Vintage Killings

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Like a fine wine, many movies just get better with age (how’s that for a lead-in regarding this title?) – no better example being Claude Chabrol’s 1967 mini-masterpiece, THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS (Le Scandale), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

For Chabrol, this was a turning point picture – his first English language movie, coproduced by a major American studio. It was also his scope debut (TechniScope) and his personal introduction to Technicolor. In addition, after years of being called the French Hitchcock, the director finally got a chance to work with some of Hitch’s key thesp personnel: the wonderful character actor Henry Jones (Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and, more prominently, Anthony Perkins. Perhaps, best of all, THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS officially provided the bottom rungs of the ladder that led him out of the “wilderness,” the place Charbrol had been languishing for several years of unsuccessful pictures (the next year would bring his critical/international art house smash Les Biches – restoring and permanently placing him among French A-list directors).

The plot of THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS is quite tricky, to say the least. In pure narrative terms, it’s often twisty as Hawks’ The Big Sleep – only chillingly more lethal. So pay attention.

Millionairess Christine Belling has taken over close friend Paul Wagner’s renowned vineyards and champagne business (in his family since the 17th century). Wagner retains the name and some rights, but her financial expertise allows the pair to share the potential accruing profits, as the collaboration now extends into new avenues.

Somewhere between these frenemies is Christine’s husband and Paul’s BFF, Chris – a bought lover, who tolerates his waspish (but beautiful) wife because of all the toys she buys him (a new yacht, a new car, an airplane, a third world country…what ever).

Right now there’s a lot of conflict. An American distributor (shades of the parallel to the motion picture industry) wants to purchase the Wagner name. Christine is all for it; Paul isn’t so sure. It’s driving everyone, including Ms. Belling’s overworked mousy assistant Jacqueline, crazy.

Maybe too much so.

Paul begins to black out; then, while taking a holiday, a brutal murder occurs. The woman last seen with Paul is dead. He has no memory of what happened. Chris finds out, and tells his wife; she decides to use this as a blackmailing chip to get Paul to agree to the American offer.

Paul and Chris take a breather with two stunning women, Lydia and Paula; again, one turns up dead – with Paul unable to account for his whereabouts during the crucial crime time frame.

Is Paul a psychopath? A serial killer? Or is Christine too willing to do anything in order to obtain the American distribution? Perhaps Chris has his eye on some new playthings (human and materialistic), and will stoop to new dark levels to seal the deal?

Yep, all the director’s trademark poison family and friend relationships are in full dynamic view, thanks to the complex but excellent whodunit script by Chabrol and Derek Prouse (based on a story by William Benjamin). The infamous Paul Gegauffe (who would eventually be murdered himself) prepared the dialog (specifically for a French language version, which was filmed simultaneously). The lavish French (Paris, Reims, Yvelines’ Rosny Castle) and German (Hamburg) locales are stunning, and sumptuously served up (as indicated in Technicolor and scope) by the brilliant Jean Rabier. Pierre Jansen provides a churning score that matches the visuals. A thoroughly outstanding cast supports star Perkins, and includes the icy-eyed beauty of Yvonne Furneaux as Christine (most famous to Anglo audiences as the female lead in Hammer’s 1959 remake of The Mummy; she is an actress so gorgeous that I use my infrequently brandished term “ridiculously beautiful” to describe her; in this movie, possibly her greatest, she’s a scrumptious harpy). Equally impressive are fantastic actor Maurice Ronet (as Paul), the aforementioned Jones, Suzanne Lloyd, Anna Vidal, Catherine Sola, George Skaff, Marie-Ange Antes, Henri Attail, the spectacular Christa Lang, and, last but not least, a sensational Stephane Audran, who delivers the acting top honors (and with this cast, that’s one helluva boast!).

Of all the American studios to hook up with, Chabrol might have steered clear of Universal. Not only did they edit his final cut (completely restored here), but tossed the result directly into the nabes, where it played (in New York) on the BOTTOM HALF of a double bill with the Doris Day travesty, The Ballad of Josie! Worse, they weren’t exactly subtle with what little promotion and publicity they bestowed upon it. The half-sheets featured a peering Perkins opposite a banner herald announcing “PSYCHO puppet or cold-blooded killer?”

Suffice to say, the movie’s rep has deservedly grown throughout the years, and this new Kino/Universal 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray is stunning (there are some nice extras, too, including a Tim Hunter-hosted Trailers from Hell, and audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson). Universal has vindicated itself.

THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS. Color. Widescreen [2.35;1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23820. SRP: $29.95.

It Takes a Village

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

The term “occupational hazard” takes on a whole new meaning in Claude Chabrol’s gripping WWII 1966 thriller, LINE OF DEMARCATION (La Ligne De Demarcation), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

And, yes, it’s yet another of the great director’s “wilderness” pictures – that handful of Sixties items that initially disappointed fans and critics. But time has been kind to these movies. Like Bluebeard, LINE OF DEMARCATION is a wonderful surprise in its tense-filled depiction of a small French village taken over by the Nazis during the early war years of 1940-1941.

The Reichstag fascists’s looting, raping (figuratively and literally), and pillaging their newest conquest in the Jura Mountains – a pivotal line of demarcation dividing the Nazi-occupied France and the so-called Free Zone – may look like a defeat for the proud citizens, but that’s only on the surface. Remember, this is a Chabrol pic, and deception is the director’s mantra. While seemingly in the yoke of the enemy, the hamlet’s large resistance underground activities flourish, and the continued violence inflicted upon townsfolk only makes them stronger.

