However thin the line may be between tragedy and comedy, blurring the line is a tricky feat only the best artists may successfully accomplish. Such an artist was Jean Renoir whose 1959 adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier, is among the most experimental and yet faithful ever made. As he did with Rules of the Game, Renoir uses the language of cinematic comedy to make a bold and disturbingly insightful statement on human nature.
Renoir casts Jean-Louis Barrault, an actor as well as a mime, as his Jekyll/Hyde, here called Cordelier/Opale. Opale is a remarkable take on the character--he does all of the horrible things Hyde does in the story, including trampling a child and murdering a man in the street, but Renoir takes one point of description in the novella to an interesting comedic conclusion--Hyde is much smaller than Jekyll so his clothes don't fit him properly. So Opale, sauntering down the street twirling his cane, presents an oddly cute, Chaplin-esque figure.
This is augmented further by a xylophone in the score hitting a melody with high notes. The mayhem he causes really seems to be the product of a mean little boy let loose.
As in I, Monster, this film makes explicit the connexions with psychotherapy. The austere and cadaverous Cordelier is a psychotherapist--Barrault's portrayal of him is every bit as effective in its stiffness as his portrayal of Opale is in its looseness and silliness. The film has an Utterson character named Joly (Teddy Bilis) whose role is mainly significant in his function as Cordelier's lawyer as the title draws attention to Cordelier's will. As in the novella, Joly/Utterson is concerned about Cordelier/Jekyll leaving everything to the strange and sinister Hyde/Opale. But in terms of providing a contrary perspective to Cordelier's desire to purify himself the film establishes this more in its version of Lanyon, here another psychotherapist named Severin (Michel Vitold).
In contrast to Cordelier's meticulous appearance, Severin always has a loosened tie and seems generally dishevelled, though not nearly as messy as Opale. Severin freely flirts with his secretary while Cordelier rigorously condemns himself for being being tempted by his own secretary, Lise (Claudie Bourlon), when she flirts with him. In one of the film's most fascinating scenes, Cordelier talks about female patients who tried to flirt with him, something he would never give into, but he eventually rapes one such patient when she's unconscious. Even though she clearly wanted a relationship with him, he's worried that she would gossip, so therefore molesting her without her knowledge is preferable to him. This, in a nutshell, perfectly captures the character of Jekyll and how he was interpreted by both John Barrymore and Christopher Lee but Barrault makes the doctor even more disgustingly pathetic. Jekyll falsely interprets the dichotomy between Jekyll and Hyde as good and evil. The reality is a distinction between the image of respectability and the licence of anonymity. Cordelier is just as ready to take advantage of an unconscious woman as Opale is ready to abuse his anonymity.
When he first steps out as Opale and has his first encounter with another human being--as it happens, an innocuous conversation with a mailman--Cordelier remarks in voice over how it's here that Opale comes into existence as an independent being. His existence is defined in being seen by others and this is entirely Cordelier's conception of existence.
Monstrous things are simultaneously ridiculous. As people gather later in Cordelier's home and panic increases at the knowledge that Opale is on the loose, one young woman, without thinking, won't even open the door for Joly, even though she knows its him. This and other scenes are performed with the energy of a screwball comedy but somehow it doesn't trivialise the issues it's dealing with. Rather, it serves to show how ridiculous human beings can be even when they're committing terrible crimes.
Incredibly, this film was made for television, but you wouldn't know it from Renoir's compositions, the high energy in the comedic scenes, and the level of thought that clearly went into the screenplay.