Claude Chabrol on DVD

Consider this a post-script to Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon: your guide to revisiting Chabrol on DVD (U.S. DVD releases only). More than half of Chabrol’s over 50 features have been released to DVD stateside, thanks in large part to such labels as Kino, Kimstim, Pathfinder and First Run, with other labels filling in the gaps with individual titles here and there. It’s almost enough for a representative retrospective. Almost.

The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films
The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films

Most of Chabrol’s major films are available, but among the most glaring omissions are his match set of debut features: Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), both starring Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. The roots of his entire career can be found in these beautifully crafted dramas, which are not thrillers per se but complex character studies with roiling relationships; that dynamic remains throughout the best of Chabrol’s films. (For the completist with an all-region player, there are Australian releases of both films in PAL format.) Criterion, how about tackling these New Wave essentials, either in special editions or a no-frills Eclipse collection with some of Chabrol’s less well-known films, like Les godelureaux (1961), also with Jean-Claude Brialy. Also unavailable are Landru (aka Bluebeard, 1963), his beautiful but uncharacteristically neo-realist The Horse of Pride (1980) and his “Dr. Mabuse” film Dr. M (1990), and the anthology films Les sept peches capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1962) and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (World’s Greatest Swindlers, 1964), to which Chabrol contributed a short film apiece.

What’s most frustrating about the treatment of Chabrol’s films that are available on DVD is that he isn’t given the critical attention of his New Wave compatriots. Criterion has lavished attention on the films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle with beautifully restored and remastered editions of the films supplemented by new and archival interviews and documentaries. The Kino releases of Chabrol’s early films are fine and KimStim’s releases look good, but many of the Pathfinder releases are indifferently mastered from mediocre prints and the quality varies substantially from disc to disc. Ten years ago it wasn’t as much of an issue, but with the growth of home theater and HD widescreen monitors, what was a minor defect before becomes magnified.

That said, here’s a survey of 30 releases on DVD with a little commentary on the films and notes on the DVDs where I am able. The titles are listed as presented on the DVD covers, with original or alternate titles also listed as necessary.

A Double Tour (1959, Kino)
Chabrol’s third feature is first color film and his first murder mystery; it’s with this film that he establishes his facility with psychological drama that defines his take on the genre that would make his reputation and dominate his career. Set in the roiling relations of a bourgeois family living a lie of normalcy and mutually agreed upon hypocrisy and denial, where the father (Jacques Dacqmine) brazenly carries on an affair with a beautiful artist, the mother (Madeleine Robinson) refuses a divorce, and the son spends his time spying on their sexy young maid (Bernadette Lafont). A pup of a Jean-Paul Belmondo is the lively bohemian who blows a breath of honesty into the uptight family and tackles the mystery when the mistress is murdered. Lovely color photography by Henri Decae, though the color temperature in the transfer slips all over the place.

Kino's Les Bonnes Femmes
Kino's Les Bonnes Femmes

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960, Kino)
Full of the off-handed energy and bustling, seemingly spontaneous bits of life that invigorates the French New Wave, this under-appreciated drama by Claude Chabrol looks on the surface like a sweet character study of four Paris shopgirls who dream of better things. Dreams do not necessarily come true in Chabrol’s tawdry and brutal world, however, and his loose, episodic story offers a clear-eyed portrait of frustration and self doubt. Directed with a breezy naturalism on the streets of Paris, there’s a fragile, sad beauty the drama as Chabrol holds out hope for these dreamers in a delicately melancholy coda.

Six in Paris (1965, New Yorker, OOP)
In 1965 six young French directors contributed short sketches of Parisian neighborhoods for a compilation film. The resulting collection, remains one of the strongest anthology films made and Claude Chabrol’s contribution is the highlight. La Muette is a shiver-inducing slice of urban life in a splintered upper class family. Like the best of Chabrol’s films of the sixties, his chilly view of dead-end relationships is perpetual motion hell; in twenty minutes he sketches an entire rhythm of life that seems to repeat endlessly, but for the boy’s escape into silence with earplugs, resulting in a domestic tragedy through an ironic twist of neglect. The director ventures outside the oppressive hallways and claustrophobic warren of small rooms of the high-rent apartment only once, at the end, as if to celebrate the escape of the boy whose tiny acts of rebellion hardly make life with his bickering parents bearable. Chabrol’s drama concludes the portmanteau production with its best work, a devastating dramatic sketch and a brilliant little production.

Who’s Got the Black Box? (aka La Route de Corinthe, 1967, Pathfinder)
Jean Seberg is the widow of a NATO security officer who investigates her husband’s death to clear her own name, battling her deceased husband’s compatriots all the way. Claude Chabrol brings an elegance and cinematic economy to this generic trifle of a spy spoof, but he stumbles over the goofball humor. At its best it resembles the stylish simplicity of an episode of the lighthearted British series The Avengers, but Seberg is no Diana Rigg and frankly the plot has all the complexity of a Scooby Doo cartoon. Maurice Ronet, Michel Bouquet and Christian Marquand co-star and Chabrol himself has a small role as an informer. Pathfinder’s disc appears to come from PAL master.

Les Biches (aka Bad Girls, 1968, Pathfinder)
Chabrol’s wife and longtime collaborator Stephane Audran stars in the story of a menage-a-trois between a decadent bisexual (Audran), her young protégé (Jacqueline Sassard), and a handsome architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who seduces them both. Roiling in power and control, betrayal and jealousy, and set in the upper-class world of French society, it inaugurated a whole new movement in Chabrol’s career, considered by many (including myself) to be his best. The film looks a bit washed out but is otherwise fine and the disc features serviceable commentary by film critics Wade Major and F.X. Feeney.

