The Third Lover, Claude Chabrol

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The troubled character’s in Claude Chabrol’s The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored.

The Third Lover
Claude Chabrol
Kino Lorber
25 February 2020
Line of Demarcation
Claude Chabrol
Kino Lorber
25 February 2020
The Champagne Murders
Claude Chabrol
Kino Lorber
9 July 2019

Quietly and meticulously for just over 50 years, Claude Chabrol turned out a consistent body of work, cool in affect, smooth in style, anatomizing with scientific precision the disastrous desires and discontents of the human animal. A common theme is how the hunger for sex, love, money, and power, among the rich and those who wish to be, will lead to crime. We may explore three samples from the 1960s, thanks to these Blu-rays from Kino Lorber.

The Third Lover (L’oeil du malin) (1962)

If I say The Third Lover begins in Highsmith and ends in Vertigo, it sounds like a clever summary of influences: Patricia Highsmith, author of the source novel for René Clément’s similarly seething and amoral study in envy, Purple Noon (Plein soleil, 1960), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which half the plot involves our protagonist following a beautiful woman through the streets of a city. However, although these connections can be made, that’s a glib and misleading way of describing Chabrol’s film and I’d be ashamed of myself.

The events in The Third Lover unroll before the viewer as they unroll retrospectively in the mind of our protagonist, Albin Mercier (Jacques Charrier, aka Mr. Brigitte Bardot), whose garrulous voice-over occupies most of the movie in a mix of seeming candor and reserve. At one point his narration says something like “It was easy to sound sincere, I didn’t even have to tell many lies”, and we should pay attention to that. Even when characters are speaking to each other, his narration often speaks over them, as his own interpretation is more important to him than any objective analysis. By the way, he introduces himself as double-named, pen name Albin and true name André. He also gives us many reasons to believe he’s a habitual liar.

He’s a restless and lost young man (age 30, like the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby), and he can be seen as an extension of the men in Chabrol’s debut, Le Beau Serge (1958). Mercier tells us he’s an unknown writer, getting paid poorly by a small Parisian newspaper to churn out some nonsense in a small German town where, as he learns, lives the leading German novelist of his generation, Andréas Hartmann (Walter Reyer).

An early scene seems to begin as Mercier’s subjective viewpoint: the camera’s eye wanders in all directions over the inventory of his rented house while two overlapping German voices, one male and one female, itemize every object in the place, ending with “ein Spiegelschrank” or mirrored wardrobe. Then Mercier walks into his own subjective shot, doubled in the mirror. It won’t be our last reflection of him or his last reflection on himself. For example, we’ll see his attentive face in a rear-view mirror as he follows a quarry. Even more than with most directors, Chabrol’s characters are obsessively doubled and mirrored.

Describing himself from the get-go as a “minable” (loser) and “pauvre type” (roughly a poor bastard), the self-pitying Mercier watches in envy through the iron bars and thick stone wall of Hartmann, who has the house, the fame, the talent, and the wife that Mercier would like. He inveigles his way into a friendship with them, and it’s easy because he’s young, handsome and charming. Every time he deprecates himself, they have to tell him of his virtues. In fact, Hartmann claims to have read one of his books, which implies that Mercier has had a little more success than he presents himself for our judgment. He also presents himself as a person who could do things in a straightforward way but resorts to ruses, even though it means injuring himself.

Mercier lied about his language skills to get this gig writing about Germany, “past enemy and future ally”. Since he speaks no German, he feels isolated and hostile surrounded by locals who speak no French, but apparently he likes to feel isolated and hostile. He feels “trapped in a desert”, an image of Biblical resonance, and two kitschy religious pictures hang on his rented walls. On top of his self-chosen isolation is the fraught nature of French relations with Germany, a minor thematic undercurrent.

Hartmann speaks only broken French and must rely for translation on his stunning French wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), named for the archetypal beauty that launches wars. When Mercier embarrasses himself because he doesn’t admit he can’t swim (and he never reveals it to us in voice-over either), Hartmann perceives a character flaw in that refusal to mention it and gives a lecture about how the source of war is that people don’t understand themselves and aren’t happy with themselves. He was the same way for years, he says, and now he’s happy. Yet, as he will observe at a crucial point, “happiness is fragile”.

Mercier is irritated by Hartmann’s philosophies, which he sees as the complacence of a man with the upper hand, and he responds with a “crime”, actually a petty stratagem of sabotage that can’t be called an act of resistance, yet which recalls the French Resistance to their German overlords while, in fact, being an empty gesture. It’s one more step down Mercier’s road.

This is mostly set-up and premise, and I don’t wish to discuss anything of substance that happens in this perfectly honed 80-minute movie, written by Chabrol and Martial Matthieu and scored with eruptions of nervous modernism by Pierre Jansen complete with discordant piano tones and pizzicato plucks and jangles on violins. The score is both seductive and nerve-wracking, continually signaling that this comfortable world smiles and smiles and has the serpent under it.

Jean Rabier’s black and white photography falls into two equally beautiful modes: the immensely controlled, sharp, sleek interactions of Mercier and the Hartmanns, as defined by a gratuitously seductive whiplash around a table, and the handheld, more roughly textured documentary bits in which Mercier and Hélène wander through Munich and the Oktoberfest, surrounded by hundreds of authentic non-extras who sometimes glance at the camera in this most voyeuristic section.

Those scenes exist to watch Audran, who would marry Chabrol two years later. A large chunk of Chabrol’s output can be defined as a cool monument to his wife observed as a masked goddess in multiple poses and enigmas. Here, Hélène masquerades as herself. In a rather amazing juxtaposition, Mercier takes photos of Hélène and unthinkingly stands them before a smiling photo of his late mother. He’d earlier named a trifecta of women he’d loved: his mother (for whom he was never quite good enough), the young woman to whom he lost his virginity, and Hélène (for whom he doesn’t feel up to snuff as a “pauvre type“).

At the beginning, he stated that he’s looked hard at himself and realized he’d never amount to anything, that his creativity wouldn’t go anywhere, that he has no illusions. The final narration finds Mercier apparently trapped in a limbo or, as he mentions at one point, “l’enfer” (Hell, and the title of one of Chabrol’s later films) in which he’s forever trying to insert himself into the narrative of the Hartmanns’ lives, even at the cost of his reputation. He still wants his input to be recognized, and he’ll go over it obsessively for this dark trophy.

The film’s English title refers to the notion that our narrator thinks of himself as Hélène’s third lover. The better French title loosely means “the evil eye” in that “malin” refers to a person who is malicious or wicked, and it also has a connotation of great cunning and cleverness, like a devil. Even as a devil, Mercier feels frustrated in his attempts to claim his rightful guilt, which is ironic in this film’s brush with Catholicism. “Mercier” and “Hartmann”, both very common names in their cultures, are suggestive of mercy, gratitude and strength.

Line of Demarcation (La Ligne de démarcation) (1966)

If The Third Lover uses the memory and legacy of WWII as an undercurrent in the theme of how unhappiness and lack of self-knowledge lead to war, Line of Demarcation plunges into that context, as taken from the real-life memoirs of a member of the French Resistance, Gilbert Renault. It’s a war film or rather a Resistance film, and Chabrol still concentrates on what makes people kill each other and how power is created by the desire for itself as well as money, pride, survival, honor, and other fatal elements.

The title refers to the border between Nazi-occupied northern France and the southern so-called free zone or Vichy France, after the country was divided by an armistice agreement that kept German soldiers out of the south. (As French viewers of 1966 knew, this division wouldn’t hold beyond 1942.) In this film’s village, the border is a river with a bridge guarded by both sides as a kind of no-man’s land. Of course, the title’s symbolic aspect refers to the moral lines the characters must cross, and to who gets defined as “us” and “them”.

The episodic plot covers a variety of melodramas over the course of a few days, illustrating several responses to occupation and resistance, from collaboration to semi-collaboration (e.g., the black market as both deal-making and subversion) to resistance to opportunism. The story provides hair-breadth escapes, reversals, and betrayals enacted by a company of familiar types as seen in other movies, which doesn’t make them less effective and compelling while it’s going on. It makes the film less stingingly analytical than we’re used to from Chabrol’s bourgeois thrillers.

For example, the local aristocratic Count (Maurice Ronet), limping with a war wound, has become cynical as the Germans occupy his castle. His crippling is more than physical, his humiliation more than material. He’s sure the Germans will win the war and that only further suffering can come of antagonizing them. Like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz), he doesn’t want to stick his neck out for nobody — and like Rick, he’ll be unable to remain aloof. In other words, he’s in need of redemption, and his character arc can be forecast almost from his first scenes.

