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Violette

Violette(1978)

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Immediately following her star-making turn in the 1977 international favorite The Lacemaker, rising young actress Isabelle Huppert reaffirmed her status as one of France's most valuable cinematic assets the following year with her next lead role as the titular Violette Nozière (known as Violette in the United States). This based-on-fact period crime thriller marked something of a return to form for director Claude Chabrol, whose career had flailed throughout the 1970s after the previous decade's impeccable run of groundbreaking thrillers. The teaming paid off more than anyone could have anticipated, with Huppert snagging a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, co-star Stéphane Audran (the ex-Mrs. Chabrol) earning a César Award, and Chabrol reuniting with Huppert on numerous occasions for such high-profile titles as Madame Bovary, Story of Women, Merci pour le chocolat, and La cérémonie. Inexplicably, perhaps due to its indifferent domestic release from New Yorker, Violette vanished from view after its initial theatrical run, never earning a release on American home video until its much-belated DVD issue from Koch Lorber. Fortunately, the film still holds up rather well and holds its status as a key entry in the careers of everyone involved; unfortunately, the presentation of the disc itself is not quite so stellar.

The spare, non-linear narrative charts the downward spiral of Violette, a 1930s Parisian teenager who draws inspiration from Hollywood glamour queens and finds little friendship or warmth in those around her, including her clueless parents, Germaine (a frumpy Audran) and Baptiste (busy character actor Jean Carmet). Violette spends her afternoon lolling around cafés, mocking the pretentious intelligentsia and, putting her best fur-lined seductress vamp routine, attempting to seduce the callow young men around her. When she strikes up a relationship with a sleazy pimp, Violette realizes she can turn her easy virtue into easy profit, but her parents prove to be an obstacle to realizing her tawdry dreams.

A sharp contrast to Huppert's previous fresh-faced persona of open vulnerability, Violette is a fascinating departure from the usual Chabrol unfaithful heroine; here instead of the stifled suburban wife or schoolmarm, we have a teen whose budding sexuality manifests itself in a destructive fashion, though the woman herself is not specifically blamed. The first of Chabrol's thrillers to depart from a modern setting (not counting the weird, semi-comical Bluebeard), this film found the director scrambling to regain his foothold after the chilly reception to his excellent, woefully underrated 1977 horror-fantasy, Alice, and establishing a formula (biopic conventions plus period setting plus Huppert exploring the virgin/whore dynamic) he would later explore to greater heights with Story of Women, for which this film often resembles a rough draft. The period setting is lovingly rendered, with the burnished wood of the cafés, stifling claustrophobia of the urban dwellings, and dense textures of the post-flapper clothing all establishing a rich yet palpably decadent atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the director's accomplishment is difficult to appreciate in its DVD incarnation, which shockingly manages to surpass the disastrous late-'90s Fox Lorber disc of his L'Enfer as the worst-looking Chabrol release to date. The transfer is overly grainy, blown-out, riddling with print damage, and smothered with digital distortion and shimmering color bleeding; furthermore, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio is awkwardly hacked to full frame after the letterboxed opening titles. At least the English subtitles are removable and easy to read, which is about the best that can be said. This release might have been passable at the dawn of the DVD era, but this late in the game, it's completely inexplicable; if this is the best video master of the film that currently exists, it's a sad state of affairs for French cinema indeed. Given that this is the only English-friendly commercial release of the film to date, Chabrol fans will no doubt want to snap this up just to watch the film (which at least looks maybe a notch better than the bootlegs floating around for years), but disappointment will be unavoidable. No extras are included apart from promos for other Koch Lorber releases, but perhaps that's all for the best.

For more information about Violette, visit Koch Lorber Films. To order Violette, go to T CM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson