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.

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