Home Video Reviews
Like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol was born in Paris in 1930 and had a typical middle class upbringing. He had originally studied to be a pharmacist and planned to enter the family business after returning from military service. Instead he took a job as a publicist at the Paris branch of 20th-Century-Fox and began writing film articles for Arts and Cahiers du Cinema. After co-authoring a book with Eric Rohmer on Hitchcock in 1957, Chabrol began work on his first film, Le Beau Serge (1958), which focused on the social milieu of a provincial French village and was financed by inheritance money from his first wife. Generally acknowledged as the first film in the Nouvelle Vague movement, Le Beau Serge represented a new direction in commercial filmmaking and eventually led Chabrol to set up AJYM, a production company which helped nurture the work of fellow filmmakers such as Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Philippe de Broca.
Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) marked a turning point in Chabrol's career. This masterful synthesis of neorealism, psychological detail and the mystery thriller genre revealed his debt to artists like Roberto Rossellini and Alfred Hitchcock but was poorly received by the French film community. For the next eight years, Chabrol took on a variety of independent and commercial film projects; everything from Ophelia (1962), a contemporary variation on Hamlet, to La Route de Corinthe (1968), a spy-thriller parody. It wasn't until Les Biches in 1968 that he enjoyed a critical resurgence and began to specialize in stylish suspense thrillers which served as critiques of the bourgeoise (La Femme Infidele, aka The Unfaithful Wife) or explored personal obsessions (This Man Must Die (1969) and complex relationships (Le Boucher).
Over the years Chabrol has enjoyed the collaboration of a tight-knit creative collective including his second wife, Stephane Audran, who has starred in over seventeen of his films, cinematographer Jean Rabier whose colorful visual style often comments ironically on Chabrol's themes, screenwriter Paul Gegauff and music composer Pierre Jansen. Despite an uneven catalog of work, Chabrol's contributions to French cinema cannot be easily dismissed and he continues to produce critically acclaimed films such as L'Enfer (1994), La Ceremonie (1995) and Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000).
Below is a breakdown of each film in "The Claude Chabrol Collection." Although the visual quality of each print varies somewhat from disc to disc, the transfers, for the most part, are quite good and in the case of Le Boucher, Nada, and La Rupture, they're outstanding. Besides, after enduring inferior VHS copies (pan and scan, dubbed, third generation bootlegs) of some of these titles, it's a real treat to finally see titles like Les Biches on DVD in their original language and correct aspect ratios. As long as you don't expect the hard to top Criterion Collection treatment for each disc (we're talking about the extras as well), you'll be quite pleased.
Les Biches (1968)
Against the wintry backdrop of Paris and moving on to Saint Tropez, two women - Frederique (Stephane Audran), a predatory socialite and an enigmatic sidewalk artist named WHY? (Jacqueline Sassard) - begin a tense, erotically charged relationship that evolves into a deadly power struggle once a handsome architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enters the scene. A chic and often droll black comedy that explores the dynamics of a menage a trois, Les Biches is also a psychological thriller (in the second half) and firmly reestablished Chabrol's reputation internationally after a series of critically panned though commercially successful films (The Line of Demarcation (1966), The Champagne Murders, 1966). Stephane Audran, Chabrol's wife at the time, is fascinating to watch as she shifts gears emotionally from scene to scene; like Anna Karina's presence in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Ms. Audran proves to be the perfect collaborator for her husband's cinematic dissections of the French bourgeoisie. The print quality of Les Biches is quite nice, from the muted, watercolor look of the opening pickup to the crisp, cool tones of Frederique's San Tropez villa. And Pierre Jansen's jangly, discordant score adds a considerable layer of psychological and sexual tension. It's presented in the letterbox format.
DVD extras: a still gallery, a battered-looking trailer, three language options with subtitles and audio commentaries by film critics Wade Major and F.X. Feeney.
