Paule Rezeau née Pluvignec, best known as Folcoche, is the villain of the famous French novel Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist) written in 1948 by Hervé Bazin, its two movie adaptations and its two sequels. Folcoche is widely known in France as the epitome of the tyrannical and abusive mother, to the point that her nickname has become a common synonym. Folcoche can also be regarded as a symbol of a woman embittered by a marriage of interest, who hates a family that she never desired.
Vipère au poing is both a largely autobiographical novel, and a heavy criticism of the bourgeoisie of these times, depicted by Hervé Bazin as blatantly hypocritical, with appearances and interest being more important than the family members' well-being. While Folcoche serves as the villain of the story, she is not the real target of the author's contempt and she can somehow appear as a product of said society.
Folcoche comes from a very rich family who imposed her a marriage with the respected, yet pauperized, Rezeau family. The Rezeaus have lived for many decades in a manor in the French countryside, the "Belle Angerie", with several families of farmers working for them, enabling them to live on this income. However, the family's wealth has grown thinner over the years, hence the marriage of interest between Jacques Rezau and Paule Pluvignec.
Folcoche herself may very well never have been truly loved by her parents, and certainly never loved neither her husband nor her sons, with the exception of her last born and favourite child Marcel, the only one for whom she seems to care a little. When married, Folcoche was endowed three hundred thousand francs, a great fortune that the Rezeau family needed to restore their past wealth, but of which she has complete control, one of the reasons why she is the one who actually rules the household.
Personality-wise, Folcoche is uncaring, bossy and downright violent, dictating her rule to everyone, from the lackeys to her own family. She cannot stand insubordination or opposition and whenever she cannot prevent it, she is bound to get her revenge in one way or another. She is simply unable to care for anyone, even when she does feels genuine affection. It could be theorized that Folcoche regards her children as reminders of her failed life, and does not want them to experience the happiness that she lacked. She is extremely avaricious and obstinate, and is also described as lacking hygiene. The only things important to her are her collections of stamps and of keys, which she always carefully locks away.
In Vipère au Poing
Considering the success of the novel, it was adapted twice as a movie in 1971 and 2004. In each of these adaptations, Folcoche was portrayed by a famous French actress, namely Alice Sapritch for the first one and Catherine Frot for the second.In the beginning of the novel, Folcoche is living in China with her husband and her last son Marcel, who was probably born there. Jean Rezeau and his slightly dim-witted older brother Ferdinand live a happy childhood in the "Belle Angerie", cared for by their loving grandmother. The story begins when the seven-year-old Jean captures and strangles a viper, comparing it to Hercules strangling the snakes sent to kill him.
Some time later, their grandmother dies and their parents return home. Both boys happily welcome their mother, but she violently slaps them, irked by their noisy behaviour, and their nightmare begins.Their mother immediately confiscates all their toys, before setting very strict rules for her three children to follow. They no longer have any leisure time, their activities being divided between their studies under the direction of the family's clergyman and preceptor, and taking care of the park and the house.
She also fires almost every employee, including the children's nanny Ernestine, who tried to protect them. Moreover, she hits them and humiliates them on a regular basis with little to no reason, and has them confessing their "wrongdoings" before her each night before going to bed. All this happening before their father's eyes, as the man is too meek to stand against his wife and devotes his entire time to his studies.
One night, she severely beats Ferdinand because she found his confession not honest enough. This particularly unfair punishment causes him to rant curses the entire night long, calling her "folle" (mad) and "cochonne" (disrespectful word for "sow") and contracting it into Folcoche. A domestic war soon breaks out between Folcoche and her three children (including Marcel, who in spite of being favoured and rarely struck also suffers from her unfairness) who begin to resist her, mostly by disobeying her behind her back.
Jean eventually becomes the children's de facto leader, as he is the one who hates Folcoche the most. As such, he defies her by any mean he can and the irked woman starts concentrating her efforts on him. This situation lasts for several years, eventually concentrating on Jean's and Folcoche's personal feud, with the other characters being more and more reduced to the side-lines.
When Folcoche, who is very ill, departs for the hospital, the boys welcome their newfound freedom with joy and begin to hope that she will never come back, going as far as dancing and yelling "Folcoche va crever !" ("Folcoche's gonna die!") over and over. Unfortunatelly for them, she comes back and restarts her unfair rule, prompting the boys to make two attempts on her life, but to no avail.