This covers all stations and vocations, from the butcher to politicians to the titled Count and Countess de Damville (a not-so-subtle moniker). Well, at least the Countess – the expat British wife of the interned nobleman. His eventual return to the village – crippled both in body and mind – is at first cheered-on, then…not so much. It appears that the Count has totally capitulated to his former captors; he is a broken man who deems it foolish NOT to obey…and, therefore, survive. Again, this is a Chabrol flick, so we mustn’t believe everything we see and hear. It could be a ruse…or not.

Rife with heroes and heroines, fighters and cowards, patriots and traitors, quislings and fiends,

LINE OF DEMARCATION doesn’t let up from the fade-in to the final shocking image at the close of its 120-minute duration. Even the standard sympathetic Nazi commanding officer (a cliché by mid-1960’s cinema) is a jagged human road of twists and turns; he is aware that his side is comprised of monsters, but doesn’t flinch and plays the Party line.

Director Chabrol adapted and wrote the screenplay, based upon Colonel Remy’s novel, Memoires d’un agent secret de la France libre. The movie was shot on-location in the Jura regions of Belmont and Chissey in stark, but slick-looking black-and-white by the brilliant Jean Rabier. The score by Pierre Jansen is another plus. But it’s the cast that seals the deal.

As the leads, the Count and Countess de Damville, Chabrol gives us Maurice Ronet and Jean Seberg. Both are terrific, the only shortcoming being when Seberg’s character approaches a fellow Brit. Here, they speak English – but the actress’s mid-west American twang totally gives her Iowan roots away. True, Chabrol could have gotten a rising British star (say, Julie Christie), or dubbed Seberg with a pip-pip accent. He let it slide, likely because he truly valued her, mixed with his then-prevalent “who gives a merde!” attitude. Once more, outside of this language faux pas, Seberg is the berries.

The remaining roster of thesps ain’t chopped pate, either. Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard in the Hitchcock remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), Jacques Perrin, Stephane Audran, Noel Roquevert, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Roger Dumas, Claude Levellee, Mario David, Henri Attal, and Jean Yanne round out the fantastic ensemble. Two (mostly) non-actor participants deserve mention: Claude Berri (celebrated director of The Two of Us, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring), and more significantly, the writer Paul Gegauff. Gegauff, a notorious figure in French cinema during this period, while indeed a fantastic scribe achieved most of his fame (or, rather, notoriety) via his off-screen debauchery (he would be murdered by his second wife in 1983).

It should be noted that the producer, Georges de Beauregard (like authors Boileau-Narcejac with their Fifties’ novel D’entre les morts), sought to pitch the project to a big American director. For the latter, it worked; Alfred Hitchcock took the bait, and created Vertigo. For Beauregard (and possibly Remy), it didn’t. They originally wanted Anthony Mann to helm LINE OF DEMARCATION. Mann, indeed, read and enjoyed the novel, and (supposedly) a treatment. He then did something remarkable. He personally suggested Claude Chabrol, a contemporary he obviously admired. The rejected moguls took his advice. And voila! That said, all was not bread and honey. Chabrol, in the throes of career depression, wasn’t suitably energized at being a sloppy second. Years later, when complimented on this genuinely fine motion-picture, he would respond with bona fide shock. Not only was he not fired up about the project; Chabrol freely admitted that he barely recalled making it, being inebriated throughout most of the shoot.

Featuring a sensational new 4K widescreen transfer, Kino-Lorber’s Blu-Ray is joy to behold and discover (or re-discover). Of Chabrol’s “wilderness” output, LINE OF DEMARCATION is one of the best.

LINE OF DEMARCATION. Black and white [widescreen; 1.66:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [French w/English subtitles]; Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal. CAT # K24356. SRP: $29.95.

Claude to Death

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Yet another fantastic collection of Claude Chabrol classics, produced by Marin Karnitz, this delicious 4-disc poison bonbon follow-up to the Lies and Deceit box arrives under the enticing nomme de plume TWISTING THE KNIFE: FOUR FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL (and, like its predecessor, is evoked in stunning new 4K Blu-Ray transfers from Arrow Films/MK2 Productions).

The title of this cinematic quartet set perfectly defines the relationship to the previous quintet. While Lies and Deceit certainly contained enough mayhem, violence, and even murder…the killings and perpetration of evil were almost secondary – a symptom of the darkness, even (in some cases) unintentional. Since this foursome is dubbed TWISTING THE KNIFE, you get an immediate sense of what’s going down. Here, nothing is unintentional – the evil and the killings are all an essential part of the narrative. While the former was sinister and nefarious to the max, this deadly box/coffin takes no prisoners. Like Lies, KNIFE‘s contents have been beautifully restored, with excellent English subtitles (if needed) and a morgue full of alluring extras (including an incisive, scholarly but entertaining illustrated 80-page book), both vintage and new. So, grab a weapon, keep looking behind you, and trust no one!

Imagine Preston Sturges and Jim Thompson teaming up, and you have a general idea of the antics on display in 1997’s THE SWINDLE (Rein Ne Va Plus).

