Blu-Ray Spotlight: ‘A Woman Kills’ Review

Radiance Films presents the restoration of the recently unearthed French genre-intersectional underground film from director Jean-Denis Bonan.

celluloid consommé
8 min readFeb 7

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Package shown with OBI strip. Box art image courtesy of Radiance Films.

During the late 1960s the French New Wave movement hit an apex. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy (to name a few) emerged as titans of their respective, iconoclastic techniques in filmmaking. By championing new ways to look at human emotion that rejects the Hollywood and mainstream French standardized formulas, valuing aptitude over originality and true experimentation, these filmmakers constructed new sets of tools in the language of film that we still use today.

But working alongside these titans were other, inarguably influential filmmakers taking the work of New Wave a few steps further. Directors like Jean Rollin and Jean-Denis Bonan were very much a part of this movement but in a different way. Rollin took the more genre-adjacent approach with his series of vampire films in the neighboring realm of fantastique cinema, while Bonan occupied a larger swath of politicism that used genre conventions of shot composition, lighting, editing, use of music and sounds, while weaving a plot-second narrative into his fiction films.

Catherine Deville in ‘Crazy Mathieu’ (1967). Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

Enter A Woman Kills, a film crafted solidly within 1968 and made largely during the May 68 riots (as they were taking place, in fact) but not officially completed in until 2010. The film was acquired by Luna Park Films around that time and the final editing and mixing was completed at their facilities by director Jean-Denis Bonan for a DVD release. The restoration that Radiance Films presents for this release, a new 2K scan, was performed by Luna Park Films as well and provided as a digital file for authoring.

The film defies any simplistic categorical labels, which hurt its prospects for release in the same time as it was made. Looking back on the period of the late 1960s it’s more easily placed as an effectively avant-garde pastiche that lends some experimental techniques usually associated with horror and, in some cases, giallo narratives as its primary exploration.

A victim’s last breath in ‘A Woman Kills’ (1968). Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

A Woman Kills opens immediately after prostitute Hélène Picard is executed on suspicion of committing depraved murders. But after her death the murders continue in the same fashion as before, which lead the police into another investigation to find the copycat — or the real killer. Chief of police Solange Lebas is in charge of the investigation, and has recently started seeing Louis Guilbeau, a tortured ex-soldier, as the murders pick up again. A deadly feminine sadist is stalking the streets, killing women as they see fit. Solange must determine the identity of this mysterious woman and put a stop to the murders before it’s too late.

Video

Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

A Woman Kills is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 in black & white. The original negatives have been painstakingly scanned in 2K to present a much richer look for the film and despite some evident scratches and spots in places the film looks brilliantly crisp. Its flaws even lend a dimension to the organic nature of the film’s immersion, enhancing it somewhat, never distracting from the illusion of motion. The scan brings out the darker tones, from deep blacks to murky grays, helping them to stand out against sparingly used bright lighting in sharper contrasts. It has to be mentioned that numerous lighting techniques are utilized in A Woman Kills, all of which celebrate the excellent use of shadows and darkness which this newer restoration presents with an exceptional stark quality. The grain level is surprisingly minimal given the fact that the film stock size used was 16mm, which is more susceptible to grain on blowing up the image than with 35mm film (not taking into account how it was developed). However, this is without a doubt the best the film has ever looked and felt.

Audio

Solange Pradel in ‘A Woman Kills.’ Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

The soundtrack present on the disc is an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono track as originally recorded. The sound can at times become muddied with complex layers of foley, dialogue, and music interweaving over and under each other. But it seems to provide an eerie effect, likely intended given the haunted quality of the film’s sounds on their own merits. The dialogue comes through especially clean and clear, and the film’s eclectic and haunting music tracks come through with a near-ghostly quality, which mixes well with its bizarre and disturbing lyrics. The quality of audio and its spatial nature despite it being a doubled mono track impresses more as the film tumbles towards its climax.

