There’s a touch of Angela Carter about Beatrice Hitchman’s beguiling debut Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) – a sly, erotic thriller concerned with doubleness and duplicity that’s both a primer in the early history of French cinema and a reflexive study in female self-fashioning – or should that be “self-editing”? The fictional Petite Mort is a silent film from 1914, presumed lost in a fire that destroyed a section of the Pathé studio where it was made. In 1967, the height of the New Wave, a print is found by a suburban widow in her basement, but with a crucial scene inexpertly chopped out: a “doppelganger” special effect that may shed light on the subsequent murder trial of its star, Adèle Roux.
Hitchman gives us Adèle in the late-1960s “present” being interviewed by a journalist; then, in parallel, a series of back-stories starting with her initial escape from provincial drudgery: her entree to the film world was a job as a studio seamstress making velveteen costumes for absinthe fairies. We meet her mysterious director-lover André Durand and his volatile film-star wife Terpsichore, whose assistant Adèle becomes en route to stardom. Complex and cerebral, Petite Mort is softened by beautifully drawn characters, lightly drizzled period detail and an abiding suspicion that love and cinema might be part of the same illusion. Hitchman worked as a film-maker and editor before taking a creative writing MA, which explains her eye for nerdy details like the flies that swarm around the studio attracted by chemicals from the film-strip factory, and fascination with the primitive optical effects, often adapted from stage tricks.
- John O’Connell, The Guardian