A Woman Kills Blends True Crime and French Horror to Explore the Female Fascination with Death [SPOILER REVIEW]
Posted On May 24, 2023
I used to love true crime. I devoured episodes of Snapped and Deadly Women and binged all the true crime podcasts as I could find. Somewhere along the way I began to feel uneasy with the genre. While some titles are more sensitive than others, I grew uncomfortable with exploitative retellings of gruesome murders and finding entertainment in recaps of someone’s lowest or last moments. With questions about over policing and consent to share the details of brutal crimes, I turned away from the genre and replaced this whole in my watch list with films of the new French extremity. These viscerally violent movies scratched an itch previously filled by true crime documentaries; the need to channel my anxiety into an exploration of humanity’s worst monsters.
Jean-Denis Bonan’s A Woman Kills (La Femme Bourreau), though filmed before the zenith of either of these genres, combines true crime and French horror in a fascinating way. Following the aftermath of a female serial killer’s reign of terror through Paris in May of 1968, the story unfolds as a faux documentary exploring an affair between the woman’s executioner and the detective assigned to her case. Though experimental, problematic, and narratively challenging, the film is an interesting look at objectification and vilification that sharply satirizes society’s fascination with taboo violence.
The film begins with a news bulletin proclaiming the death of Hélène Picard, a sex worker sentenced to death for a series of brutal murders. Her executioner, Louis Guilbeau (Claude Merlin), begins a relationship with Solange Lebas (Solange Pradel), the police investigator who closed the case. When the murders continue, Solange begins to fear she pinned the crimes on the wrong woman while Louis grows frustrated that his girlfriend seems to be drifting further away. As the relationship deepens, we learn that Louis has been committing the murders. He wanders the streets of Paris dressed as a woman to prey on local sex workers. The film concludes with Solange spying on Louis as he puts on his makeup. Scandalized, she sets the police on her lover sparking a destructive chase through the streets of Paris. When a wounded Louis seeks help from Solange, she murders him in cold blood, an act that feels more like punishment for his nonconformity than an attempt to protect the public from a killer.
Due to its progressive content, A Woman Kills failed to find distribution and was essentially shelved until a Cinémathèque Française screening in 2010. Radiance Films brings this arthouse horror to an international audience with a new 2K restoration from Radiance Films complete with audio commentary, bonus features, interviews, newly translated subtitles, and a 45 page booklet tackling its complicated legacy. Filmed during May 68, the film is a snapshot of French history presenting Parisian life during a time of protests and strikes that nearly led to a civil war. Though gorgeously restored, the grainy black and white footage creates a feeling of authenticity and a shifting POV at times feels like an early experiment in found footage. A narrator guides us through the facts of the case, offering exposition when necessary similar to the talking heads we see in modern documentaries. A disciple of Jean-Luc Godard, Bonan’s narrative is jarring and disjointed. The cast is filled with non-professional actors and the story plays out like a low budget documentary reenactment. This might feel confusing or embarrassingly fake with more modern techniques, but here the convoluted narrative only serves to heighten the reality. All of these ostensibly dated elements combine to give the film an immediacy not felt in most modern slashers.
Though shot in 1968, A Woman Kills hits international audiences in an era where trans people face daily attacks and constant attempts to legislate them out of existence. Though likely progressive at the time, Louis is a problematic antagonist and another in a string of vilified trans characters like Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates. The new release includes several essays unpacking the complex themes and situating the film in the evolution of French cinema as well as an interview with Francis Lecomte on the task of bringing A Woman Kills back to life. The result is a gorgeous and complicated film with themes that have only grown more complex in the 60 years since it was made.
Despite its admitted transphobia, A Woman Kills takes an interesting approach to its murderous main character. Louis seems to identify as male throughout the story save for the times when he sets out to find his next victim. (For this reason I’m using he/him pronouns though an argument could be made for a variety of identities.) Was he the original killer all along or did he begin killing as Hélène after performing her own execution as a kind of spiritual transference? Does he identify as female or is he embodying a particular woman who would allow him to take out his aggression towards female sex workers? Whatever the reason for Louis’s crimes, the fact remains that A Woman Kills nontraditional gender expression with deviance, mental illness, and violence. These connections have all been thoroughly debunked by now though many American politicians choose to ignore this abundance of evidence.
What makes A Woman Kills such a rich text is the camera’s sympathy towards Louis. Many of the kills play out in first person POV, allowing us to detach the character from the crime. We also see an extended scene in which Louis puts on makeup and dresses as Hélène, mirroring an earlier scene in which a future victim makes up her own face. These two scenes are essentially presented without context. The only difference is that in one, we are the voyeurs, watching a woman transform herself into a physical representation of conventional beauty norms. We see nothing wrong with her transformation and may even wonder why the camera has lingered here so long. When Louis puts on makeup, Solange is the observer. We watch her watch him in horror, but the fact that we are now the third party shifts the focus to her reaction. She is the transgressor in the scene for intruding on this private moment between Louis and the construction of his outward appearance.
We’re also left with who the titular female killer is. Bonan goes out of his way to show us that Louis is not a threat to Solange when she finally apprehends him. Near death, he could easily be arrested without much of a fight. Instead, Solange kills him in cold blood then claims self-defense. She has become the woman who kills. An epilogue informs us that she goes on to lead a happy life as a wife and mother. After defeating a human symbol of nonconformity, Solange transforms herself into the patriarchal ideal of successful femininity. The film’s sensational title also connects to Bonan’s exploration of the public’s fascination with gender-based violence. When sex workers continue to die, the locals are relatively indifferent. Man on the street interviews show that most of the city’s residents only care about the crimes when they are committed by a marginalized person they can sentence to death.
A Woman Kills should be added to a long list of films that demonize transgenderism. It certainly won’t be for everyone and will likely prove triggering to many viewers. But the film’s style invites a different way of looking at both female killers and those society has labeled dangerously deviant. By muddying the waters, asking the audience to sympathize with its antagonist, and refusing to assert the film’s hero as a clear cut savior, A Woman Kills proves to be a rich text worth studying for all scholars of film history and gender in narrative art.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.