As directed and written by Chabrol, this sting pic (with benefits) surrounds aging grifter Victor and his youngish protege Betty,who regards her mentor as a father figure. Victor and Betty have been preying upon lush European resorts (and their source of lushes) for years. And they’ve been mighty successful. Victor is indeed proud of his “daughter.” Taking a well-deserved vacation after the duo’s latest score, Betty becomes conflicted (to say the least) when she and Victor focus upon their next mark, Maurice Biagini. Unbeknownst to Victor, Maurice is Betty’s secret lover. Where do loyalties lie (“lie” being the operative word)? Will “family,” even a fake one, win out over sex? Stay tuned to find out.

THE SWINDLE goes beyond double-crosses. It has triple, quadruple, and quintuple crosses. And then some. It’s a deadly parlor game that ends in gruesome violence because soon the stakes are so high, the Euro mob becomes involved. But who, if anyone, will have the last laugh?

THE SWINDLE is spearheaded by two remarkable leads, the legendary French thesp Michele Serrault and the never-disappointing Isabelle Huppert. As the mark/paramour Francois Cluzet turns in an excellent performance as well (a far cry from his tormented character in…umm, well, Torment). In fine support are Jean-Francois Balmer, Jackie Berroyer, Jean Benguigui, Mony Daniels. Greg Germain, Yves Verhoeven, and Henri Attal.

Another fantastic aspect of this thriller are the Guadeloupe and Swiss locations, lavishly served up by Eduardo Serra. As had become standard by this time, the director’s son, Matthieu, supplies the music, while wife Aurore supervised her husband’s script (and, yes, son Thomas appears, too, as willing victim of Betty’s charms); Chabrol himself even makes an audible appearance as the voice of a casino croupier. The family allegiance spills over into the bountiful supplemental extras with step-daughter Cecile getting into the act, providing background in a new interview, along with archival audio and video from Chabrol and Huppert.

A good intro to this box set, THE SWINDLE, the most lighthearted of the four flicks, provides a tasty appetizer to the tangy entrees to come.

1999’s THE COLOR OF LIES (Au Coeur Du Mensonge) is a thoroughly creepy, albeit masterful dissection of a picturesque Brittany seacoast town. Once renowned artist Rene Sterne, now impaired with both a physical and creative disability, ekes out a living by giving art lessons to the locals’ children. His stunning wife, Vivianne, has meantime risen professionally as a renowned physical therapist. Their existence seems (on the surface) peaceful and even idyllic – until one of his young female students (an under-aged girl) is brutally raped and murdered on her way back from one of Rene’s sessions.

Thinking Rene strange to begin with, the populace begins to turn on the couple – an event not made easier for Vivianne by the arrival of celebrated television journalist Germain-Roland, a notorious womanizer, who has his sights set upon her. And then there are more murders.

I would be taken aback if Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn had NOT ever seen this chilling exercise in paranoia and violence. The expert script, cowritten by Chabrol and Odile Barski is sure to send shivers down your spine. Ditto, the beautiful but cold colors of Eduardo Serra’s terrific cinematography (matched, once again, by Matthieu Chabrol’s score). It’s the believable performances by the top-notch cast, though, that seals the deal. Headed by Sandrine Bonnaire and Jacques Gamblin as the Sternes, THE COLOR OF LIES is more than ably backed up by Antoine De Caunes, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Bernard Verley, Pierre Martot, Thomas Chabrol (with his dad doing another vocal-only appearance), and, finally, the great Bulle Ogier!

Loaded with a gallery of extras, THE COLOR OF LIES is the perfect thriller for a stormy night (or any night).

The great Huppert returns in 2000’s NIGHTCAP (Merci Pour Le Chocolat), and has never been more accommodatingly menacing.

Stunning aspiring pianist Jeanne finally gets up the nerve to visit her idol, revered musician Andre Polonski. It’s more than just bravado; she’s just been told by her mother that there was a last-minute-saved switched-at-birth dilemma resulting in the girl’s almost going home with Polonski and his first wife. A good foot in the door.

But strange things are about to happen. The apparently happy Polonskis (with Andre now blissfully wed to his beautiful second wife, philanthropist Marie-Claire), are delighted to welcome the young woman into their home – the former even offering piano lessons and professional grooming. As the savvy Jeanne becomes familiar with her generous hosts, she begins to notice some odd events in play. Guillaume, the son she was almost switched with, has virtually nothing in common with his illustrious parent (while she, as a talented pianist, additionally mirrors his numerous likes and traits). Then, the overly friendly Marie-Claire starts to become increasingly weird, especially when Jeanne discovers that the first Mrs. Polonski met her death at the wheel of a car – shortly after tasting one of the-then mere acquaintance’s celebrated hot chocolate beverages. The second Mrs. P is now more than insistent that the inquisitive young pupil sample her special culinary treats, along with her ever-growing suspicious step-son (who now likewise begins to wonder how his biological mom actually died).

A insidiously potent cinematic lethal cocktail, brilliantly directed (of course), sumptuously shot (Renato Berta; music by Matthieu), and scripted with an abundance of sarcasm (by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb), NIGHTCAP bristles with bone-chilling suspense from the get-go. The cast supporting Ms. Huppert’s human spider (“She hates to lose,” comments one character) couldn’t be better, particularly Anna Mouglalis (as Jeanne), Jacques Dutronc, Rudolphe Pauly, Brigitte Catillon. Michel Robin, Matthieu Simonet, Lydia Andrei, Veronique Alain, and Isolde Barth.

A deserved award winner (Golden Moon Award, Lumiere Award, Montreal World Film Festival, San Diego Film Critics Society – all for Huppert, with Chabrol copping Best Director at the Prix Louis Delluc), NIGHTCAP, generously loaded with extras (including a marvelous vintage interview with Huppert), is Chabrol at his late period best!

The final entry, 2003’s THE FLOWER OF EVIL (La Fleur Du Mal) may be the most disturbing of the quartet (and that’s saying plenty!).

Once again, the action takes place in one of France’s quaint provincial towns. Anne is a popular, liberal politician from a wealthy family. And she’s trying to keep helping her community by continuing her career. But more than famous, the family is infamous. Rumors have abounded for generations about inbreeding between Anne’s clan and another noble faction (to say nothing of willing collaboration with the Nazis during WWII). And now, the ugly stories are surfacing again, just prior to the election.

Worse, the “rumors,” at least in a contemporary vein, seem to be true. Returning prodigal son Francois (having spent three years in the U.S.) arrives just in time to rekindle the reason he left in the first place – a mutual carnal obsession between him and Michele, his gorgeous step-sister. Equally jaw-dropping is the behavior of his father, Gerard, a cynical, unlikeable sexual predator.

Unquestionably, THE FLOWER OF EVIL is a tough movie to champion, especially where its characters are concerned; but, yet, the cinematic expertise of director Chabrol (who adapted the screenplay by Caroline Eliacheff, from a story by Louise L. Lambrichs) achieves the impossible. This is an engrossing drama, full of tense intrigue and, ultimately, gasping revelations.

The Gironde location photography by Eduardo Serra is spot-on, as is the Matthieu Chabrol score. But, as usual with Chabrol (and we would expect nothing less), it’s the cast that finally puts over this monsters-in-paradise epic, specifically Nathalie Baye (Anna), Benoit Magimel (Francois), Bernard Le Coq (Gerard), Melanie Doutey (Michele) and Thomas Chabrol, Henri Attal, Kevin Ahyi, Francoise Bertin, Jerome Bertin, Caroline Baehr, Didier Benureau, plus, in one of her final roles, the iconic actress Suzanne Flon (as the family’s snarky Aunt Line). Aside from the slew of extras, there’s a compelling behind-the-scenes featurette. All-in-all, the perfect gob-smacking capper for this dazzling box set!

TWISTING THE KNIFE: FOUR FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; all 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround (French w.English subtitles); NIGHTCAP and THE FLOWER OF EVIL also accessible in 5.1. Arrow Films/MK2 Productions. SRP: $99.95.

Femme Fatalities

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

One of many unfairly maligned Sixties Claude Chabrol cinematic excursions, 1963’s BLUEBEARD (Landru) arrives in a gorgeous-looking Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

A darkly comedic look at the real-life unsavory activities of one Henri Desire Landru, BLUEBEARD (his nickname in Grand Guignol history) follows the infamous serial killer of women throughout the France of the World War I era (1915-1917). Landru, however, is no drooling hiding-in-the-shadows giggling maniac. He’s a fairly successful (furniture dealer), respected family man, married to an unsuspecting (and, at least, in the movie) loving wife (who also happened to be his cousin, a point not covered in this depiction), and, blessed with four children he adores.

But Landru’s extra-curricular sojourns circle like sharks around his two-fold lust: females and their money. Selecting well-off single women, or wealthy widows (lots of both during The Great War), the benign-looking Parisian’s reign of terror claimed seven (that we know of) victims (although the body count has often raised to ten, depending upon which account one subscribes to). They were romanced, wined, dined, even wed (“it’s bigamy, too!,” as Chico Marx would famously state)…before they were drugged, disassembled, and smoked to ashes in a rented country estate’s (dubbed his “castle”) furnace.

You’ll have to pardon me for making light of this, as normally such odious events would certainly be no laughing matter…except, in this movie’s case, it sorta is. Chabrol’s sardonic, mostly factual jaw-dropping take presents a mordant look at Bluebeard, realistically bringing Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux (loosely based on Landru) to a new and snarky level.

And the talented director had great help.

Always looking for the female point-of-view, Chabrol allied himself with no less than author Francoise Sagan to pen the screenplay. Her narrative is cynical and often hilarious, as movie Landru tosses off such excuses for his “hobby” as “Genius is often labeled ‘monstrous’.” Then there’s a wonderful running gag encompassing a vacationing British couple, residing in a hotel adjacent to Landru’s homicidal domicile. Every time a new victim is disposed of, the middle-aged pair (the only part of the movie in English) frowns, and voice their disapproval concerning that strange, inappropriate smell (cross-cut with smoke rising from their neighbor’s furnace) – always threatening to complain, but then returning to their meal.

The look of BLUEBEARD was just as important as the script, and frequent collaborator Jean Rabier has outdone himself. The entire pic, shot in ebullient Eastmancolor looks like a Mucha French poster from 1910s, or an early Renoir. Noted composer Pierre Jansen appends the visuals with an excellent score to audibly accompany this unassuming heinous murderer.

