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.

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