From the outset, The Woman With Leopard Shoes (La Femme aux Chaussures Leopard) both does and does not let us know what kind of film it is going to be. As an unseen woman recruits a burglar who is wearing a hood over his head to prevent him identifying her, the scene unfolds not only in the fading light of dusk, but in black and white. The burglar is to break into a country house at a particular time on a particular night, and to retrieve for her a box secreted in the study. The film’s evocative title, with its allusion to an animal, suggests a giallo – something akin to Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) – while the clear criminal intent of this femme fatale, the mystification and masquerade, the shadow play, even the monochrome presentation, all suggest a classic film noir. This impression is only enhanced by the opening credit sequence in which various men and women (their faces kept carefully out of shot) are shown in montage dressing to the nines, all to the accompaniment of breezy big-band jazz on the soundtrack. We appear to be in a film very much out of the past.
Yet even as first-time filmmaker Alexis Bruchon – who wrote, directed, shot, edited, produced, scored, and designed the sets and sound – is respectful of the bygone cinematic traditions which his own work lovingly conjures, he is also open to new ideas and times. Any connoisseur of noir will be quick to recognise that the burglar (played by Alexis’ brother Paul Bruchon), hired for a job that is said to be ‘child’s play’, is a chump being set up in someone else’s larger scheme – and sure enough, after the burglar quickly succeeds in finding the box, the house’s owner and a large number of party guests will suddenly arrive, leaving the thief not only trapped in the study, but sharing that space with a corpse for whose murder he is very likely being framed. So far, so noir – but if the house’s furnishings and the partygoers’ get-up all seem as though they could go back to the Forties or Fifties, we also notice that our protagonist uses an electric keypad to deactivate the house alarm system, lights his way with the torch on his smart phone, and discovers a hidden USB stick. This may be an old-fashioned murder mystery, but it is very much updated to our own age. One flashback sequence perhaps best summarises the film’s wilful merging of different eras, as an outmoded typewriter is shown being used on a desk alongside a MacBook Pro.
Bruchon also innovates with the obstructions that he imposes upon himself to create the film’s uniquely claustrophobic point of view. For not only is this a locked-room mystery told from the inside out, as the burglar must work out who’s who, whodunnit and what to do while stuck within the confines of the study, but as much as he utters not a single word over the film’s duration, no other (living) character’s face is ever seen. For the title’s reference to shoes is not casual: while the burglar peeps out at others from under a bed, behind a cabinet or through a (Hitchcockian) shower curtain, his perspective is mostly restricted to the lower half of their body, so that the canted angles so typical of noir here bring a near fetishistic focus on legs and footwear. Shoes are often all that he – and we with him – have to distinguish the people who at different times enter the room, and the promised leopard shoes stand out, even if their significance remains as elusive as the identity of their wearer. Meanwhile, even if the burglar never speaks, there are certainly words here: the notes and letters that he discovers in the room, and the text messages that he frantically exchanges with different players who may not be who he thinks they are.
Although this low-budget thriller was conceived before 2020, the burglar’s panicky beleaguerment now resonates with the global lockdown under Covid, at a time when we all feel entrapped and under constant threat from what is just beyond the door. Mostly, though, The Woman With Leopard Shoes plays a hermeneutic game, limiting the burglar’s perceptions to a finite set of ambiguous clues, and forcing him to think his way outside the box, even as we are right there alongside him, in search of our own escapist thrills and satisfactory meaning. The result is a story which, though retro-styled and perhaps not altogether unfamiliar, is told in a very unusual way that ensures its freshness as a singular, finely crafted debut.
© Anton Bitel