When the average cinephile thinks of Jean Renoir, several films come to mind. La Grande Illusion, The River, Le Bete Humaine, and The Rules of the Game, all rightfully considered masterpieces, have prevented the intrusion of other lesser-known Renoir films upon his canon. Films such as Whirlpool of Fate, La Marseillaise, The Little Matchstick Girl, and finally his 1959 genre film Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier have all received less renown than they have deserved.
Great directors have long taken refuge on French television, producing works of astounding quality (Welles' The Immortal Story for example), despite the seemingly endless issues with budget, casts and crew. Made for television twenty years before his death, Jean Renoir's Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (often poorly translated as The Doctor's Horrible Experiment) is a fascinating exercise in horror from the man voted the fourth greatest director of all time by the BFI critics. The film is a bizarre take on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which mostly concerns itself with the lengths that Joly, the attorney, will go to unravel the mystery of the killer Opale, as well as the mental processes and experiments of his client, Doctor Cordelier.
Reminiscent of Fritz Lang's haunting masterpiece M, Renoir plays on the tension of the search, a combing of open spaces for a solitary figure juxtaposed against the morally skewed Dr. Cordelier's inner tension. Like most Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier hinges on the central performance of the dual Hyde/Jekyll character. This time Jean-Louis Barrault plays both the constantly twitching sexual deviant and general delinquent Opale, as well as the startlingly calm, almost placid genius, Dr. Cordelier.
Setting the well-known tale on the contemporary streets of Paris gives the story a universality which allows us to see the characters as not far removed from our own personalities. Renoir's famous class conscience is also heavily at play here, where servants, maids, and gardeners play out significant roles within the narrative. The zenith of Cordelier's hypocrisy is shown when he engages in continual sexual dalliances with a maid until he is confronted with a patient of equal social stature's similar dilemma, after which he promptly fires the maid.