***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
In a "Psycho"-like beginning, the opening long shot of an apartment building moves into one of the windows where a blonde seductress Laura (Anna Douking) in her sultry voice asks a middle-aged Charles (Michel Bouquet), a somewhat harried looking bloke, to get rough with her. "Come and play, or I'll make you pay", she purrs. Charles utters, "Please...". He probably is fed up with all of that. Next thing we know, on her demand, he puts his hand round her neck and soon, she is dead. Charles calmly walks away from the scene, although he doesn't seem mentally calm.
He has just committed the murder of his mistress. What's more, the deceased happens to be Charles' best friend François's (François Périer) wife. Charles is a very well-to-do individual with a respectable, well-paying job. He is married to a beautiful woman, Hélène (Stéphane Audran) and they have two beautiful kids. All of them reside in a plush upmarket home. This is one happy family.
So now where do you expect this story to go? There's infidelity and there is murder. There is a grave incident that can jeopardize a friendship and a marriage. One might think it would head into the familiar territory of Charles trying to save himself from being charged with the murder but would get caught eventually. But filmmaker Claude Chabrol takes a sharp deviation and completely avoids the oft trodden paths. He just defenestrates any shred of predictability and leaves us awestruck with this gripping tragedy with a subversive edge.
"Just Before Nightfall" is a very intelligent examination of profound guilt and how it threatens to destroy an individual's existence as he knows it, forget that of his family and friends who he may well let down tremendously, should they be made privy to his deeds. This is more so, when this individual is a normal, legit man, a man who values his family and friends, only just happens to stray once in his life much to his own regret too. He isn't really a killer. Murder just occurs. A stray incident; perhaps he didn't intend it to be that way.
Or perhaps that was the only way to end what he regretted. It is a complicated scheme of things; an amoral deed, done on impulse to destroy immorality and go back to moral ways? An extreme act carried out by a soft, gentle man who couldn't hurt a fly; someone who cannot even fathom the idea of living with blood on his hands, feels suffocated and has to rely on a dose of Laudanum to sleep peacefully at night.
There is an overwhelming feeling of remorse, as Charles walks about depressed, is unable to concentrate on his work and what's more, even empathizes with a trusted old man Bardin (Paul Temps) accused of embezzling some funds at his workplace. This is one complex scenario presented by Chabrol. How can a man, himself guilty of a crime of murder possibly judge someone who allegedly stole something? But even if Charles killed someone he isn't really that kind of a person. So for all you know, Bardin could be in the same boat as Charles; an otherwise upright individual who made one mistake. Would it be just to scar him for life? While Charles' junior associate expresses his cynicism about Bardin, Charles probably finds himself looking in the mirror when confronted with the situation of judging him!
Sleepwalking through his life, post the incident, Charles keeps walking with a huge load on his chest. He knows though, that the law would have nothing against him. There is no evidence that could implicate him in the crime and this very fact keeps eating away at him. He has been seen once with Laura by her friend Gina Mallardi (Marina Ninchi), and this, she confides in a shattered François after the funeral. But François lays all doubts to rest and says he and Charles are the best of friends and going to the police with his name would only ruin things for their relationship. In one of the film's best scenes, at one point, a guilt-ridden Charles is dying to confess to François but is simply unable to muster the courage to speak it out loud and hence ends up moving only his lips but not voicing it out!
Charles is a tortured soul who cannot get by knowing that he can never get caught. He feels the need to be punished, to be attacked, to be crucified for what he has done. And yet he cannot achieve it the easy way. Eventually Charles decides to confess to the two individuals who would most be affected by his deeds. What follows in the film's game-changing, ironic final half hour is beyond incredible and yet utterly convincing. In a startling display of moral complexities, Chabrol's film attempts at looking at a heinous crime such as murder from a subjective angle. It is all about making a sound decision rather than the textbook definition of a right one. Charles wants to be judged, but no one is ready to judge him.
In a way, he is being judged if they prefer to exonerate him and aren't really willing to send him to the gallows for what he did. Much to his frustration, there seems to be forgiveness and absolution all around him! François's unforeseen confessions and his view of the overall matter is shocking and yet upon careful thought, one cannot deny that a rational stand is taken, simply by looking at the bigger picture, the greater good and eventually swaying towards the better, more loved and valued human being! Chabrol makes us mute spectators and at the same time has us agreeing wholeheartedly with the choices made by his characters. In fact, the audiences themselves are faced with a dilemma. The lines between wrong and right seem to be blurred with such a predicament at hand.
There is some wonderful dialog exchanged in two very important scenes that are the backbone of the entire film. The audiences' quandary is accentuated thanks to Michel Bouquet's masterful performance. You actually feel like a judge having a tough time passing a judgment on a man so lovable and full of heart and shudder at the thought of sending him to the chair! His expression of remorse, his angst, suffocation and helplessness over being unable to get over his guilt is so effortlessly believable, it just makes you want to go and hug the guy, not punish him! Of course, Bouquet's tour de force performance is extremely well supported by François Périer, the broken husband of Laura and Stephane Audran as Charles' loving and faithful wife. As a matter of fact, the dynamics of her character are revealed much later in the final few minutes in a dramatic turn of events.
"Just Before Nightfall" or "Juste Avant la Nuit" is an absolute masterpiece from the great Claude Chabrol. His virtuoso direction and a firm grip on the narrative featuring some of the most realistic characters and convincing developments has to be seen to be believed. Although the slightly over-the-top portrayal of Charles's mother (Clelia Matania), which, even if to take a dig at the bourgeoisie, was somewhat uncalled for, it is an extremely minor nitpick that can be easily overlooked.