Affluent ad executive Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) strangles Laura (Anna Douking), his mistress, to death during violent sex. After contemplating this deed for a moment he then joins his best friend François Tellier (François Périer), who happens to be Laura's husband, for a drink at a bar nearby. Then Charles drifts home to his loving wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran) and children as if nothing has happened. With no evidence left at the scene of the crime the police are at a loss with Laura's murder. It appears Charles has got away with the perfect crime, except his conscience will not let him be.
The majority of thrillers draw tension from a killer attempting to conceal their guilt. Yet in the case of Juste Avante La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall) it is the exact opposite. Suspense and psychological horror arise from Charles' obsessive compulsion to expunge his guilt. Where most murderers try to play it cool, Charles can't seem to resist blabbing about Laura's murder to anyone who will listen especially those two people with the most to lose upon learning the truth: his wife and best friend. He does not confess to killing Laura of course but on some level he wants to be caught. To be punished. Yet the world seems willing to ignore or at best forgive Charles for his crime and move on. Hélène almost immediately accepts Charles' apology over his affair, for the sake of carrying on with their affluent, carefree upper middle-class lifestyle. François is so convinced Charles is such a great guy he dissuades his maid from voicing her suspicions to the police. Charles grows to despise the world for remaining so oblivious to his crime.
Based on a novel by Anglo-Lebanese author and political activist Edward Atiyah, Juste Avante La Nuit ranks among the most introspective yet harrowing psychological thrillers devised by French New Wave auteur Claude Chabrol. The film belongs to a cycle of works in which his then-spouse and favourite leading lady Stéphane Audran (who won a BAFTA for her role here) portrayed heroines all named Hélène and is notably the mirror image of the duo's seminal suspense thriller La Femme Infidèle (1969). Each film appears to tell the same story yet from a different perspective. In La Femme Infidèle, the murder is deliberate and Michel Bouquet (again portraying a killer named Charles) goes to extreme lengths to avoid being caught. In Juste Avante La Nuit, Laura's death is accidental yet provokes an intense guilt in Charles no-one else can quite understand.
A spine-tingling score by Pierre Jansen establishes an ominous tone though aside from one notable, dreamlike lighting trick in which a naked Laura manifests in front of Charles like some apparition conjured by his tortured psyche, Chabrol forgoes the visceral and sensual for a staunchly cerebral style of thriller. In that sense Juste Avante La Nuit is perhaps less accessible than other films in the Hélène cycle and offers none of the vicarious cinematic pleasures one would expect from a director like Alfred Hitchcock. Yet Chabrol conjures an atmosphere unlike any other, one in which surface gentility belies something genuinely ugly, unsettling and perverse underneath. Dark feelings that just won't go away. Uniquely this is a film wherein the protagonist's craving for absolution proves more despicable than his crime. Charles remains rather selfish in his obsessive need to confess all, far more concerned with unburdening himself than with the psychological toll his actions will take upon François and Hélène. For Chabrol, Charles' compulsion to confess is simply another manifestation of the sadomasochistic impulse that led to his twisted relationship with Laura in the first place. Equally, he raises a wry satirical eyebrow at Hélène's readiness to carry on as before in the face of shock revelations of infidelity and murder. The film suggests soldiering on in spite of dark family secrets is an integral part of bourgeois life. As always with Chabrol, it's all about the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.