* The latter are generally informative on Chabrol's work and often quite entertaining. However, both commentators have a tendency to overstate Chabrol's influence from time to time; for instance, despite Major and Feeney's claims, Les Biches wasn't the first mainstream film to feature a lesbian relationship in fairly explicit terms for its time (Sassard's and Audran's shower sequence). American audiences had already experienced The Fox (with a passionate kissing sequence between Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood and a much discussed doorknob masturbation scene) and The Killing of Sister George (Coral Browne's bedside seduction of Susannah York) the year before.
The Unfaithful Wife (1969)
When a happily married family man learns his wife is having an affair, he is devastated. Outwardly calm, he pretends to accept the awful truth, even going so far as to arrange a secret meeting with his wife's lover so they can discuss the situation calmly and intelligently as two adults. But during a seemingly cordial meeting between the two men, the cuckolded husband is consumed by a sudden moment of pure rage that has drastic repercussions. If the plot seems familiar, that's because it was recently remade as Unfaithful (2002) starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane (she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar®), but the Chabrol version (original title, La Femme Infidele) is a much more disturbing portrayal of man's bestial nature, despite his civilized facade. Like Les Biches, The Unfaithful Wife was universally praised by most critics upon its release; Paul Taylor, critic for Time Out called it "a brilliantly ambivalent scrutiny of bourgeois marriage and murder that juggles compassion and cynicism in a way that makes Hitchcock look obvious." And Dave Kehr in The Chicago Reader wrote that The Unfaithful Wife "so sharp and funny that the film often feels like satire, yet its fundamental seriousness emerges in a magnificent last act, and an unforgettable last shot."
DVD extras: filmographies, a trailer, and one language option, French with English subtitles
* The print quality of this disc is merely fair (the image is soft with faded colors and occasional scratches). But Chabrol's command of the narrative and the central performances by Stephane Audran, Michel Bouquet and Maurice Ronet are so riveting that you'll hardly notice these minor flaws once the movie begins.
This Man Must Die (1969) A fascinating study of revenge and its consequences, This Man Must Die has often been compared to Hitchcock's best work but, unlike the latter director, Chabrol chooses to concentrate on the main protagonist's constantly evolving psychological state instead of constructing a breathlessly paced suspense thriller. It opens with a beautifully edited credit sequence that culminates in tragedy - a young boy returning from the beach is killed by a speeding driver while crossing the quiet square of a coastal village. The driver (Jean Yanne) and his distraught female companion (Caroline Cellier) flee the scene of the crime and the father of the boy (Michel Duchaussoy) vows to hunt them down like animals. Although it takes time and patience, the revenge-obsessed father eventually learns the identity of the girl in the car. Creating a false identify for himself, he meets her, initiating a romance which is merely a cover for his true motives - to lay a trap for the hit-and-run driver, the girl's much-feared brother-in-law. This Man Must Die is full of astonishing moments which toy with the viewer's perception of Duchaussoy's character which goes from sympathy to disgust. The scene in the upscale restaurant where Cellier realizes the true nature of Duchaussoy's interest in her is devastating; she breaks down in tears while he calmly lays out his motives; all of this unfolding while their waiter meticulously debones and carves up a succulent oven-baked chicken for their plates. Another unforgettable sequence occurs when Yanne's hateful character almost falls to his death from a seaside cliff. As he clings to a rock ledge, the father rushes to smash Yanne's fingers with a large stone, an act which is interrupted - and unseen - by others hurrying to pull the man to safety. The DVD is presented in the letterboxed format.
DVD extras include biographies, a trailer, three language options with English subtitles, and a still gallery.
* The overall visual quality of the DVD is good though the image looks a little soft from time to time.
Le Boucher (1969)
For many Le Boucher is considered Chabrol's mid-career masterpiece and it's unlike any other suspense thriller you're likely to see. In a provincial French village, a celibate schoolteacher (Stephane Audran) finds herself attracted to the local butcher (Jean Yanne), an affable but somewhat melancholy man who's a veteran of the Indochina conflict. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose in the province, killing and mutilating young women. Subtle and non-exploitative in its treatment of this subplot, Le Boucher is more disturbing for what it doesn't show and for the occasional macabre image such as the scene where blood from a fresh corpse drips down onto a little girl's sandwich from a rock ledge above. At the core of the film, though, is a tender romance set against a beautiful pastoral setting; it gives this thriller a poetic, lyrical quality that is in direct contrast to the horrific murders taking place just off-screen. The image quality on Pathfinder's DVD is excellent and the credit sequences, incorporating prehistoric cave paintings from the region, are particularly striking.
