Madame Bovery, Claude Chabrol

Criminal Subterfuge and Dark Desires in Chabrol’s Minimalist Murder-Mysteries

While murder and crime certainly run deep in Claude Chabrol’s world of subterfuge, the dark desires of human nature that provoke them run immeasurably deeper.

Lies and Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol - Limited Edition
Claude Chabrol
Arrow Film
22 February 2022 (US)

Coined the “French Hitchcock” by the press, the late Claude Chabrol had, over the course of his career, met with varying degrees of success. His most worthy achievements, Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and later, La Ceremonie (1995), stand as testaments to his ability to draft psychological thrillers within a form of highborn naturalism. Chabrol’s films are often enterprising narratives about the war between the classes and his best work illustrates the ambiguity of emotions that result from the crimes that take place in the matters of wealth and poverty.

The filmmaker was often the toast of many a film festival in his long-standing career and, given his grand status in European cinema, was, oddly, never the recipient of his native France’s most coveted film award, the César. But his influence has stretched far and wide, informing a younger generation of filmmakers like François Ozon, whose films have followed a similar trajectory in the mysteries of class-related crimes. Despite the number of misses Chabrol has had in his attempts to gain wider exposure commercially, he managed to secure a permanent foothold among the cinematic intelligentsia who supported his work.

Chabrol’s oeuvre can be divided into two halves: the first half includes the work he did with his then-wife, actress Stéphane Audran; the second half, his later period, prominently features Isabelle Huppert. Much of Chabrol’s work, perhaps the lure of much of it, has seemingly depended on the interpretations delivered by his respective muses. Audran and Huppert’s relatively diametric approaches to their performances ensured that Chabrol’s work, throughout his career, was textured and deep enough to sustain an overall interest in his films – even during the ’80s, the decade of his slump.

Arrow Academy’s latest boxset, Lies and Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol, features Chabrol’s lesser-known and less celebrated films; a selection starring both Isabelle Huppert and Stéphane Audran, as well as some other notable French actors of the day. While these particular films may not have traveled as extensively as his more popular films, they each display the strong intuitive approach in his direction that has allowed each actor to deliver their most signature turns in cinema. These films also display Chabrol’s celebrated style in understatement that often refers to a sort of muted visual palette of minimalism.

Betty (1992)

based on the Georges Simenon novel of the same name, Betty stars Marie Trintignant in the title role as a down-and-out alcoholic who has just been turned out of her wealthy household. Hanging around in bars for much of her days and being picked up by losers, she chances upon Laure (Stéphane Audran) one evening at a restaurant, which she has been taken to by one of the bar patrons. Laure can see right away Betty’s downward spiral into destitution; she herself was once an alcoholic and, with great sympathy, she offers Betty a place to stay at her home. Betty agrees though she is reluctant and mistrustful.

In flashbacks, we begin to understand Betty’s trajectory. Far from the walking mess she’s become, Betty was once a wealthy socialite from the upper crust of society, with a successful husband and two children. We also learn what a miserable and lonely life she led, despite her privilege. An imprudent act of infidelity results in Betty’s dismissal from the family household; she is unceremoniously thrown out onto the streets after she is pressured to sign away much of her entitlements in a divorce settlement. With little in the way of street smarts, Betty ambles hopelessly around the city, often in a drunken stupor.

A giving den mother, Laure works sincerely to give Betty a reprieve from her former life. But it seems like Betty’s recent hard knocks have taught her nothing about friendship and loyalty. A cruel turn of events puts Laure on the receiving end of a terrible betrayal and we then see just what kind of a person Betty really is.

Betty has no real mechanism of plot; much of the narrative movements depend on performance and character. So, it is really a testament to the talents of both leads, who are able to draw so much mileage out of what appears to be a rather thin story. Trintignant, daughter of the more renowned Jean-Louis, turns in a remarkable performance of offhanded insouciance and downbeat charm; her certain laissez-faire way of defining Betty’s presence in a scene powers the narrative with uncomfortable and fascinating energy. Audran, a professional of understatement, manages an at turns sage and broken Laure. Together, these women create a current that begins to fray the sense of security that Chabrol builds in the first half of the film.