He and his English-born wife, the Countess (Jean Seberg), have relocated to their hunting lodge, where she listens clandestinely to the BBC and does all she can to help the Resistance. I think Chabrol is channeling Seberg less as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A bout de souffle, 1959) and more as Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957). She’s the glamorous and courageous heroine every French village would love to have.

The gallery of French figures includes the noble brave surgeon (Daniel Gélin) and his elegant wife (Audran), a Free French radioman (Jacques Perrin) who becomes the story’s main McGuffin, the schoolteacher (Jean Yanne) who risks life and family, the crabby old innkeeper (Noël Roquevert), the Count’s ruthlessly efficient groundsman (Mario David), the barber (Serge Bento) who keeps ears open and mouth shut, the Catholic priest (Pierre Gualdi), the talkative old farmer who distracts the Germans with liquor while mocking them, and the woodworker who magics a special coffin. All are among the film’s warmly acknowledged heroes, and it goes without saying that the actual Resistance members and Allied soldiers are as heroic as one could wish.

Even the old-style aristocratic and depressed German commander (Reinhard Kolldehoff) tries to maintain a sense of honor that could be worked with, especially in his respect for his fellow gentry, the Count and Countess. As Samm Deighan mentions in her commentary, his characterization harks back to the similar German officer in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (1949). The real antagonist is the naturally snakelike SS Gestapo chief (Jean-Louis Maury). Frequent Chabrol writer Paul Gégauff plays another Gestapo man.

Filmmaker Claude Berri appears as the head of a family of Jewish refugees, and Roger Dumas plays the greedy slimeball who betrays them and faces rough justice in one of the most devastating sequences. This segment perhaps foreshadows certain Chabrol films like This Man Must Die (Que la bête meure, 1969), save that it’s much more straightforward in reflecting the blunt moral equations of the lower classes rather than the over-thinking educated twits. Berri was on the verge of making The Two of Us (Le vieil homme et l’enfant, 1967), the story of a Jewish boy during the Occupation.

If you’re a fan of French Resistance movies, this film will feel like a dry run for Melville’s definitive statement, Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Deighan argues that Chabrol was making one of the earliest films to suggest that not all French were heroes and saints of the Resistance. Maybe so, though I find that Chabrol’s film tends to uphold treasured mythologies about France populated by red-blooded patriots with a few exceptions, and the moral world of this movie is one in which the exceptions get what’s coming to them.

Despite the threat of betrayal suffusing the air, most of the French characters prove their mettle. Certainly the institutions of the gentry and the church show their solid quality, as do most of the salt-of-the-earth types, and these attitudes aren’t usually supported in Chabrol’s thrillers, which express much darker views. Perhaps the context of Nazi occupation offered a dark enough world to work with all by itself, so it wasn’t necessary to make it darker.

As far as the presence of exactly two negative peasants — one a nervous translator-collaborator (René Havard) who understandably fears for his life, and the one outright bastard — they belong to the tradition of those foils or rotten apples in resistance films, such as Lewis Milestone’s Norway-set Edge of Darkness (1943), which throws in a quisling to serve as contrast to the majority of the upstanding townsfolk. After its heart-in-mouth darkness, Chabrol’s film is content to end on gestures of affirmative defiance, including a group sing-along of “La Marseillaise“. The French audience must have felt lumps in the throat, for this film is still very effective as stirring propaganda.

Chabrol would revisit this context with increasing complexity in The Blood of Others (1984) and Story of Women (Une affaire des femmes, 1988) until he arrived at his eye-opening and disturbing 1993 synthesis of French-collaboration propaganda films, The Eye of Vichy. Its French title, L’Œil de Vichy, recalls L’Œil du malin, not without reason.

At one point, when the priest and teacher realize they can trust each other’s loyalty, the priest makes a passing comment about the “cry of the raven” (“cri de corbeau“). This is a vernacular remark, not an explicit reference to Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 study of provincial malice that created a firestorm of controversy as supposedly anti-French and undermining morale. The film hadn’t come out yet as far as these characters are concerned. And yet, I believe it really is a nod to that film, of which Chabrol would have been highly aware. That film provides another vision that contrasts with Chabrol’s broadly affirmative one.

