Monsieur Verdoux ★★★★

Chaplin's infamous "black comedy" (which is really more of a grim, tragic horror movie for long stretches), shot through with rich irony and an unexpectedly pointed anti-war message, is almost certain to generate more discomfort in a viewer than something like Kind Hearts and Coronets simply because the character he builds, of a former bank teller and master of disguise living quadruple lives and offing the women he seduces along the way, is both palpably human (in contrast to the unfeeling psychopath Louis Mazzini) and a nearly complete, violent deconstruction of the Chaplin persona that had already charmed audiences for a generation. His thorough rebuking of the optimism and sweetness of films like Modern Times -- which is represented only by the relatively tender scenes involving Verdoux's actual family, the blandness of which seems like a deliberate act of ridicule -- can be upsetting, but it also feels necessary for more or less the reasons Chaplin lays out in his closing speech. You only wish the film's dark message was less relevant, but somehow it seems more like a movie of our time than of Chaplin's. The fearless brutality of it all is made worse (better?) by how obvious Chaplin makes it that he retains the ability to create grace notes similar to his old ones (see: the scenes with Marilyn Nash) and to craft masterful slapstick setpieces (most of the scenes featuring Martha Raye, who may be the only actor Chaplin ever directed who threatened to upstage him); it's as though he is saying that nothing we took for granted as good and pure is to really be trusted. Nowhere is this thesis clearer than at the two moments when Chaplin revises two of his beloved old trademark pieces of physical comedy -- chasing a woman in a manic rage in Modern Times, and his faux-innocent poses from City Lights -- and turns them into elements of a vindictive, terrifying character. A nasty film, and one that feels very much like an attack of sorts on its popular audience, but not a nihilistic one -- just one with an honesty it rather hurts us to confront.