Never one to push his actors to an extreme, Chabrol sets up his narrative with a quiet calculation of events that conspire to dangerously merge at an intersection of socio-cultural and personal politics. The ensuing hypocrisies come with the force of a terrible car accident and even when we have a sneaking suspicion of perfidy, we are still stunned by the results. Chabrol’s wit and his uncanny way of deconstructing the comedy-of-manners with such underhanded and bitter upheaval have been much celebrated; in Betty, he leaves no stone unturned in this particular practice.

Perhaps to lull us into an aperture of comfort and safety, Chabrol frames Betty in an aestheticism of muted color tones that are easy on the eyes and give the impression of a hopeful incline in Betty and Laure’s circumstances. Once the emotional carnage lays to waste the scenery, the glassy bourgeoisie façade remains wretchedly intact, as if to explain that there really could have been no other way this story could have ended. Sharp, clever and surprising, Betty carries with it a vicious sting. It is a pernicious reading on the all-too-common but often unheeded idiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

L’enfer (1994)

L’enfer continues the theme of disrupted relationships. A story of a marriage breaking down from paranoia, Chabrol fashions a narrative of domestic bliss that soon becomes poisoned by the anxieties that lurk in the recesses of the mind. Paul (François Cluzet) and his wife Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) run a beautifully designed hotel in provincial France, where they live with their young son. Paul, overworked and stressed, begins to have feelings of discontent when he starts observing the behavior of his wife.

Nelly, well-meaning and lighthearted, goes about her life and work in a carefree manner, an approach to a lifestyle unfamiliar to her husband. This causes an uncomfortable twitch in his psychology; it seems Paul is undecided on how a married couple should behave and his thoughts toward his wife soon turn dark. Why is she so blithe all the time? What is she really thinking? Does she think about him as much as he does her? It isn’t too long before the suspicion grows into paranoia, which then boils to a panic.

It appears, at first, that Nelly’s seemingly sexual indifference toward Paul is the initial source of his anxieties. But there lurks something far deeper, perhaps a toxic pedagogy that has instilled in Paul an outmoded and unreasonable standard of marriage and relationships. The slightest action on Nelly’s part – even running out to do some errands – sends Paul’s mind racing.

What becomes clear over time is that Paul is in the grips of an anxiety disorder that is being tested and challenged beyond the issues of marriage. Paul’s hotel business is threatened due to the local competition and he is forced to do much upkeep in and around his hotel. Much of these troubles are projected onto his marriage. The brewing sense of danger comes from Paul’s refusal to see any possible connection between his fears of failure and his relationship insecurities.

Paul’s intrusive thoughts, which we hear in voiceover, plague his mind. They reveal him to be a scared, vulnerable, and lonely man who is mistrustful of everyone. Nelly brings much life to the hotel and its patrons. Paul, however, does not see this; for him, Nelly exists only within his emotional proximity.

Much of L’enfer’s suspense depends on Paul’s reactive behavior, which Chabrol films at an uncomfortably limited distance. Forcing the viewer inside the protagonist’s head ensures that every gesture committed within the narrative is one that is equally felt by the viewers so that we see the downward spiral steps before Paul descends it. L’enfer’s strength lies in Chabrol’s dependable technique of weaving his narratives in environments of glacial calm, where the air seemingly precipitates no atmosphere of evil or menace. In the clean, bright, and sunny French countryside of L’enfer, away from the bustle of a city equipped with medical and law enforcement services, the helplessness of these characters becomes painfully evident.

Madame Bovary (1991)

The themes of marriages and the dissolutions of relationships in the wake of pathological behaviors feature, as well, in Chabrol’s adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Starring Isabelle Huppert in the titular role, Chabrol’s Bovary is written not as a hopelessly romantic and impulsive spendthrift, but as a hard-edged and selfish woman who plans her married life with the shrewd percipience of a business tycoon.

Madame Bovary follows the life of a married couple, Emma and Charles Bovary, who live in Normandy during the mid-1800s. Emma finds her husband dull and, from time to time, berates him over his slow-wittedness. Emma craves excitement and wants a thriving social life. It is only when the couple moves to another town that Emma sees larger opportunities for a more stimulating life. But ennui gets the better of her and she remains restless.

Emma soon begins a series of affairs, which give her the excitement she craves but strains her relationship with her husband and child. Once Emma falls under the thrall of her various suitors, her appetite for the finer things in life increases considerably. Buying things on credit with no concern over the costs, she runs the household deep into debt. With no way to pay the costs and unable to tell her husband of their financial ruin, Emma resorts to a most desperate act as a way out.

It’s easy to see why a narrative like Madame Bovary appealed to Chabrol. Its story of the delusive seductions of the blue-blooded communities of provincial France has been an old stomping ground of his, examined through a lens of varying eras. The setting in 19th century France offers Chabrol a more transparent reading of the class struggles between the rich and the poor and Madame Bovary is one of the most definitive, if not overly ostentatious, stories of its era to outline the attractions of decadence and excess.

Chabrol certainly has an eye for the narrative and he coaxes his viewers comfortably into that bygone world of regional France. But his one misstep is the casting of Isabelle Huppert. A formidable actress who has a precise way of psychologically narrowing in on her characters with an exactitude that is almost frightening, Huppert is rather stiff in her role. Bovary, depicted in Gustave’s source material as an interminable dreamer, appears a hardened and fussy opportunist in Huppert’s embodiment.

Huppert, who served as Chabrol’s muse in his films throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, has offered pitch-perfect performances in his other films, like Une Affair de Femmes (1988), La Ceremonie (1995) and Merci pour le Chocolat (2000). Here, she seems to struggle with displays of passion; an emotion befitting of Bovary since much of the character’s choices are dependent on intense desires and weakness of will. Huppert’s performance here is too psychologically-encased and would have perhaps been better interpreted by fellow actress Isabelle Adjani, whose dramatic fervencies have riddled many a character she’s played.

Huppert does add an underlining smugness to her Bovary that seems a subtle indictment of the various players around her. But she’s also fighting the scenery, and often swallowed up in the billowy extravagance of crinolines and corsets. Chabrol does, however, keep the scenery under the attentive care of his observant eye, the panoramas of the French countryside resplendent and rich with period detail. Perhaps an effort in vanity, but still one worth visiting to see how a professional of the seriocomic thriller manages a classic of French realist literature.

Cop au Vin (1985)

Slick, understated, and photographed with a Vermeer-like eye, Cop au Vin continues the tradition of Chabrol’s provincial murder mysteries. A story about a series of follies that comingle with calculated and devious moves, Cop au Vin follows the life of Louis Cuno (Lucas Belvaux), a postal worker living with his disabled mother (Stéphane Audran) in a large dilapidated house in France. Pressured into selling the house by three land developers, Lavoisier (Michel Bouquet), Morasseau (Jean Topart) and Filiol (Jean-Claude Bouillaud), Louis and his mother spend their time digging up information on their would-be buyers, steaming open the men’s personal mail, which Louis filches from the post office. At night, Louis spies on the men at their homes and engages in petty vandalism of their personal property, keying the sides of their cars.

The trio of men continues to harass the Cunos, trying to coerce them into selling their home. When simple harassment doesn’t work, they resort to threats. One night, fed up with the men’s constant badgering, Louis resorts to a silly prank, causing the brakes in Filiol’s car to fail, which costs him his life. Enter Inspector Lavardin (Jean Poiret), a gauche detective who thinks nothing of using violent methods as a means to extract information. Investigating Filiol’s death, Lavardin discovers that there is a far more nefarious scheme behind the desire to purchase the Cunos’ house.

