Sleight of Hand
While Claude Chabrol’s recent work has become available on DVD, his early films remain elusive. His work typically appears in cycles, determined by the associations he establishes with producers and the success he achieved at the box office. Chabrol self-produced his first two films, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins (1958), and then hooked up with the well-established Hakim brothers, Robert and Raymond. The collaboration allowed Chabrol the means to work with an enhanced technological palette and decorate his sets with the lavish excess due his upper class characters.
The result was À Double Tour (1959), a visually engrossing if emotionally underwhelming thriller set in one the director’s prototypically dysfunctional families. The Kino DVD presents a good-looking letterboxed print, but no extras other than the original French trailer. The Marcoux family lives in a country home, supported by their vineyard. Father Henri (Jacques Dacqmine) possesses a roving eye, and spends more time with their attractive neighbor, Léda (Antonella Lualdi), than his family. His wife, Thérèse (Madeleine Robinson), simmers with jealousy and seizes upon the affairs of their children as compensation. Daughter Elizabeth is engaged to the happy-go-lucky man-about-town Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondon), while her son, Richard (Andre Jocelyn), loses himself in his concert music recordings and copious free time.
The simple plot comes from a novel by the American Stanley Ellin. The murder of the charming and quite beautiful Léda opens up the Marcoux’s seething, irresponsible emotions, their opulent circumstances barely masking their emptiness. For the most part, Chabrol treats them as pawns in a grander story, less interested in their personalities than the actions they take in the tragic unraveling of the case.
In fact, the most compelling characters in the plot are not the Marcoux clan, but two peripheral figures. Engaged to Elisabeth, the cigar-chomping, drink-guzzling, taboo-breaking Laszlo brings fresh air to the stifling Marcoux household. Belmondo’s over-the-top, unmannered performance takes up entire sequences, as when he and a friend (László Szabó) grow more and more inebriated and boisterous at a local café. Belmondo essayed his career-breaking role in Godard’s Breathless right after this film, and one can observe the same kind of James Cagney-like lovable brute in his slap-happy Laszlo.
The second secondary character, the Marcoux’s maid, is played by Bernadette Lafont, whom Chabrol would feature in his next work, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). The film opens with her hanging out of the window of her bedroom, barely dressed, as she comes on to the gardener and milkman. Even if the actress does little other than to serve food and respond to the family’s requests, Lafont animates all her scenes, like a kind of life force let loose in a claustrophobic space.
At this point in his career, given the resources available through the Hakims’ support, Chabrol was able to begin to evolve the visual flourishes and ripe performances we have come to expect from him. The film periodically launches into elaborate camera setups, overseen by the estimable cinematographer Henri Decaë (who shot Chabrol’s two earlier features as well as major works by François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, and René Clément). Chabrol sweeps his lens across the elaborately decorated sets sometimes for no apparent reason other than to rejoice in the movement and physical details. Even Paul Misraki’s score seems to poke fun at the melodrama, his overwrought themes drawing attention to the equally excessive performances.
À Double Tour may not be first-rate Chabrol, but it certainly possesses his signature dyspeptic wit, visual sleight of hand, and psychological acumen. Only the least acute observer will not guess the murderer’s identity, but the plot matters less than watching the young director sowing his cinematographic oats.