Jean Renoir frequently focused on complicated characters who toe the line between right and wrong. They are often trapped by social mores, for better or for worse. In works like The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) or The River (1951), characters are unfairly confined, while in films like La chienne (1931) or La bête humaine (1938), a breaking from custom is fatally dangerous. Even in more light-hearted fare, such as French Cancan (1954), a bold flaunting of convention is cause for conflict and scandal. It seems only logical, then, that Renoir in his interest in the imposed customs of community and the social construction of morals would be drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for his 1959 television film, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier.
Jean-Louis Barrault stars as the titular Doctor Cordelier, a respectable psychiatrist who has left everything in his will to a violent criminal named Opale. Investigated by the lawyer Joly (Teddy Bilis), who cannot comprehend why the good doctor would associate with such a dangerous and hateful figure, it is finally revealed that Opale is the Mr. Hyde to Cordelier’s Dr. Jekyll. Previously known as “the virtuous doctor” and overly concerned with his reputation despite his affairs, Cordelier aims to create a serum which will heal his desire for moral transgression, in the way medicine heals the ills of the body. The result is a potion which transforms him into Opale, and, rather that eliminating his sins, as a different man he is able to do what he wants without fear of judgement or gossip.
Stevenson’s novella has been adapted to the screen many times, with different takes on the self-inflicted transformation of the doctor. The first feature-length version of the story from 1920 dealt heavily with moral conflict. John S. Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had John Barrymore as the doctor who uses Mr. Hyde to indulge in base impulses. Though his actions are immoral pleasure-seeking, he rationalizes his experiment as a way to save his soul: by separating the good from the bad within a person, it is not the good side which sins. But Jekyll is never fully aware of the impending gravity of his change to Hyde. Unable to initially grasp how negative Hyde would be, nor understanding the power of Hyde, Jekyll inadvertently allows a brief sojourn into vice, a vacation from his normally too-pure life as a pro-bono doctor, to go too deep.
The good doctor goes through scientific experimentation once tempted by something he could not normally have. In Robertson’s film, it is a debauched lifestyle epitomized by Nita Naldi’s dancer Gina. Intrigued by Gina and what she represents, the potential for “immorality” is present within Barrymore’s Jekyll, but just slightly. His encounter with Gina is the first time he has ever considered anything outside of the ascetic life he has thus far enjoyed. His serum overpowers him and destroys anything good, while his Hyde is presented as not of him: in a final scene, the evil of Hyde is depicted as a monstrous tarantula which suffocates Jekyll. It is both inhuman, and a force outside of himself, rather than a different side of one man.
In Renoir’s film, however, Cordelier is fully aware of his potential for immorality. He condemns he colleagues who take advantage of female patients, while doing the same. He aids a mother whose son is shamefully having an affair with their maid, while having an affair with his own maid. Cordelier wants to indulge, but is caught up in his own judgements, and fear for his polished reputation. Unlike the 1920s Jekyll, who wants to explore vice for the first time after an exceptionally chaste life, Cordelier is tortured by his inability to be pure, and looks to cure himself of his desires. Though never fully removing his sins, the scientific results become a highly welcomed alternative as an outlet for the impulses he has but cannot normally express. Though not what he originally wanted, the cure still works: Cordelier may be truly “the virtuous doctor,” while it is Opale who acts out his desires which range from sex to brutal violence.
While Robertson’s film emphasized the goodness of Jekyll who, possessing only inklings of improper desires, becomes shocked at the evil in Hyde, Renoir begins with Cordelier as a man hiding his hypocrisy who descends gleefully into the extremes of immorality, and never seems appalled at the violence he is capable of. The Testament is not necessarily interested in the split between good and evil, and instead focuses on Cordelier’s inherent and consistent corruption which is only hidden by his reputation. And so, Renoir is not depicting duality so much as he is depicting a singular unveiling and liberation of the individual, as well the ambiguity of moral goodness, which can never be as black-and-white as in Robertson’s film.
Though a distinct take on the Jekyll and Hyde mythology, Renoir’s choice to sidestep the version of a good man accidentally forced into sin is only natural. In his 1932 film Boudu Saved From Drowning, Renoir depicts a bourgeois household barely holding itself together in respectability as lies, affairs, and gossip bubble under the surface. When Boudu, a suicidal tramp, is brought into the household, his presence as a figure outside of middle-class standards shakes up the family, unleashing that which was hidden and restrained. Shamelessly unconcerned with public decency, Boudu’s presence helps to make clearer the dysfunctionality of the family—but while he encourages openness, it is key that dysfunction existed long before him. Boudu and Cordelier’s serum are thus similar, in that they are less transformative, and more uninhibitory, allowing ever-present base desires to take precedence over refinement and reputation.
The Testament does still keep the tradition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, taking up the same general plot, and playing off of the aesthetics of the transformation from good to evil. Barrault, with his background in mime, is able to imbue Cordelier and Opale with a most calculated physicality. Cordelier moves with elegance and grace, every movement smoothly flowing, while Opale performs his slouches and glowers with jaunty energy. Beyond the make-up and differing costumes of the dual protagonist, the performance drives home the point of difference. Yet while Renoir uses Stevenson’s story for his film and employs visual and performative separation in his protagonist(s), he insistently molds the novella to his own thematic interests. Focused on the hypocrisy of scrambling for a good reputation despite the impossibility for pure, culturally-determined goodness, The Testament is as much an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as it is a continuation of Renoir’s oeuvre-spanning obsessions.