In 50 years, Claude Chabrol quietly turned out some 50 movies, the lion’s share about adultery and murder among the right class of people. Some artists stake out the mean streets as their territory. For Chabrol, it was the mean boulevards, the haunts of the repectable. Pathfinder has recently released two of the ‘70s films starring his then-wife, Stéphane Audran.
Just Before Nightfall (Juste Avante la Nuit) opens with high, disorienting style. As Pierre Jansen’s music surges, we close in on a Paris apartment building. Suddenly we see Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) in sweaty close-up on the left, utter blackness filling the screen before him. He peers into an abyss.
Just as suddenly and theatrically, the background lights up garishly to reveal a recessed, blue-wallpapered area where a naked woman stretches upon a bed like a panther, beckoning him to come play. She demands that he strangle her. He does, in a manner more impassive and symbolic than visceral. The colors of this whole sequence, probably through digital restoration, are vibrant.
The rest of the film is the brooding aftermath. Charles owns a PR firm and has written a novel. He has a lovely, understanding wife (Audran) and two children and a black au pair girl, all living in an amazingly swank modern house designed by the architect next door. Said architect (Francois Périer) is also Charles’ best friend, not to mention the husband of the murdered mistress. But was she murdered? As we see it and as Charles describes it later, there’s an element of being at the victim’s mercy, as though it were suicide by request. This is important to think about for the film’s wrap-up.
The theme is guilt and the different means and motives of rationalizing it for the various characters. At its simplest, Charles wants to be punished. We could say that he wants to deserve punishment. We sense that he seeks punishment not only for one action or its circumstances but an entire lifestyle of success. He wanted this house, with a glass-walled bedroom looking down upon the living area, because he was afraid that becoming bourgeois would clog his arteries and a modern house would keep him healthy. (Dialogue says this literally.) If we regard the hyper-dreamlike mistress symbolically, she might represent the dream of success that kills you. “Nobody is responsible for what they do in a nightmare,” one character tells him.
The film’s ideas beg to be more fully analysed, but it can’t be done without giving away the few events that follow in the wake of the opening nightmare. There’s also a subplot about a possible embezzlement at the ad agency and the older man suspected of it, who may be caught up in his own nightmare. When a client sees his TV commercial, an inane thing about a magician and a washing machine, he shouts with satisfaction “That’s exactly what I wanted!” The implication is that getting what you want isn’t always recommended.
With its beautiful women and frumpy men, its gorgeous decorations, its smooth beady-eyed camerawork, its coiled ironies and resonances, and its carefully unwinding, nearly stifling observation of the protagonist’s psychology, this is high Chabrol. His sequence of films starring Audran can be seen as variations on each other, and this one especially feels like a counterpart to The Unfaithful Wife with Audran and Bouquet virtually in the same roles.
Audran’s last film for Chabrol was Twist (1976). That’s the onscreen title; the package calls it The Twist and the French version is known as Folies Bourgeoises. Audran plays the wife of an American novelist (Bruce Dern). She’s carrying on with publisher Jean-Pierre Cassel, and all is fine until she realizes hubby is having his own affair with Ann-Margret. Audran starts going crazy and having cartoonish fantasies of sex and violence as she forcibly relocates her husband to a falling-down mansion in the country, upon which he starts having his own fantasies about her infidelities and the various beautiful women around him.
For my money, Chabrol’s typical themes don’t fit so well into wacky-comedy mode (given that French wacky comedies usually are no funnier than American ones) and not so easily into surreal-fantasy mode either. The chicly transgressive dreams seem intended to remind us of Luis Buñuel’s French films of this era, but it suffers in the comparison. Where the film wants to be frothy and sexy, it looks grating. What tries to look smart looks dumb.
Lots of big stars are thrown away in cameos—Maria Schell as the maid, Curd Jurgens as a jeweler, Tomas Milian as a private detective, Charles Aznavour as a doctor whose bizarre tics don’t add up to a character. At least Sybil Danning’s topless appearance is keyed into her talents.
My impression of this labored lark isn’t helped by the uncomfortable English dialogue, which isn’t so easy to follow amid a strangely reverberant sound mix. The French dub (an alternate option) has a cleaner sound but the obvious dubbing is distracting and clearly doesn’t use Dern’s voice, although even his English delivery sounds awkward. This print also doesn’t look as “restored” as the other film.
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