I’ll even suggest that Chabrol’s priest has a spiritual connection, as it were, with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in another Melville masterpiece set during the Occupation, Leon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, prêtre, 1961). If you think I’m reaching, consider that both films are produced by Georges de Beauregard. Then compare Gualdi’s portrayal of a priest of pragmatic self-effacing bravery in Line of Demarcation with the same actor’s portrayal of another cleric one year later, a more worldly high-society bishop glimpsed briefly in Chabrol’s The Champagne Murders. Same director, same actor, same church, different tone entirely.

Jean Rabier again shoots in clear black and white, and the camera style is frequently sinuous and insistent, beginning with the elaborate opening shot from the river to a closeup of two hiding men, then a pull-back to wide shot as they emerge from behind a fallen tree that might as well be symbolizing the conquered France. Once again, Pierre Jansen provides the score.

The Champagne Murders (Le Scandale) (1967)

Before embarking on the sober war melodrama of Line of Demarcation, Chabrol made three spy larks inspired by or spoofing James Bond, and which cry out for Blu-ray in Region 1. The Road to Corinth (Le Route de Corinthe, 1967), reuniting Seberg and Ronet of Line of Demarcation in a much lighter adventure, acts as a tail end of that spy cycle. The other piece of delirium Chabrol fashioned at this time was his only American co-production, The Champagne Murders, long out of circulation.

Now that Kino Lorber has dynamited it out of Universal’s vaults, we’re surprised to confirm how much of a proto-giallo it is, complete with a quick inexplicable shot of a black-gloved hand. Just like those Italian thrillers, it swivels and insinuates itself through a complicated “what the heck” plot, decorated by fabulous Op Art set design, costumes and color schemes, dropping bodies here and there while implying that the characters or the viewers are drunk or crazy or both. Essentially, the film begins in surrealism and lifts off from there.

We may have to give away one or two delicious revelations in order to clarify the relationships, but don’t worry, this is one of those intoxicating concoctions that never make much sense even after the plot is explained.

The film opens in Paris by night, with Christopher (Anthony Perkins) driving a sporty convertible as Paul (Maurice Ronet) distracts him. They’re drinking and listening to opera and, if that’s not dangerous enough, wearing incredibly loud jackets. They stop for Christopher to pick up a mini-skirted streetwalker who’s just been arguing with her pimp or some john, and they drive to a park in order, as it appears, to take turns with her.

We’ll later learn that they do a lot of that, and it seems even to extend to sharing Christopher’s wife Christine (Yvonne Furneaux), though she gets surprisingly meager results with either of them. In fact, it was Paul who hooked them up, apparently so that he’d always have Christopher at hand ever since — pay attention, now — ever since Paul picked up a “good-looking mess” of a gigolo named Jackie.

Paul, the dissolute scion of the Wagner Champagne empire, introduced Jackie to Christine, a brilliant business manager who’s running his company, and Jackie changed his name to Christopher, perhaps as a sign of his being bought and paid for by Christine. We figure all this out much later, shortly after an elderly painted matron spots “Jackie” and recalls those nights at Corfu and Genoa as Christopher seethes and says she’s mistaken.

And now, buddies Paul and Christopher hatch schemes to get away from Christine so they can hang out in Hamburg together and share girls. Christopher says at least he “fulfilled a function” when anyone could rent him and do what they wanted with him; it’s now that he feels lost and uncertain. Perhaps the famous novelist Hartmann should give them a lecture about unhappiness springing from lack of self-knowledge.

On this particular night that opens the movie, after the prostitute has been picked up and driven to the park, the frolics go terribly wrong when robbers set upon them and, as we learn later, strangle the prostitute after beating Christopher up and smashing Paul’s head through the windshield.

After a freeze-frame of the dead-seeming Paul shattering the glass, the hallucinatory, multi-colored credits pop up during a montage of Paul getting electroshock, and months later he’s released amid talk of blackouts and weird fantasies or hallucinations or fugue states or whatever the heck they are. (The commentary explains that this scene isn’t in the French version. The trailer contains a shot of the woman being dragged off that’s not in the film, although perhaps that’s in the French version.)

None of this prevents Paul from picking up where he left off, getting regularly plastered and hanging out with charming young women and Christopher, who’s either unfazed by the incident or gets over things very quickly. Paul’s irresponsible, unpredictable, unprofessional behavior makes him a fly in the ointment as Christine tries to negotiate the sale of the company to American businessmen played by Henry Jones and George Skaff.

