REVIEW: DVD Release: The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol.1

Film: The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol.1
Release date: 26th April 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 302 mins
Director: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean Poiret, Marie Trintignant
Genre: Thriller/Crime/Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: France

One of the founders of filmmaking in the French New Wave eram, Claude Chabrol has been active since the late-50s, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival with just his second feature film, Les Cousins. His career has been a lengthy and prolific one, leading to his reputation as one of the greatest French film directors there has ever been. Artificial Eye’s recent release of The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol.1 marked the 80th birthday of the man, encompassing three films: the murder-mystery Inspecteur Lavardin (1986); the bleak character study Betty (1992); and the blackly comic Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000), starring one of Chabrol’s favourite actors, Cesar-winner Isabelle Huppert.

The lesser-known Inspecteur Lavardin begins with the sinister discovery of a man’s slain corpse on the beach of a French coastal village, and the arrival of the Inspector assigned to the murder case.

Lavardin is in the Hercule Poirot mould of sleuth; arrogant, self-satisfied, and facetious in his methods, but nonetheless effective, uncovering a web of deceit and intrigue. Jean Poiret, previously Oscar-nominated for his writing work on musical La Cage Aux Folles, plays the titular officer, and is clearly revelling in the outspoken nature of his authoritarian figure.

What develops is a solidly watchable mystery, the aftermath of the murder of Raoul casting into doubt the legitimacy of his marriage to Hélène (Bernadette Lafont), as well as suggesting her possible motives for killing him. Also suspected is Helene’s gay brother Claude, who admittedly thought Raoul contemptuous of him, his sexuality, and his involvement with amateur dramatics.

By contrast, Betty never quite attains as light a tone as Inspecteur Lavardin, since it essentially focuses on the mystery surrounding one woman and her ambivalence towards commitment.

It is a tragedy of sorts, charting the descent of bourgeois housewife and mother Betty Etamble into alcoholism and depression following her failed marriage to husband Guy.

A chance encounter in a bar leads her into a friendship with Laure (Chabrol’s ex-wife Stéphane Audran), who gets Betty a room in her hotel and attempts to guide her back onto the straight-and-narrow.

The film flits back and forth in time, between Betty as a singleton, an adulteress, and finally as a divorcée. The late Marie Trintingnant gives a devastating performance as the troubled woman, offering multiple facets of her character’s unnervingly self-destructive lack of worth. A tour-de-force for the ages.

Certainly, at least, of more recent times, Merci Pour Le Chocolat is one of Chabrol’s most famous works - a frothy tale of family secrets, child complexes, and jealous chocolatiers.

Famous pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) is taken aback when approached by a young woman named Jeanne, who is told by her mother that when she was born the hospital first identified her as the daughter of the Polonski family. The fact that Jeanne is an aspiring pianist also lays claim to the possibility of her as a relative, a suggestion not entirely welcomed by Andre’s new wife Mika (Isabelle Huppert), who herself comes from a family famous for its confectionery.

What ensues is a slow-burning chronicle of a family harbouring deep resentment, inevitably culminating in dramatic revelations…

Chabrol’s upfront style, while brave and novel, can often translate as disingenuous. Inspecteur Lavardin and its wry tone, perhaps most blatantly, demonstrates Chabrol’s tendency to deal with serious issues matter-of-factly - the camp interplay the Inspector engages in with various characters far too distracting, and heavily indulgent of the film’s whimsical tone. One often feels as if Chabrol is deliberately alienating his characters to illicit moral guffaw, deriving comedy from injustice, the absence of serious conflict where many would think there should be.

In Merci Pour Le Chocolat, the early confession by Jeanne’s mother that they might not actually be related is divulged over a lunch the pair have with friends, and there is no attempt to address the pain both would feel if this turned out to be true. Chabrol generates comedy from melodrama without really attuning his characters to this style, or suggesting why Jeanne has her head in the clouds, completely unfazed by this early setback that she marches up to Polonski’s door with not a moment’s consideration.

Both Merci and Inspecteur Lavardin feel particularly contrived to deliver plot mechanics, allowing the actors in them to be engulfed but never really part of that mystery, to the extent where you guage their self-conscious bemusement with the attention-sought - harsh realities of Chabrol’s approach to themes of family, trust, and guilt.

Betty is all the more successful because Chabrol affords Trintingnant more of an opportunity to work with Betty, to characterise and humanise, than he does with his other leads.

As a character, Betty isn’t essentially dissimilar in her apparent self-awareness, but Trintingnant is able to allude to this as a fixture of the woman’s inherent sexualisation, disguising the true intent of Betty’s confessional monologues as a flimsy way of developing the character. Still, Chabrol has enough of a handle on the film as a tragedy, and produces a woman’s picture the likes recently seen in the Italian I Am Love, where he expresses that guilt can go both punished and unpunished.

The three films share common themes and traits which make the decision to collate them into a trio comprehensible. However, the decision to band together tarter, more cynical works that represent neither the nature nor the quality of his career is in danger of doing the man a grave disservice. CR

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