But, as always, what does it matter with fab celluloid trappings if the cast isn’t up to snuff (or, in this case, at being snuffed). Here, again, Chabrol shines. Title lead Charles Denner, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Landru, is quite lip-biting terrific. The main hook for the movie is the fact that the victims are portrayed by celebrated European actresses; the superb, dazzling gallery of unfortunates comprise no less than Michele Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Hildegarde Neff, Stephane Audran, Juliette Mayniel, Catherine Rouvel, Mary Marquet, and Denise Provence (a ploy that was utilized again in Edward Dmytryk’s abysmal 1968 movie of the same name). Other cast members include Francoise Lugagne (as Landru’s wife), Mario David, Pierre Vernier, Pierre Lafont, Raymond Queneau (as Clemenceau), and, best of all, famed director Jean-Pierre Melville as Georges Mandel.

Charles Denner as Chabrol’s Landru, compared to the real deal, photographed at his 1921 trial.

Sadly, timing is everything, and BLUEBEARD bellied up. This was especially true in America, a country still reeling from the grisly pursuits of Albert DeSalvo (aka, The Boston Strangler). In 1963, a comedy about killing women wasn’t all that funny in the States (even without DeSalvo, a red flag should have early been raised; the aforementioned Monsieur Verdoux nearly ended Chaplin’s career in the U.S.) It seems that only the Brits could get away with that sort of thing; then again, the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets wasn’t based on a true story. It brings to mind what John Huston once said (essentially) about cinema: that it was often as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it.

As indicated, the new Blu-Ray of BLUEBEARD is sensational. Not only in restored picture and sound, but in actual length, including approximately five minutes, frequently missing from import prints.

A deftly foreboding quasi-true-life adventure, BLUEBEARD is one of the most fetching entries from his “disappointing wilderness period.” Artistically, any director on the planet would pray for period so disappointing…and yearn to be adrift in such wilderness.

BLUEBEARD. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA; French with English subtitles. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal. CAT # K25538. SRP: $24.95.

Claude of the Lies

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Ric Menello would have turned 70 this month.

For those newcomers unfamiliar with Supervistaramacolorscope, the name “Ric Menello” may merely register as that of a talented director (debut videos for The Beastie Boys, Danzig, LL Cool J) and screenwriter (Two Lovers). For fans of this blog/column, I often speak of Ric, as, for over forty years (until his untimely passing), he was my best friend. He was also the greatest Claude Chabrol enthusiast I had ever met; indeed, until the great director’s death in 2010, Chabrol was Ric’s favorite living and working artist.

I, too, long admired Chabrol, respectful of his earliest work, wary but supportive of his middle period, and, while not as gung ho for the Seventies “renaissance” of his outre, I became the champion of his movies from the 1980s on – for me, his longest run of superior efforts. But that’s me, and I’m not through talking of Ric.

Menello lived, ate, and drank Chabrol from the first day we met at NYU, back in 1972. There was virtually nothing in print about the director in America or the UK, so Ric ordered books and magazines from France, along with several French/English dictionaries. He would laboriously spend months translating the text line-by-line – periodically waking me with late-night calls to inform me of some sublime quote or anecdote or behind-the-scene kerfuffle. It annoyed the Hell out of me. How I so miss those calls.

One of Ric’s biggest moments was when, after writing to all the distributors in France who handled Chabrol’s pictures, he received a letter from the man himself, after some nameless unsung hero/heroine employee finally forwarded several of Ric’s notes. From then on, the two corresponded sporadically, with the piece de resistance arriving around one of Menello’s birthdays: a package containing a recent script – Chabrol’s personal copy with his notes and annotations scribbled in the margins; suffice to say, it was one of Ric’s proudest possessions.

I need to recount one memorable day in 1988 to further embellish the mood for this month-long homage. It was a brisk New York autumn day, and Ric had previously informed me that MoMA was having a mini-Chabrol tribute, hosted by the director’s best producer, Marin Karmitz (finding a great producer is like finding a great doctor). “We’re going!,” he ordered, as if I would have complained. I arrived early, and was prowling through the museum gift shop, when Ric saw me and quickly ushered me into the screening room “We need the best seats!” Unarguably, Marin Karmitz proved to be a lovely man – witty, intelligent, and patient (answering some truly irritating questions). He presented two never-seen-in-the-States Chabrol works. “I have good news and bad news,” he stated. The bad news was that one of the prints, Masques, had no English subtitles. It really wasn’t necessary, as the frothy look at murders surrounding a celebrated TV chef was ‘as is’ engaging and frequently hilarious (did I mention that aside from writing and directing, Chabrol’s passion was being acknowledged as a gourmet chef?). The good news was that the second feature, was properly subtitled for its upcoming American release. It was The Story of Women, starring the marvelous Isabelle Huppert, one of the Chabrol’s favorite actresses (and mine). That movie, a true-life tale of the last person to be hanged in France (for performing abortions during the Nazi occupation – the results of Aryan rapes, lonely war widow affairs, etc.), had me riveted. It was unquestionably the finest movie I had seen that year. The pic, the director, and its star all should have won Oscars. None did.

After the screenings, still shattered by what we had seen, we walked to a nearby cafe for lunch. From there, we strolled up to Lincoln Center, for a 35MM screening of Chabrol’s 1962 classic Ophelia.

It was quite a day.

Ric Menello with actress Marisa Berenson. The BARRY LYNDON star loved the 2008 movie TWO LOVERS, for which Ric had written the screenplay (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

Prior to Ric’s death in 2013, there was damn little available of Chabrol on home video (what pitance there was often appeared in faded, edited prints); the then-recent titles, while sparse, did have perks – primarily second audio tracks by Menello himself (The Pleasure Party, Cry of the Owl). But we were Chabrol DVD/Blu-Ray starved.

Ric would have been beside himself with joy at the plethora of Chabrol titles recently released on Blu-Ray from various studios. And all restored, with tons of enticing extras. Together we would have pored over each platter lovingly and repeatedly. Key among these home vid gems is the first of two box sets of Chabrol movies from Arrow Video, in collaboration with M2K (Marin Karmitz productions): LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. The quintet (comprising COP AU VIN, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN, MADAME BOVARY, BETTY, and TORMENT) have never looked or sounded this good (and I saw several during their original release, so I can attest to this statement), and come with so many supplemental goodies – at least by my count a literal day’s worth – that it puts The Criterion Collection to shame. I’m talkin’ about new and vintage audio commentaries, interviews (some with Chabrol), documentaries, archival French and British TV specials, plus an 80-page illustrated book featuring the writings of Chabrol scholars.

Ric, profite bien, mon cher ami!

The first outing in the LIES AND DECEIT box set, 1985’s COP AU VIN (Poulet au vinaigre) couldn’t be more perfect, as, from frame one, EVERYONE is lying and being deceitful. Quickly unfolding in one of France’s wealthy suburbs, COP AU VIN treats us to a tale of blackmail, adultery, thievery, and outright passion, fashion, and trashin’.

Louis, young postman by day, would-be spy/blackmailer by night, gives his attractive single mom the village mail to steam open and read, gleam information from, and torment the rich before delivery. Mommy and son, living in a ramshackle eyesore home, obviously are a few francs short of correct postage. Louis’s office pal Henriette, is a stunning borderline nympho who is desperately trying to shag her coworker, a goal she will achieve with the benefit of becoming an accessory to his shenanigans.

These “games” take a rather nasty turn when a car prank becomes a death, one of several that increasingly plague the over-privileged denizens of the village. Did we say the self-appointed “clean-up” committee wants to the evict Louis and mom from their digs?

The lethal events eventually result in the arrival of Inspector Lavardin from the big city. Lavardin, on the surface, a famed figure in crime detection, too, brings much deceitful baggage to the case. Seemingly fair and balanced, he is anything but – often resorting to…lies and deceit…and violence. He is, as a recipe-dedicated Chabrol might concoct, three parts Maigret, one part Hank Quinlan.

There is so much to love in COP AU VIN, that I almost don’t know where to begin. Chabrol seems to be having a blast with this material, injecting the dark detours with snarky comedic set-pieces. Lavardin, questioning the proprietor/cook at a diner is classic Claude, as the no-nonsense sleuth gives him cooking tips, and actually takes over the culinary duties. The romantic/horny advances of Henriette are so frustrating since she’s so gorgeous that we practically cheer when she and Louis finally get it on. And the deceitful town lawyers, mistresses, (supposed) BFFs, doctors, butchers, philanderers, and murderer couldn’t be more naughtily delightful. Of course, aside from Chabrol’s expert direction and coscripting (along with Dominique Roulet, who wrote the novel sourcework, Une mort en trop), the cast is responsible for the lion’s share of the fun. Jean Poiret, Stephane Audran, Michel Bouquet, Jean Topert, Lucas Balvaux (as Louis), Pauline Lafont (as Henriette), Andre Tainsey, Jean-Claude Bouillard, Jacques Franz, Caroline Cellier, and Josephine Chaplin are all terrific, with special kudos for Audran as the borderline-crazed mom and the pithy Poiret as Lavardin.

Chabrol apparently did this as a labor of love, and was shocked by the response. COP AU VIN was a smash hit with critics and audiences, nominated for several awards (The Cesar Palme d’Or for Best Director, Best Picture at Mystfest, with Poiret winning Best Actor at the latter. It was also one of many family affairs with first wife Audran in the pivotal role of Madame Cuno, sons Thomas and Matthieu (in a supporting role and composer, respectively), and second wife Aurore as a script consultant. It’s also spectacular to look at with the lush Foreges-les-Eaux, Seine-Maritime locations awesomely rendered by the great Jean Rabier. Calling the new restoration of COP AU VIN extraordinary is an understatement; if the splendid quality isn’t enough, there are the phenomenal extras, including a vintage Swiss TV special featuring Chabrol, Poiret, and Audran, and an hour-long interview, Chabrol at the BFI.

Suspenseful, sexy, sardonic, sarcastic and masterfully entertaining, COP AU VIN is everything Knives Out (admittedly, a very engaging movie) should have been.

The surprise and enormous success (critically and financially) logically led to the old movie standby (in any country), the obligatory sequel. So, in 1986, director/writer Chabrol again teamed with Dominique Roulet to fashion the return of the laconic sleuth for more snarkastic, sordid adventures among the rich and infamous, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN.

