Bard and Feathered

A European mystery-thriller in the post-Psycho world, 1962’s disturbing yet engrossing OPHELIA, appropriately helmed by the man dubbed the French Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, arrives on home video via a splendid Blu-Ray transfer, from the film d’amour crew at Olive Films (in conjunction with Gaumont).

The story, extremely creepy and so very New Wave, begins at a funeral.  All are suitably somber, particularly the twentysomething son of the deceased.  The next scene shows the mourners exiting, ready to party, save the aforementioned young man – now more distraught than ever.

Ivan, the monsieur in question, is heir to the considerable fortune of the Lesurf manufacturing family, who reside in a small village outside of Paris.  His father, the deceased, was strict, cruel and a brutal employer.  Ivan is no different, hated and ridiculed by the villagers, most of who work for the Lesurf family and are in the process of organizing a mass strike.

But pampered Ivan will have none of it; he will deal with his inferiors later (yeah, he’s also a bit of a Nazi); right now, his attention rests upon two other matters.  The first is his beautiful but icy mother Claudia (magnificently played by Alida Valli, who, from what I heard, didn’t have to stretch to step into her character’s sub-zero shoes).  She’s about to marry her longtime lover, Adrien (Claude Cerval) – who just happens to be the deceased’s sibling!  Oh, brother!  And, BTW, (big surprise) mommy and step-daddy are scumbag employers, too.

It doesn’t take long for Ivan to set his sociopathic brain into weaving a scenario about how his mother and uncle killed his father (“There are limits to what the human mind can bear!” he reasons).  Ivan is going to fix that.  But how?

FYI, I didn’t forget that I mentioned two items on Ivan’s mind.  The other is his lust for village goddess Lucy, the naturally stunning daughter of Andre Legrange, a loyal (aka toadying) Lesurf worker.  Widowed father Andre (Robert Brunier), extremely possessive of Lucy, despises Ivan as much as he worships the boy’s family.  He also doesn’t get his sensitive, fragile child; he objectifies her to the point where he believes that men are only interested in his daughter for her physical attributes, that she has nothing to offer other than being a someone’s spectacular whore.

It’s that kind of berg.

Things take a drastic turn when the local cinema offers up a revival of Olivier’s Hamlet – luring the peasants in by promoting it as a sword-and-sandal epic with lots of action.  Ivan is obsessed by the film, and decides to focus his powers and wealth to make his own movie version of the Shakespeare play, using his few friends as actors, and a lusty barmaid (Liliane David) as the female lead.  Off-camera, Ivan now refers to the other woman in his world, wild child Lucy, as Ophelia (much to her chagrin).

The movie becomes the talk of the small…hamlet, and not in a good way.  The whispered rumors become more pronounced.  And several deaths follow, climaxed by Ivan’s finally unmasking his family’s dark secret.  Except it’s not the one he was expecting.

OPHELIA is a moody, sinister chilling piece from Chabrol, one of the director’s best.  Using some of his trademark techniques, with sidebars on epicurean dining (Chabrol, aside from being a master of cinema and Cahier critic, was also a renowned gourmet), le francais Hitchcock weaves a demented tale of desire, forbidden fruit, greed and sadistic revenge.  The cast is aces, with Andre Joceylyn excelling as Ivan (a man whose mother love/hate issues often mirror those of Bruno Anthony’s in Strangers on a Train and, natch, Norman Bates).  Valli, the ice queen, is as resplendent as she is unnerving while Cerval as the adulterous uncle is shameful, but unusually liberal when it comes to dealing with his new step-son.  Brunier is repellent as the awful parent Andre, and, last but certainly not least, Juliette Mayniel is absolutely haunting as the misunderstood/unwilling “Ophelia.”

The movie, like many of Chabrol’s works was written by the director and Paul Gagauff (in collaboration with Martial Matthieu).  OPHELIA’s omnipresent weirdness is reflective of Gagauff’s participation, infusing the writer’s own deranged mental state into the pic’s most crazed characters (suffice to say, he did not end up dying peacefully).

OPHELIA was superbly shot in startling black-and-white by the brilliant cinematographer Jean Rabier.  The jaw-dropping use of rural locations create a mythical fog-bound forest that is simultaneously fetching and foreboding (it frequently resembles an alien landscape like something out of 1930s sci-fi magazine cover).  A wonderful score by Pierre Jansen completes the package.

I first saw OPHELIA over thirty years ago during a fondly recalled Chabrol day with my bestie Ric Menello.  It was at Lincoln Center – a 35MM print sans subtitles.  Prior to that, we had spent the morning and early afternoon at MoMA for a Chabrol double bill of Masques and a pre-release screening of his upcoming flick, the fantastic Story of Women.  What a day!

I mention this to underline how terrific it is to become reacquainted with this gem, and one couldn’t wish for a better rendition than this new Olive Films Blu-Ray.  The visuals in widescreen 1080p are striking, and the excellent translation (via the newly-minted English subtitles) make this platter a must-have (the original trailer is also included, but without subtitles).

OPHELIA.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Gaumont.  CAT # OF1337.  SRP: $29.95.



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