Given that the boys have grew up, they no longer fear Folcoche's blows and no longer have to work in the park, forcing her to change her tactics. She tries to separate the three brothers, by keeping Marcel by her side and favouring him even more, or by punishing Ferdinand alone for a common "fault," but without success. Folcoche's attempts become increasingly exaggerated but Jean keeps opposing her, having become addicted to his hatred for his mother.
He eventually foils her attempts to accuse him of stealing her wallet and obtains what he and her both desire: his departure for a boarding school. This sounds like a victory but Jean knows that she broke something inside him and knows that he will never again be able to love or even trust a woman, nor even to enjoy a truly peaceful life. He ends the novel with this ironic sentence: "Merci ma mère, je suis celui qui marche une vipère au poing." (Thank you mother, I am the one who walks with a viper in the fist.")
In the Sequels
La mort du petit cheval
In the novel La mort du petit cheval (The Death of the Little Horse) Jean and his brothers are attending a boarding school, but the distance is not enough to protect them from Folcoche's hatred and tyrany. She still attacks Ferdinand and Jean; doing everything she can to make them fail their studies, their love affairs and their life. Jean himself is not freed from his hatred and he tries to humiliate her, but she turns all his attempts against him. Even upon learning that Marcel is an adulterous child (which explains why she cares more for him) he cannot use this new against her.
Folcoche manages to ruin one of Jean's love affair and enrols him in a university that he does not want, prompting him to run away to Paris, where he starts the studies he desires, having to sever ties with his entire family to gain his freedom. The death of his father only makes Jean more estranged to his family that he already was and he has to struggle to gain the success that Folcoche is denying him, and more importantly to become able to truly love a woman.
At twenty years old, Jean eventually to manages to gain a situation and a loving wife and family, breaking free at last from his mother's grasp, while the unfortunate Ferdinand fails miserably and sunks into poverty. The death of the "little horse" mentioned in the title apparently represents the end of both Jean's childhood (the word "little") and the power that Folcoche had over him. (Horses being mostly domestic animals.) However, Ferdinand's gloomy fate means that once again, Folcoche is only partially defeated.
Le cri de la chouette
Folcoche is seen in a much different, and sympathetic, light in the third novel Le cri de la chouette (The Cry of the Owl) being reduced to an old woman with nothing left except her bitterness. The "cry of the owl" is in fact Folcoche's sorrowful cry of agony, somehow referring to the superstition according to which an owl's cry foretells someone's death, and also being a pun, the French expression "vieille chouette" meaning litteraly "old owl" and figuratively "old hag."
Jean is now a successful, fourty-five-year-old man and a widower, who got married a second time with a woman called Bertille, raising Bertille's daughter Salomé alongside his own children. Then one day, Folcoche in person comes to his place. She comes in peace, asking for a place to finish her life, having been betrayed and robbed of all her possessions by Marcel, the only son she cared for. Jean initially refuses to have anything to do with the mother he hated so fiercely, but his wife and children take pity on Folcoche and manage to convince him to let her stay.
Folcoche soon develops for Salomé the motherly love she always lacked, but Folcoche always being Folcoche, she also disturbs the entire family life and causes much discord and mistrust. Even her genuine attempts to be likeable end up badly, as she never knew nothing but hatred and bitterness, leaving her unable to correctly express her affection. She covers Salomé with gifts and presents, but the young woman does not really mind and ends up eloping with her lover Gonzague.
Distraught, Folcoche relinquishes the ownership of the "Belle Angerie" to Jean and tries to search for Salomé, only to drop dead because of an embolism, with Jean as the only witness.
"Quand on m'enterrera, il y aura peut-être des joues humides, s'il pleut ! Sans doute se trompait-elle, la vieille chouette, en poussant ce cri désespéré." ("When I'm buried, it might cause some wet cheeks, if it rains! The old hag was doubtless mistaken when she made this desperate cry.") In this sentence, Jean quotes his mother's regrets about her loveless life (the "cry of the owl") and at the same times indicates that he has finally come into terms with their hateful history, even expressing some genuine grief for this unfortunate woman, another sort of victim.