The follow-up is even nastier than its predecessor. Lavardin is assigned to another small suburb (of undeserving French one-percenters) to investigate the murder of an ultra-religious right wing icon. Married to a younger, beautiful trophy wife is an eyebrow-raiser, but this hypocrite has more than pomposity and devout fraud up his sleeve. He’s generally hated by the entire community, including his wife, adopted, wild teenage daughter, and closeted brother-in-law. The big shock for the Inspector is that the not-so-grieving widow is his first (and likely only love) – a woman who mysteriously deserted him at the height of their youthful passion. This event so devastated young Lavardin that he devoted his life to trying to find her – failing, but nevertheless realizing he had a real knack for this sort of thing. His tragedy made him become a policeman, then an ace detective. Alas, it seems disappearing acts are a passed-down family trait – some deadly. And as for the deceased’s righteous demeanor – it, too, is another bundle of lies and deceit, as the victim in question, Raoul Mons, was crotch-deep in teen club brothels, blackmail, sadism, incest, drug dealing and more. Ew!

The reunion material between Lavardin and his beloved (the terrific Bernadette Lafont) is glorious; and the supporting cast is nothing short of c’est magnifique, encompassing Jean-Claude Brially, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jacques Dacqmine, Hermine Clair, Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud, Florent Gibassier, and Chantel Gressier. The movie looks fantastic, with resplendent cinematography by Rabier appending the score by the director’s son Matthieu. Key to the bevy of extras is archival scene commentary by Chabrol.

The bittersweet wrap-up is pure Claude/Lavardin, which is to say, brittle, cynical, and satisfying. Sadly, there would be no further big screen encounters between the director and the inspector (although Chabrol would helm four episodes of a 1988 Lavardin TV series, starring Poiret); that said, how much darker could you go?

1991’s MADAME BOVARY is one of my favorite Chabrol works. To me, it’s the ultimate screen adaptation of the oft-filmed (since the 1930s, in France, here, and the UK) scandalous 1856 Gustave Flaubert novel, an astoundingly hefty amount of remakes done for uncensored TV within the past twenty years. Perhaps the most famous movie version is the watered down 1949 Vincente Minnelli pic. True, it’s stylized, and excellently acted but, even post-Forever Amber, it couldn’t come close to what the author had in mind.

Chabrol fixed that. While on the surface, a Chabrol BOVARY might seem like an offshoot toward a new direction, it’s actually perfectly in tune with his themes and variants. In other words, rich folks – either being stupid, dull, or undeserving – ultimately manipulated by smarter, eviler lower-middle class denizens. LSS, ain’t life grand?

Emma is a lovely, simple country lass who bedevils hard-working, prosperous country doctor Charles Bovary. He falls in love with her and, with Emma’s mercenary family’s permission, weds the relatively unsophisticated girl.

But, remember, this is the LIES AND DECEIT box. While good Dr. B. is exactly what he says: wealthy, successful, but insipid, the new Madame Bovary is anything but. She quickly uses the wiles utilized to trap her husband (and trap she did) to advance her social standing, and quickly embrace capitalism – even if it costs her husband every sou and/or his reputation. Her inability for home satisfaction soon takes root via infidelity – lots of it (the reason the book was relegated to the banned section, along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Therese Raquin, Frank Harris’s autobiography and scores of Victorian “underground” devil sex tomes).

Chabrol’s expert cast delivers the goods in spades, and his bravura direction brings the standout segments of the book (the ball, the riding excursions, the blackmailing town shopkeeper, a horrendous surgical decision goaded on by village aristocracy) to vivid life. Ditto, the feel of the period, both in décor (Jacques Mollon) and costuming (Corinne Jorry) – all lavishly captured by Rabier’s camera, and appended by son Matthieu’s score (the latter in concert with Jean-Michel Beranrd and Maurice Coignard). The screenplay, too (by Chabrol), is perfection with lip-biting dialog surgically-delivered throughout the swift-moving 140-minute running time (“It’s the most beautiful day of my life,” heaves Emily on her wedding day, already sizing up the material goodies – a verbal declaration that quickly degenerates to a gnashing “You’re getting on my nerves!”).

But to the cast.

Isabelle Huppert is sensational (as always), further cementing her position as Chabrol’s new muse, post-The Story of Women. As indicated earlier, I thought Women, Huppert and Chabrol all should have won Oscars in 1989. I repeated this desire in 1991, when I first laid eyes upon this fantastic movie. Huppert covers all the bases: she’s fetching, romantic, despicable, pitiful, sensuous, selfish, wonderful and horrible. In short, she IS Madame Bovary. The supporting thesps are equally impressive, particularly Jean-Francois Balmer (as her unfortunate spouse), Christophe Malavoy, Jean Yanne, Lucas Belvaux, Christine Minazzoli, Jean-Louis Maury, Florent Gibassier, Sabeline Campo, Henri Attal, and the director’s son Thomas.

Side Note #1 In shelves of 19th century literary works, we always read of the diseased-afflicted whose tongues turned black with pestilence. Never saw it in the movies, though. Claude fixed that. Not a big deal – but, it’s about damn time.

Side Note #2 Ric, during the period when he was regularly corresponding (pre-internet) with Charbrol, told me a story. Having mentioned to the director that we loved this movie, and, indeed thought it the best picture of the year, M. Chabrol revealed that when he first began to seriously consider doing a Bovary adaptation his prime concern was finding the proper actress to portray the multi-leveled part. He was having lunch with Huppert, a regular Chabrol visitor since Women, and he told her of his woes. She must be unassuming, but still fascinating, lovely – sinisterly smart behind her innocent, total country girl eyes. After a pause of several seconds, the Paris-born but rural-raised (Ville d’Avray) Huppert reached over, and slapped the director on the forehead. “IDIOT!,” she shouted. Chabrol, as if awakened from a trance, looked at her agape, and replied, “Of course! What was I thinking!?”