DVD extras: three language options with subtitles, biographies, a trailer, a still gallery and audio commentaries by screenwriters Howard Rodman (chair of the screenwriting division at USC and chairman of the screenwriting lab at Sundance) and Terry Curtis Fox (screenwriter & USC film department faculty member).
* The commentaries, though loose and informal, are full of fascinating insights about Chabrol's working methods, thematic concerns and specific obsessions such as how food plays a crucial part in his selection of each film location as well as the narrative; in fact, Le Boucher opens with a wedding cake being carried down the street by several chefs on their way to a large reception with regional specialties and local wine being served.
La Rupture (1970)
It all begins innocently enough; we see a typical morning in the Regnier household. A small child is seated at the dining room table. His mother, Helene (Stephane Audran), is preparing breakfast. His father, Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot) emerges from the bathroom and enters the pantry. Suddenly, the mood changes. Charles looks slightly deranged. His eyes have trouble focusing. He begins making strange guttural sounds. Without provocation he starts throttling his wife in the doorway. Helene breaks away from him but Charles grabs their child and throws him into a marble countertop. The child is badly injured and Helene attacks Charles with an iron skillet, beating him senseless. Ok, so it's not a typical morning in the Regnier household and what follows is an increasingly dark and twisted tale about a world gone mad...except for Helene who remains a virtual innocent despite the trials and tribulations she is forced to endure. In her quest for a divorce, Helene's evil in-laws not only try to prevent her from taking custody of her child but hire a man (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to frame her as a child molester! Like a Victorian melodrama on acid, La Rupture is indeed steeped in the drug culture of the late sixties and in one remarkable incident Helene is slipped some "spiked" orange juice and left to wander through the park where she encounters a balloon vendor she mistakes for God. One of Chabrol's most audacious films, TimeOut accurately described it as "a crazy construction that is magical and magnificent, although you may have to look twice to make sure it isn't just crazy." The film is also presented in the letterbox format in two language options with subtitle options.
DVD extras include biographies, a trailer, a still gallery, and audio commentaries by screenwriters Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Fox and film critic F. X. Feeney.
Ten Days' Wonder (1972)
A sculptor (Anthony Perkins) given to unexplained blackouts wakes up in a strange boarding house with blood on his hands, convinced he's murdered someone. A trusted friend (Michel Piccoli) shows up to take him home to his Alsatian chateau, which he shares with his tycoon father (Orson Welles) and the father's young wife (Marlene Jobert). And then the plot thickens as they say. For many, Ten Days' Wonder marks the dividing line between hardcore Chabrol fans and occasional admirers of his work. Based on an Ellery Queen mystery thriller, Chabrol's narrative downplays the standard conventions of the genre to explore the sort of aberrant personality that would try to recreate the world in his own image while breaking every one of the Ten Commandments in the process. When Ten Days' Wonder was first released, some critics wrote it off as a pretentious mess. William Wolf of Cue Magazine called it a "murky, ponderous exercise," and the New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt stated it was "preposterous without ever becoming mysterious." However, some defended it like New York magazine critic Judith Crist who wrote "Chabrol has created a Gothic tale rife with Freudian overtones and religious undertones and done so in the full glitter of sunlight in a lush countryside and a luxurious villa...the director has turned the prosaic into intrigue and provided fascination." And others found it to be one of Chabrol's most intellectually challenging films. Even today it still inspires debate. It's certainly the most offbeat entry in this collection and is worth a look just to see Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins sharing the same screen (they previously enjoyed a creative collaboration on Welles' version of the Franz Kafka novel, The Trial, 1963). The print quality is not up to the standards of Les Biches or Le Boucher - the colors are dull and there are occasional signs of dirt - and the audio suffers from occasional pops and hisses. Still, it's a huge improvement over previous VHS versions.