By the way, it seems a dead certainty that Jones, a hangdog character actor with a very recognizable voice between a drone and a whine, was cast for his association as the coroner in Vertigo. While the film is in English, he and Perkins are among the few actors who provide their own voices, as most of the European stars are dubbed by others.

That brings us to fourth-billed Audran. It’s difficult to discuss her role, so we’ll just say she finally shows up in all her well-established glory as a mysterious woman halfway through the movie in the Hamburg sequence, where the first of the plot’s official champagne murders occurs. From that point, while Paul goes through well-established melodrama motions of wondering whether he could be guilty of murder during blackouts (a motif virtually invented by Cornell Woolrich), Christine is concerned only with manipulating him. Christine is the most soulless character; when it’s clear that murder and blackmail may be happening, she only calculates how to use it.

Meanwhile, Christopher is concerned with displaying enigmatic Tony Perkins behavior, most hauntingly when he gazes into the camera and says “Lydia” to invoke his distant dreams of a yacht. He settles for playing with toy boats, while Paul plays with toy cars. Christopher won’t be the only character who looks into the camera, especially when the screen becomes a mirror in this mirror-crammed movie. But then, all movies have mirrors, as all movies are made with mirrors.

This description implies lots of plot, and there is, scripted by Claude Brulé (who worked several times with Roger Vadim) and Derek Prouse from an idea by William Benjamin, but most of the film is atmosphere amid the Paul-Christopher-Christine triangle. Rabier’s Technicolor and Techniscope photography lavishes the conspicuous consumption amidst its swivels and swerves, and Jansen’s music goes further into modern abstraction. Art director Rino Mondellini and costumer Maurice Albray deserve shout-outs, even when imagining things nobody should ever see or wear.

The film as disorienting spectacle of design, smooth camera moves and queasy music, reaches its height at a party given by English artist Evelyn Wharton (Suzanne Lloyd), who angers Paul when she taunts him as a pale imitation of a man, an accusation that may signify at least a couple of things. This sequence is presented in such a matter-of-factly heightened manner that we sit through it without quite knowing if Paul could be dreaming it, as he’ll wonder too. Is it a party or a performance piece?

Plenty of ’60s movies have overdone parties; it was almost required, and someone should assemble a marathon of such scenes. The paradox is that this example boasts a strange, hollow restraint that could be called Brechtian. It’s bizarre and disorienting but by subtle effects instead of noise and lights, and it possibly works to take us out of the story and make us think about the film as an artificial construction.

I’m not reaching, for the theatrical-existential finalé finally rubs the movie’s artifice in our faces in a manner that brazenly echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944). By no accident, Chabrol’s ending occurs between those of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Robert Aldrich’s ode to Hollywood artifice, The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

Whatever else is going on, The Champagne Murders feels like as much a recruitment film for the world of the idle brainless rich as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) felt like a recruitment for the mafia. You’ll want to sign up, even though flibbertigibbet Christopher or Jackie just about realizes he’ll never be happy wherever he is. At least he seems to understand, unlike Paul, that they’re forever trying to escape something by running around drinking and picking up women. One of the women is played by Christa Lang, who in this year married filmmaker Samuel Fuller, and there’s a note to make any cultist pay attention.

Chabrol reunited with Perkins for another English-language mystery, Ten Days Wonder (1971) with Orson Welles. That should be on Blu-ray too, but then, so should most of Chabrol’s output, since for some reason it’s not yet. Here’s hoping more are on the way.

The Third Lover and Line of Demarcation boast 4K restorations licensed from StudioCanal in France, while Universal’s print of The Champagne Murders might not be, but looks good anyway. Have we mentioned that we’ve yearned forever to see this elusive movie? And who wouldn’t want to see something called The Champagne Murders?

All the films have commentary tracks. Kat Ellinger places The Third Lover within a context of Chabrol’s other films and draws many comparisons. Samm Deighan discusses the importance of Line of Demarcation within that output and specifically as a Resistance film. Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger discuss Freudian readings of The Champagne Murders and reveal that the version shot in French is slower and ten minutes longer. That would have made a great bonus; Thompson notes that Furneaux and Perkins did both their English and French dialogue.