Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin

Monsieur Verdoux
1947, directed by Charles Chaplin

It was a bold move in 1947 for Charlie Chaplin, a beloved entertainer whose popularity was battered by political and sex scandals, to cast himself as a serial killer preying on helpless women. Making a comedy on the subject was audacious enough, and ending it on a downcast note – a serious courtroom trial and a march to the guillotine – was sure to hurt the movie’s success. But the boldest thing in Monsieur Verdoux may be its opening scene, a long, unpleasant, barely funny, and seemingly unnecessary introduction to the Couvais family that wastes every chance to win the audience’s favor. As offputting as these characters may be, however, what’s even worse is how accurately they hold a mirror to society. The family spends the whole scene quarreling until they finally unite around a shared enemy – how utterly similar to the world at large!

How refreshing then, after being confined to a room with these obnoxious people, to cut to Henri Verdoux collecting roses in his garden in the south of France. Verdoux is unfailingly polite, charitable, debonair, cultured… everything the rest of the world, at least in this movie, is not. Except for his wife and son, who necessarily reflect on him, and the penniless girl he picks up in Paris, Verdoux stands in sharp relief against a world devoid of kindness. He is merciful to a caterpillar, gentle with cats, and a vegetarian. He’s respectful to others regardless of status, generous to the unfortunate, and he receives friends and strangers with equal warmth. In contrast, the people around him are cold, brutal, rude, unscrupulous, and mean. You get the idea they would murder sooner than Verdoux if their situation and talents were the same as his.

Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin - Almira Sessions - Lena Couvais

The subject of Monsieur Verdoux is not by any means hidden, but there is a hidden pattern that can help us define it. Three times Henri Verdoux will ask the same question: once in his first scene, once in the middle of the movie, and once in his final scene; and each time he asks it, the philosophical weight of his question grows exponentially. The question is simple: “Why not?”

  1. When Verdoux flirts with Madame Grosnay, who is interested in buying his house in southern France, she says ,“You flatter me.” He responds, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I respond to beauty, as you did to those flowers downstairs?”
  2. Halfway through the film the poor girl he picks up says to Verdoux, “I don’t understand why you’re doing all this for me.” He replies, “Why not? Is a little kindness such a rare thing?”
  3. In prison at the end, Father Fareaux prays over the condemned Verdoux: “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Verdoux answers, “Why not? After all, it belongs to Him.”

Linking Verdoux’s three questions is a progression toward a higher order of goodness. The first is of the shallowest variety, i.e. flattery, or goodness as social lubrication. The second is genuine charitable kindness, goodness with a useful purpose. The third is a kind of divine grace, goodness as the rule of the universe. In other words, Verdoux’s words progress from a self-interested love to neighborly love to a kind of all-encompassing love that cannot be explained.

Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin - Martha Raye - Annabella Bonheur - boat - lake - noose - rope

When we look at Monsieur Verdoux this way, we can see what separates it from so many films about morality. If Verdoux were not a serial killer he would be a kind of saint, someone to emulate, and by holding him up as an example the movie would become preachy. By making a movie about goodness rather than about morality, Chaplin shifts the weight from answers to questions. Instead of telling us how to behave like so many Hollywood films do with their contests between good and evil, Monsieur Verdoux opens difficult questions about the conditions needed for goodness to thrive.

With direct allusions to Schopenhauer and metaphysics in the dialogue, the movie does not hide its philosophical ambition, and its most pointed unasked question comes straight from Kantian ethics. If everyone were like Henri Verdoux, would the world be a better place? The question is so disturbing because its answer, at least if we accept the movie’s view of society, is inescapably “Yes.” No sensible person would say that Verdoux is justified in killing widows, a police detective, or anyone else, but most people would agree at least in theory that goodness can coexist with horrible actions, even if they’re loathe to admit it when speaking of individual cases.

Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin - Martha Raye - Annabella Bonheur - hair

Henri Verdoux does not murder for greed, wrath, or any perverse thrill. Laid off on the cusp of old age during the Great Depression after 30 years as an honest bank clerk, with a young child and a disabled wife to support, he is virtually unemployable. He willingly accepts poverty after his family dies, and he submits to arrest and punishment without a fight. His reasons for murder stem from wrongs even greater than his own, for which responsibility is widely spread. When he says nobody wanted his brains, he speaks for countless unemployed throughout modern history. The movie’s premise, that economic instability and injustice is caused by a shortage of human goodness, may be open to argument, but it would be hard to imagine that a world populated by people like Henri Verdoux would give rise to the adversity that motivates his crimes.

Monsieur Verdoux comes on the heels of the most catastrophic period in history – a world war which grew out of a global depression, which in turn arose from numerous systemic social wrongs. After Verdoux jilts Madame Grosnay the movie suddenly turns serious. A montage of headlines, reenactments, and newsreel clips reminds us of the market crashes, demagoguery, and violence from the 1930s and ’40s. Returning to Verdoux, we find him at a Paris street café reading a paper that reports on the horror of Guernica. All signs point to an earnest call for more goodness in the world, so we should not think Verdoux is being flippant when he proposes that evil and good are both necessary. What saves him from smugness is his acknowledgement that we cannot know whether too much good would be harmful, because “we’ve never had enough.”

The goal of Monsieur Verdoux is to invert the emphasis of popular morality, which constantly preaches individual salvation. Before goodness can flourish in society we must focus on systemic wrongs that make every individual complicit. When Verdoux says, “I don’t see how anyone can be an example in these criminal times,” he describes our own age as well as his own. Most of us are not mass killers like he is, but by participating in society we all support companies, hierarchies, and political systems (across borders if not in our own countries) whose crimes make Verdoux’s look tame. Individual purity is no longer possible.

Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin - Marilyn Nash

In the central scene Verdoux meets his doppelgänger, the young woman just freed from jail, a widowed war refugee from Belgium with nothing to eat. Figuring her life to be unbearable, Verdoux plans to test a new untraceable poison on her. At first she comes across as a foil to Verdoux, a truly good person and a living refutation of his cynicism, but he spares her life when he realizes how much she resembles him. She too was married to an invalid, and she too would have killed for her spouse. Henri Verdoux is a fictional construction, an unlikely melding of extremes, but she is a more credible version of himself, a genuinely kind person who would nevertheless kill under certain circumstances, and who ends up marrying a munitions manufacturer. When she appears at Verdoux’s trial she watches him silently, as we do, almost as if she’s being equated with ourselves.

Monsieur Verdoux - Charles Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin - rum - priest

There’s still a major difference, however, between Verdoux and the Belgian girl. When they first meet she says “Life is wonderful,” and he can’t bring himself to understand. At their reunion years later she tries in vain to pull him out of his despair. In contrast to his cynicism she shows a consistent appreciation for life. In Verdoux’s last line, however, he suddenly changes. Offered a shot of rum before his execution, he initially declines but then thinks again: “A-ah, just a moment. I’ve never tasted rum.” Finally, faced with the loss of his life, he comes to relish his last few moments of experience. Upon savoring the rum an almost supernatural light bathes him, and he turns with all his dignity intact toward the guillotine. All the qualities Verdoux possessed – kindness, civility, and so on – are not enough, it seems. Complete goodness also requires a love of life.

CONNECTIONS:

Sunrise – Man rows a woman out on a lake with intention to kill her

City Lights – Gentle soul in a harsh world; reversal in the protagonist’s response to the world

Ornamental Hairpin – Movie structured by three wishes/questions near the beginning, middle, and end

Diary of a Country Priest – Words of trust in God right before death

A Place in the Sun – Man rows a woman out on a lake with intention to kill her

A Clockwork Orange – Social system that suppresses goodness