Twenty-three year old sex kitten Yvette Maudet (Brigitte Bardot) leads a carefree, reckless life on the streets of Paris, dabbling in prostitution and petty crime. However, her attempt to rob a jewelry store with a friend backfires when she injures an old woman. So Yvette turns to respectable fifty-something defense attorney André Gobillot (Jean Gabin). Enamoured with Yvette's charms the wily old goat works his magic in the courtroom and clears her name. To the dismay of his tolerant wife Viviane (Edwige Feuillère), Gobillot enters into a steamy affair with the willing Yvette. At the same time however, Yvette to romance her volatile boyfriend Mazetti (Franco Interlenghi) with fatal consequences.
Pairing France's most respected actor with its hottest sex symbol, En Cas de Malheur (released in English as Love is My Profession) scandalized that frequent target of French filmmakers through the ages: the bourgeoisie. Granted in our more jaded times the notion that an old pillar-of-society such as Gobillot could risk his reputation for the sake of a fling with a sexy young thing half his age is not that shocking, but back in the Fifties audiences were at once appalled and titillated. Not least by the scene that yielded the film's iconic poster image wherein a seductive Bardot hikes up her tight skirt to give Gabin an eyeful. No stranger to controversy, Claude Autant-Lara previously dared to poke fun at an array of what her perceived as self-serving bourgeois institutions in films such as L'Auberge Rouge (1951), The Game of Love (1954) which dealt with an illicit relationship between a teenage boy and a middle-aged woman, and La Traversée de Paris (1956), a satirical portrait of Nazi-occupied France.
Adapting a well-regarded novel by Georges Simenon, Autant-Lara cannily utilized Brigitte Bardot (then the world's most desirable woman) as sort of a literal sex bomb thrown into the heart of smug, self-satisfied middle-class France. Equal parts social satire and tragic romance, En Cas de Malheur is also a distinctively French take on film noir, only Autant-Lara takes sprightly delight in showing what Hays Code era Hollywood could only imply, with steamy bedroom action and playful nudity. With great cinematic dexterity, Autant-Lara deftly juxtaposes light banter with darker psychological detours climaxing with one unsettling shot as devastating to behold as the emotionally shattered, blank expression on Jean Gabin's face. Amoral youth was tres chic in French cinema around the time that the young Turks of the Nouvelle Vague began to make their presence felt, though ironically far from sympathizing with Autant-Lara's satirical impulses they became his harshest critics. If the impulsive, borderline amoral Yvette initially comes across as a far from likeable anti-heroine, the triumph of the film and Bardot in arguably her finest acting performance, outside of Jean-Luc Godard's more widely celebrated Contempt (1963), is that both she and the equally flawed Gobillot gradually evolve into compelling and sympathetic characters.
Bardot is well paired with the commanding Gabin who delivers a performance of real stature. In many ways Yvette and Gobillot share similar drives, the yearning for illicit thrills coupled with a need for respectability. Gobillot wants to maintain his position as a well-heeled attorney whilst also savouring a liaison with a much younger woman. Yvette similarly comes to believe she can have it all: the trappings of bourgeois contentment with Gobillot (fine furniture, pretty dresses, financial security) and dangerous sex with Mazetti. As a woman however, Yvette's urge for independence rankles the controlling impulses of the men in her life who ensure she pays a heavy price. Mazetti tries to instill her with his own philosophical attitude to crime, namely that the downtrodden are entitled to take what they need by any means necessary (a sentiment echoed by Yvette when she remarks: "I'm female. I should do as I like"). He is the radical to Gobillot's conservative yet the plot ultimately unmask him as a hypocrite, as intent on controlling Yvette as the older man. Perhaps that is why Autant-Lara's work did not sit well with young firebrands like François Truffaut? Did they perceive this as an attempt to denounce their cherished ideals as hypocrisy? While Bardot and Gabin are the star turns, Edwige Feullère also etches a strangely poignant portrait of a wounded wife? Somewhat passive-aggressive, Viviane is strangely resigned to losing her husband to a younger, sexier woman. She even drives Gobillot to Yvette's apartment, indulging his impulses even as she loathes them. A young Jean-Pierre Cassel also pops up in a small role as Yvette's trumpet-playing boyfriend. He went on to co-star with Bardot in the modest but charming romantic comedy The Bear and the Doll (1970). Forty years later, En Cas de Malheur was remade as En Plein Coeur (1998) pairing old goat Gérard Lanvin with the no less desirable Virginie Ledoyen to admittedly inferior effect.