’s Francis Lecomte. It’s very clear from watching the presentation that this is not a pristine restoration; there are scratches, some distortion, and even a few scenes in which an almost hook-like mark is present at the bottom of the screen. In this regard, one is reminded that they are watching something from more than 40 years ago, locked in a period of unrest, breaking free for the first time. Not all restorations need to be so clean as to appear modern and, especially in this case, it adds to the atmosphere. In the absence of such obvious markers of time, the monochrome is quite lovely with textural details coming through beautifully. The audio, as well, though monaural, is crisp and clear, with no major variations requiring constant adjustment while watching.

The third aspect that makes a restoration worth checking out are the included materials. In this case, not only are audiences treated to introduction by film historian/author Virginie Sélavy (viewed either before the start of the film or on its own in the special features section), they also get Sélavy and film critic Kat Eillinger for a feature-length commentary track. There is also a 2015 Luna Park Films-produced documentary On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan featuring Bonan, de Battista, editor Mireille Abramovici, musician Daniel Laloux, and actress Jackie Raynal. Two things to note about this: (1) Bonan goes into detail about his career, including the short films he produced, so the documentary isn’t singularly focused on A Woman Kills, making for a more comprehensive viewing experience and (2) additional information was added in 2022 by Lecomte specifically for this release, though there doesn’t seem to be a clear indication of which material that is while watching. Finally, five of Bonan’s short films are included on this release, allowing for Bonan fans or cinephiles in general to better appreciate A Woman Kills by seeing the evolution of the artist through his prior projects. Quite literally, Radiance Films has gathered a significant amount of material from Bonan in one place, making the release striking even without the restoration itself.

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A still from LA FEMME BOURREAU (A WOMAN KILLS). Photo courtesy of Justin Cook PR/Radiance Films.

Regarding the off-disc materials, the cover includes what appears to be a signature aspect of Radiance releases, a removable strip so that the cover can be viewed without release certificates or markings of any kind. The cover is reversible as well with the outer cover a little more gentle in its depiction of the central figure, the mysterious killer, while the inside/other cover is more violent, depicting a bloodied individual lying on the ground. Of the two, I like the standard outer cover, not for its presentation of violence, but for the details it refuses to give away, leaning more into the thriller/mystery elements of the film. The booklet included is part of a limited edition release and includes cast/crew information, three essays, an interview with Lecomte (which includes more details on the restoration), excerpts from three reviews, and the standard restoration info and credits.

Be advised that A Woman Kills is once more a limited edition, with only 2,000 copies being made.

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Solange Pradel as Solange in LA FEMME BOURREAU (A WOMAN KILLS). Photo courtesy of Justin Cook PR/Radiance Films.

Even if elements of the film don’t jive with today’s cultural ideas, being able to look back on stories made decades ago allows audiences to see how concepts of sex, murder, social responsibility, and authoritarianism are identical to and dissimilar to now. I’m not such a fan of the connection between the killer and the apparatus used to conceal themselves to commit these crimes as it continues a trope that uplifts far right ideology found in most countries, yet, I don’t think that’s Banon’s intent. Rather, the killer, identity discovered and reasoning revealed, is a tragic figure to whom life could’ve been something else entirely if they’d only not been subject to the control of others.

A Woman Kills Special Features:

  • 2K restoration of the film from the original 16mm elements
  • Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Limited edition 52-page booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and scholar Catherine Wheatley, writer and musician Richard Thomas on the short films, Cerise Howard on gender identity tropes in A Woman Kills and the horror film, an interview with Francis Lecomte, the French distributor who rescued the film, and newly translated archival reviews and film credits
  • Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Trailer
  • Audio commentary by critics Kat Ellinger and Virginie Sélavy (69 min)
  • Introduction by Virginie Sélavy (4:54)
  • On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan (Francis Lecomte, 2015/2022) – a newly updated documentary programme featuring director Jean-Denis Bonan, cinematographer Gérard de Battista, editor Mireille Abramovici, musician Daniel Laloux, and actress Jackie Raynal (37 mins)
  • Five (5) Short films by Jean-Denis Bonan:
    • The Short Life of Monsieur Meucieu (1962, 13 mins)
    • A Crime of Love (1965, 7 mins, rushes of an incomplete film, narrated by Bonan)
    • Sadness of the Anthropophagi (1966, 24 mins)
    • Crazy Mathieu (1967, 17 mins)
    • A Season with Mankind (1967, 19 mins)

Available on Blu-ray February 7th, 2023.

For more information, head to Radiance Films official A Woman Kills webpage.

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Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews

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