When Lavoisier’s lover-on-the-side, Anna, gets involved, it dredges up her friendship with Morasseau’s wife Delphine, the woman Louis had silently been infatuated with. Things become even more complicated when reports of Delphine’s death in a fiery car crash start turning up. In his investigation, Lavardin uncovers a financial scheme that went wrong involving the Cunos’ house. Delphine’s death in the car accident, Lavardin suspects, may not have been an accident after all. Meanwhile, Louis’ obsessive mother begins to mentally deteriorate when her son begins a romantic relationship with his co-worker. When more unsettling evidence is uncovered, Lavardin soon has his pick of the litter in the murder case’s suspects.

A more traditional murder mystery in style and structure, Chabrol still explores his usual theme of class struggles in Cop au Vin. He wastes no time in its execution, getting to work quickly in establishing the plot. At nearly two hours, the film is paced surprisingly well and the characters are engaging enough to hold fast the attention. Audran, in particular, tastefully chews up the scenery with some camp humor, ushering in some levity to the dour proceedings. As if to hold weight on the other extreme, Poiret turns in a malicious Lavardin – possibly the mystery genre’s most despicable protagonist since Reginald Hill’s Dalziel.

To give sincere movement to his film and generate true suspense, Chabrol glides his camera around the scenery like a roving reporter, capturing conversations behind the grates of a post office, or spying through the windows of a house in the near distance from behind a tree. The filmmaker achieves a style at once edgy and economic, framing the action from an observational distance that precipitates an atmosphere of tension and dread.

While Cop au Vin is a small marvel to watch, it is rather slight and ultimately inconsequential as a narrative, especially in its deconstruction of plot. The story requires a keen observation of the straying plot threads in order to follow each character’s storyline down to the film’s conclusion. Chabrol’s film, however, triumphs with a clever little reveal at the end, which falls in line with the traditions of the best classic murder mysteries. Overall, the film proves an agreeable entry into the mystery genre that straddles the line between intelligent cinema and popcorn entertainment.

Inspector Lavardin (1986)

A sequel to Cop au Vin, Inspector Lavardin‘s story takes place in, yet again, a small French town. A deeply religious writer, Raoul, has just been murdered; his nude body laid upon the rocks by the sea and the word “pig” is scrawled across his back. Inspector Lavardin is called in to investigate the case and discovers, to his surprise, that the dead writer’s wife, Hélène (Bernadette Lafont) is a former lover of his. Lavardin wastes no time getting settled in once he’s reacquainted himself with Hélène. He soon meets Hélène’s brother, the smarmy Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy), Hélène’s shy 13-year-old daughter Véronique (Hermine Clair), and a helpful police officer (Pierre-François Dumeniaud), who chauffeurs him around town.

Lavardin’s investigation proves that beneath the placid veneer of the town’s scenic and idyl life lurks the sordid mess of drug trafficking and prostitution. He also learns that those criminal activities hit much closer to home than he first imagined. Training his eye on Hélène’s family, Lavardin discovers the history of Hélène’s first marriage prior to Raoul and Véronique’s secret dalliances with mysterious older men in the dead of night. He also discovers that Raoul had a shamefully clandestine life that contradicted his so-called religious values. Is this what got him killed?

Inspector Lavardin is a far more focused effort than Cop au Vin. Unlike that film, Inspector Lavardin narrows the activities down to the central subject of the murder, in lieu of the kind of subplots found in Cop au Vin. While it isn’t as thematically or structurally layered as its antecedent film, this sequel manages to build a steady climb of suspense uninterrupted by the threads of other storylines. Lavardin is introduced early on in the film, unlike in Cop au Vin, where a long stretch of exposition precedes his entrance. The detective’s work is underway from the very start and he wastes no time in his deducing, the mystery unfolding at a swift pace.

