Claude Chabrol: Madame Bovery (1991) | poster excerpt
Claude Chabrol: Madame Bovery (1991) | poster excerpt

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)

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.