Special Features

Jean-Denis Bonan as Mathieu in ‘Crazy Mathieu.’ Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

Radiance Films have packed this release with a wealth of extras:

  • First and foremost there is an introduction to the main feature by writer & film scholar Virginie Sélavy (4 mins 53 sec), with options to view it separately or ahead of the film before it starts. It offers an introduction to Bonan and his background in the French film scene, his relationship to other filmmakers like Jean Rollin, Alan Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and more.
  • Audio commentary by critics Kat Ellinger & Virginie Sélavy
  • On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan: a documentary featuring director Jean-Denis Bonan, cinematographer Gérard de Battista, editor Mireille Abramovici, musician Daniel Laloux, and actress Jackie Rynal on the making of the short films also present on the disc as well as A Woman Kills. They also extensively talk about the political climate in which the feature was made, as well as a documentary filmed simultaneously on the May 68 riots and protests with the same equipment used on the film that was absorbed in his short documentary The Lovely Month of May (Le joli mois de mai). The documentary feature on this disc was originally shot and completed in 2015 by Luna Park Films, with some new additions for this Radiance Films release in 2022.
  • Five short films from director Jean-Denis Bonan:
    - The Short Life of Monsieur Mercieu (1962, 13 mins 4 sec)
    - A Crime of Love (1965, 6 mins 53 sec), Rushes: This is an incomplete short and has Bonan narrating the essence of the story over the images. The aspect ratio is the same as all other features (1.37:1) yet starts out with significant windowboxing at first before delving into the footage rushes.
    - Sadness of the Anthopophagi (1966, 23 mins 38 sec)
    - Crazy Mathieu (1967, 17 mins 1 sec)
    - A Season With Mankind (1967, 18 mins 43 sec): An assembly of newsreel footage that Bonan worked on with News Cinematographic, years prior to making A Woman Kills.
  • Trailer for A Woman Kills
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and scholar Catherine Wheatley, writer & broadcaster Richard Thomas on the short films, writing on gender identity tropes in A Woman Kills and the horror film, an interview with Francis Lecomte, the French distributor who rescued the film, newly translated archival reviews and film credits.
The opening shot of ‘The Sadness of the Anthropophagi’ (1967). Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

Final Thoughts

Jean-Denis Bonan’s style will certainly not be for everyone, but A Woman Kills brings so many different innovations of style and focus that it’s impossible to say it wasn’t a product of the conventions of cinema happening at the time. Had it been financed and released close to the completion of filming, its influence may have even jumpstarted some international experimentation with the horror and serial killer genre in a post-Psycho world. As the film mainly focuses on the mysterious titular woman who kills and the police on her trail, there are a multitude of divergent elements that would on paper detract from the seriousness of its fixation.

But Bonan’s method of mixing so many incongruous pieces together form something much greater than the film’s whole, even at a runtime of 1 hour and 9 minutes. It tackles gender politics & identity, the fallibility of police authority, sexuality & kink, extreme violence and then some. It bears some uncanny resemblance to early giallo pictures pioneered by Argento and by extension, Fulci in Bonan’s depiction of an unknown murderer despite showing aspects of the killer’s image in either darkness or shadow (sometimes full on, effectively dispelling the mystery — but this isn’t exactly that kind of film), and has a better understanding of the Norman Bates-like character from Psycho if they were a fully realized and autonomous being that wasn’t anchored to a specific person or place. A Woman Kills is more a film that generates thought after the credits have rolled, the moving parts within bubbling too close to the top while one is watching the events unfold to fully process the inspirations at play.

‘A Woman Kills.’ Still courtesy of Radiance Films.

The film fully takes on the improbable and presents it in the same unflinching way as its realistic violence depicts. Many victims are described through reports on the radio as the attacks are happening, outlining the condition in which their bodies are found, and what the cause of death was determined to be by authorities catching up to the mysterious woman’s poor victims. There is a tendency for the film to drift in and out of both expressionism and surrealism that happens to use a serial killer story as a framing device, and because of the nature of the murders the film borrows conventions of erotic film as well. But throughout its runtime it skips across all of these conventions, providing a visual reference for each of these filmic languages to form a uniquely coherent whole in lieu of the chaos of all these components affixed together. Under any other director’s hand, A Woman Kills would be an utter disaster but Bonan’s vision maintains coherence within the world it creates for itself. It’s a piece of filmmaking that feels as influential to filmmakers of the future as it was a product of such inspiration for Bonan to create. It’s an important piece of film history and Radiance Films, in collaboration with Luna Park Films, has done incredible work putting Bonan’s work into the world which it belongs. This release comes highly recommended.

Package with OBI strip removed. Box art image courtesy of Radiance Films.

A Woman Kills releases Tuesday, February 7th 2023 from Radiance Films as a 2,000 copy limited edition Blu-Ray.
You can purchase the disc from Radiance Films (UK only) here.
For those in the US and Canada, retailer partners MVD, Diabolik DVD, and Grindhouse Video are currently offering the release for purchase.

Disclaimer: Radiance Films has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

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