This isn’t one of Chabrol’s grandest efforts, but it is a solid one that follows a more traditional trajectory of the mystery genre. While the mystery isn’t too complicated or especially difficult to figure out, the film boasts a comical assortment of characters that offer a convincing send-up of the upper crust that Chabrol so loves to lampoon. Referring to his favored theme of upper-class hypocrisies, Chabrol caricatures the wanton activities with an embellished sense of entitlement and facetiousness, scanning the environment with a cagey eye that absorbs the misgivings prudently if not earnestly.

Inspector Lavardin works better as a black comedy since most viewers will catch on to the pasquinade from the start; the mystery seems more an afterthought when it’s played out under Chabrol’s vitriolic attacks on provincial life. Over-the-top touches remind us of Chabrol’s particular hang-ups with the blue-blooded social systems of France; his victim dies while snorting like a pig, and a suspect makes an arts and crafts hobby out of creating eyeballs (a sly, metaphoric comment on the voyeuristic and busybody habits of silk-stockinged, provincial life).

A lightweight film, much like Cop au Vin, Inspector Lavardin is easily consumed as uncomplicated entertainment. It lacks the incisive comments made on class struggle in a more realized film like his breakthrough Le Boucher (1970), but still maintains a foothold in a genre that had begun to wane in the mid-’80s. The film’s particular strength is its beautiful photography, the simple and precise details framed handsomely like the lucid images of an Edward Hopper painting.    

Arrow Academy’s boxset for Lies and Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol is a revelation in its packaging. It boasts superior quality in its image restoration, rescuing once-muddy prints found on various inferior DVDs and returning them to a beautiful, clear sheen (Madame Bovary, Betty, and L’Enfer are from 4K restorations). The cleaned-up prints render the color-schemes fresh and vibrant, where reds and blues stand stark against the creams and golds of plush furnishings and the countryside pops with clear, verdant life. Madame Bovary, in particular, profits from this new transfer; the color palette is impressive in its rich variety of hues that bring to life the period detail, as well as the textures of the rural scenery. Visually, these five remasters by Arrow Films currently stand head and shoulders above the other editions of the films that are presently available. 

Much of Chabrol’s films are dialogue-dependent and the audio design on Arrow Film’s set renders the sound clear and free of distortion. Musical cues come through nicely and the scores reproduced here (suitably moody and off-kilter) are full and dynamic.

Supplements are lavish. Each film is provided with an informative audio commentary that deconstructs it with engaging acuity. It is an especially appreciated feature for a Chabrol film, of which there are many layers waiting to be mined in the pursuit of cinephile knowledge. In addition, there is a host of special features on each disc, including interviews with the actors, producers, and the director. Chabrol himself, in a few other separate commentary tracks, comments on some of these films, providing his personal thoughts on France’s class divides and his experiences working with his actors.

The most interesting feature here is Chabrol’s discussion on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s earlier version of L’enfer, an unfinished film from 1964 that was titled Inferno, starring Romy Schneider. Chabrol discusses the deviations his version made from Clouzot’s original vision, and the inspiration he initially took from Clouzot’s abandoned film. Rounding out the package is an 80-page booklet that features detailed essays on the films.

Presented here are five of Chabrol’s largely unheralded films, each of them having slid through the cracks between his other mammoth successes. But each is generous in their demonstration of the filmmaker’s skills. Even in his slighter efforts, Chabrol has a keen sense of emotional drama and these five curios are no exception. Betty and L’enfer, the strongest efforts in the package, hold up extremely well more than 25 years on from their initial release.

Chabrol offers viewers something beyond the common suspense-drama, a formula that made Hitchcock the archetype for the genre. Chabrol, in the assessment of Hitchcock’s work, presents cinema as an inescapable eye that does not scope its artificial world with an imposing pansophical gaze, but with a furtive view from the low reaches of life’s underbrush. His studies in human behavior, moreover, and the motives that drive us toward tragedy are often far more intelligently essayed in his murder mysteries than they are in the works of filmmakers who are especially practiced in the narratives of human drama (Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet). While murder and crime certainly run deep in Chabrol’s world of subterfuge, the dark desires of human nature that provoke them run immeasurably deeper.