1992’s BETTY is one of the modern screen’s triumphant psychological thriller-dramas, and, like so many Chabrol works, an important addition to feminist cinema. The director has always aligned himself with female collaborators – not only comprising the extraordinary women cast in his works, but by teaming up with great coscripters; ironically here, however, he turns to one of France’s iconic mystery writers, Georges Simenon. So, how could the combination of Chabrol and Simenon fail? In an inspired nutshell: it can’t.

BETTY visually punctuates the adage, “one’s own worst enemy.” Betty isn’t necessarily a bad person, but a perennial victim, who manages to turn anyone she befriends into her victims. To use another cliché, beauty is a curse. Betty’s stunning looks allowed her, via marriage, to ingratiate herself into a wealthy family. She is basically there to satisfy her husband, and become the clan’s newest breeding animal. Her unhappiness causes a discovered infidelity, which gets the woman cast out (albeit with a huge payout), and threats of more already calamitous emotional abuse should she ever try to see her offspring (as such, the movie is a fascinating companion piece to 2019’s shamefully neglected Swallow, starring and coproduced by Haley Bennett).

Betty’s downward spiral never hits rock bottom because so many reasonably decent people take pity on her, and, worse, bring the woman into their lives – which, by no intentional fault of her own, she destroys (to paraphrase this live-action Jessica Rabbit: she’s just withdrawn that way).

Like so many Chabrol women, Betty is a human paradox – simultaneously endearing, vulnerable, addictive, selfish, treacherous, and fatal. She’s pathetically pathetic.

And as with other Chabrol “heroines” (Stephane Audran, Isabelle Huppert), star Marie Trintignant gives an outstanding nuanced performance – one of contemporary cinema’s distinguished examples of thespian art (of course, she and the movie were ignored at Oscar time). Chabrol’s direction and adaptation of Simenon’s novel is first-rate, as is the camerawork by Bernard Zitzermann, and the score by Matthieu Chabrol. The supporting cast, too, is superb, and features Stephane Audran, Jean-Francois Garreaud, Yves Lambrecht, Pierrre Vernier, Chrstiane Minazolli, Nathalie Kousnetzoff, Yves Verhoeven, Thomas Chabrol, Henri Attal, and Melanie Blatt .

I defy anyone NOT to fall in love with Betty. At their own peril.

1994’s superb psychological thriller TORMENT (L’Enfer) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian of the Chabrols in this set (or, for that matter, in his filmography). It was a troubled project, to say the least. TORMENT‘s embryonic beginnings were started by no less than Henri-Georges Clouzot – France’s other preeminent director often compared to the Master of Suspense. Clouzot’s script (cowritten with Jean Ferry and Jose-Andre Lacour) had been abandoned, and eventually discovered and retrieved by Chabrol (and fortuitously so). Recalling a number of Hitch’s illustrious achievements (The Manxman, Vertigo, Marnie), TORMENT is an engrossing examination of sexual obsession taken to its most fatal degree.

Paul Prieur, a youngish, flourishing hotelier, has got it all: a thriving resort in a pastoral setting, a neverending cache of inventive ideas, and, best of all, Nelly – a loving beautiful wife to share this life with.

But the honeymoon ends prematurely when Paul uncharacteristically finds himself hounding Nelly about her activities without him. It slowly and increasingly becomes worse. Soon, he is questioning her fidelity, following her to the point of stalking, and neglecting his business. The downward descent of his addiction to possess Nelly is worse than any drug could be. Mentally and physically, it takes its toll on the once-engaging Paul, who begins to insult (and lose) guests, blaming and ultimately abusing the innocent Nelly, whose own mental state now becomes progressively fragile.

The primo terminal relationship movie from Hell, TORMENT delivers its drama like a sledgehammer, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s Chabrol at his best, aided admirably by two fantastic leads: Emmanuelle Beart and Francois Cluzet as Nelly and Paul (with fine support from Nathalie Cardone, Andre Wilms, Marc Lavoine, Dora Doll, Christiane Minazolli, Mario David, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sophie Arthur, and Thomas Chabrol). The deceptive beauteous scenic Aude-lensed backdrop for this nightmarish detour is sumptuously captured by d.p. Bernard Zitzermann, in unison with an excellent score by Matthieu Chabrol.

Deservedly hailed as a masterpiece, TORMENT was often that for its director. The main reason for his displeasure with the picture was the participation of Beart. Chabrol always loved to surround himself with cast and crew who shared his sense of caustic satire – men and women he could constantly rely upon to build a personal stock company. To his shock, Charbol termed Beart as “humorless,” totally devoid of any snarkasm; this is almost impossible to fathom, as she is so terrific in this movie, ably displaying a fun-loving, laughter-prone side in the early sequences. Beart and Chabrol would never cross paths again.

The perfect title to conclude this must-have collection, TORMENT is a disturbing, emotional roller-coaster ride, presented in an exceptional manner that defines first-rate cinema.

LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. All Color. All Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; All 1.0 mono DTS-HD MA, with the exception of TORMENT [2.0 stereo DTS-HD MA]; All French w/English subtitles. Arrow Video/MVD Entertainment Group. CAT# AV362. SRP: $99.95.