DVD extras include filmographies, a trailer, a still gallery and audio commentaries by film critics F. X. Feeney, Andy Klein and Wade Major.
* You should keep in mind while watching this that Ten Days' Wonder was Chabrol's first English language film. As a result, the dialogue was looped for most scenes which can often create an odd, unnatural quality in the speaking voices. Orson Welles' makeup is also extremely peculiar; for some reason he appears to have a gray nose throughout the film, something Vincent Canby of The New York Times mentioned when he first reviewed the film. But stick with it; there are things to savor here like the opening hallucination sequence which prefigures the work of David Lynch.
Nada (1974) A complete departure from Chabrol's usual examinations of bourgeois behavior and lifestyles, Nada is instead a unique time capsule from the early seventies, reflecting the political cynicism of its era. A small terrorist cell identified as the "Nada" gang kidnap the American ambassador to Paris and hold him hostage in an isolated farm house while they try to negotiate their demands with the authorities. Surprisingly, the film succeeds in building sympathy for these scruffy, volatile outsiders while showing the forces of law and order to be completely devoid of humanity. Film critic Tom Milne said it best when he wrote "it is the members of Nada, groping desperately to build little burrows of viable living in a world of expediency and corruption, who become the heroes in spite of everything. Powerful, pure film noir in mood, it's one of Chabrol's best films." Much more overtly violent than his other thrillers, Nada also has a more international feel than most of his other work due to a diverse cast that includes Italian stars Fabio Testi and Mariangela Melato as the head terrorists. The Pathfinder DVD sports one of the best transfers in the Chabrol collection with sharp colors and superior audio.
DVD Extras include cast biographies, a trailer, a still gallery and the option of three languages with on/off subtitles.
Innocents With Dirty Hands (1975)
It's got one of the great opening scenes in the cinema. The camera follows a red kite as it dips and spins before landing on the nude backside of a sunbathing Romy Schneider - and she's never looked more beautiful. The kite owner (Paolo Giusti), a new neighbor of Schneider's, approaches her prone form as she nonchalantly says, "I suppose you want your kite." When he answers in the affirmative, she says, "Come and get it," then turns over provocatively and says, "Is there anything else you want?" In record time, they're an item. But there's a problem - she's married to a wealthy, older man (Rod Steiger) - and he's impotent. What to do? A murder plot is quickly hatched and soon there's a victim - but it's not who you think. In fact, Innocents With Dirty Hands is such a tricky little thriller full of double twists and unexpected ironies that it isn't until the final fadeout that you're certain a crime was even committed. This film was one of Chabrol's attempts to make a commercial thriller for the English language market but it's obvious he made some concessions along the way such as adding a pair of gluttonous policemen who serve as comic relief while explaining what the viewer cannot know; periodically, they pause over wine and heavy meals to analyze the suspects, motives, possible crime scenarios and evidence. Jean Rochefort as a hyperactive, grandstanding lawyer also seems out of place here. But Romy Schneider and Rod Steiger are perfect as the miserable couple and the whole film turns on their complex relationship which goes from mutual hatred and distrust to something altogether unexpected.
DVD extras: cast biographies, a trailer, a still gallery, and three language options with subtitles.
* Regarding the language options, it's purely a matter of preference which is the best way to go here. You can either choose the English version which uses Schneider's and Steiger's real voices but substitutes the other cast members' voices with crude replacements or you can choose the Gallic version in which Steiger is dubbed by a French actor which simply doesn't work! But the English language version is laughable at times as well. When one of the police inspectors first approaches Steiger's villa, he adjusts his trousers and says to his partner, "Ah, must be the salt air. My underwear's itching!" Maybe it sounded better in French but in English it reduces everything to the level of a bad French farce.
For more information about The Claude Chabrol Collection, visit Pathfinder Pictures. To order The Claude Chabrol Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeff Stafford