Stephane Audran in La Femme Infidele
Stephane Audran in La Femme Infidele

The Unfaithful Wife (aka La Femme Infidele, 1969, Pathfinder)
Chabrol’s coolly observed stories of secrets, guilt, murder, and bourgeois complacency stripped to primitive impulses, may have their roots in the work of Hitchcock, but his films are all his own. This is one of his masterpieces, a psychologically compelling and surprising story where murder and investigation are secondary to the play of secrets and discoveries of husband (Michel Bouquet) who finds out his wife (Stephane Audran) has a lover in the city and, in one impulsive movement, kills the man. Without sharing a word, they become unspoken conspirators, and the excitement of the illicit is the charge that their dead battery of a relationship needs. It was remade in 2002 by Adrian Lyne as Unfaithful, which captures the broad story but, in its exploding emotions and melodramatic direction, misses the subtlety and ambiguity that makes Chabrol’s crisp production so delicious. Unfortunately, it’s mastered from a poor print and the transfer is soft. Features a detailed director bio by David Thomson.

This Man Must Die (aka Que le bete meure, 1969, Pathfinder)
In this revenge drama, a father (Michel Duchaussoy) obsessed with hunting down the hit-and-run driver who killed his young son comes face-to-face with everything that means when he finally tracks down his suspect (Jean Yanne), a callous, vicious man whose own son wants him dead. No mere revenge drama, this is a Chabrol masterpiece, a modern story of crime and punishment told from the inside out with Chabrol’s characteristic elegance, restraint, empathy, and ambiguity. But beware: the film is widescreen but Pathfinder’s disc is non-anamorphic.

Le Boucher (1969, Pathfinder)
One of Chabrol’s most sublime and austere films, this intimate thriller stars Stephane Audran as a friendly but emotionally distant young schoolmistress who meets a glum butcher (Jean Yanne) at a wedding. Haunted by his years in the army in Vietnam (or Indo-China, as he calls it), he rouses to life as he tries to woo her from her shell. Meanwhile a serial killer preys on young women of the area, and the evidence points to the butcher. The crimes are all offscreen and only a single victim is seen; the suspicion and terror is played out entirely on an intimate level between the could-be lovers. Chabrol’s delicate restraint warms in his observation of his characters and their relationships, of the emotional risk that guards their emotions, and the possibilities they offer one another. Features inessential commentary by Hollywood film and TV scriptwriters Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Fox.

La Rupture (1970, Pathfinder)
Stephane Audran stars as a good-hearted mother who divorces her violent, drug addicted husband and faces the vengeance of her in-laws, who hire a seedy PI (Jean Pierre Cassell) to destroy her reputation and torment her. Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr called it “One of the key films of the 70s” and “Claude Chabrol’s most audacious experiment with narrative form–a modernist reworking of the melodrama.” A mediocre, non-anamorphic transfer and commentary by Hollywood film and TV scriptwriters Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Fox and film critic F.X. Feeney.

Ten Days Wonder (1972, Pathfinder)
Adapted from an Ellery Queen novel, this is one of Chabrol’s English language continental thrillers with an international cast (Orson Welles as an eccentric millionaire, Anthony Perkins as his adopted son, Michel Piccoli and Marlene Jobert). Substandard print and non-anamorphic master, with commentary by film critics F.X. Feeney, Andy Klein, and Wade Major.

Nada (1974, Pathfinder)
Chabrol’s scathing indictment of the French government’s response to the terrorism of the 1970s begins as a cynical take on a Marxist driven terrorist cell who kidnap the American ambassador from a ritzy Paris brothel and transforms into a grim farce as French police battle competing government agencies for information. Tautly directed in the measured style of a policier, Chabrol inflects his usual chilly distance with a jaundiced attitude that becomes downright angry as the film closes in on its bloody conclusion. While he can’t embrace the violent tactics of the terrorists, he finds an honor in their guerrilla campaign missing from the expedient duplicity of the so-called law. The disc is one of the better Pathfinder transfers.

The Pleasure Party (aka Une Partie de Plaisir, 1975, Pathfinder)
There’s something unsettling about this entire enterprise. Screenwriter Paul Gegauff not only writes a screenplay about a husband in an “open marriage” and pushes his wife into having an affair, and then turns abusive as jealousy starts to eat at him, he stars opposite his real life wife (Danielle Gegauff) and daughter. It seems like perfect material for Chabrol, full of suspicion and control and domination that becomes more blatant and brutal as the film continues, but the husband is an unappealing jerk and the wife a bland non-entity (the Gegauffs are not really actors and it shows), and director Claude Chabrol’s aloof style allows the story to dissipate for lack of a strong center. It’s not without its moments, but Chabrol revisited this territory years later in the disturbing LEnfer with better results. It’s another non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. It also features an audio-only interview with Claude Chabrol from 1977 and commentary by film critic Dan Yakir and screenwriter Ric Menello.

The Claude Chabrol Collection from Pathfinder: an eight film box set
The Claude Chabrol Collection from Pathfinder: an eight film box set

Innocents with Dirty Hands (aka Les Innocent aux Mains Sale, 1975, Pathfinder)
A plot by sexy young wife Romy Schnieder and her hunky lover to kill alcoholic husband Rod Steiger turns into a frosty psychological study under Chabrol’s cold, calculating style. He’s not so much interested in the plot as in the characters: the camera lingers on wife’s face as she bludgeons husband Steiger, but the rest of the plan is barely glimpsed in brief snippets. As the police start to suspect the lovers the plot twists, in some ways reminiscent of Diabolique but with an altogether cooler attitude. Originally an international production, some of the voices are dubbed (poorly) and none of the French titles are translated in the English language version on Pathfinder’s release. Also features French and Spanish soundtracks with English subtitles.

Violette (aka Violette Noziere, 1978, Koch Lorber)
I have not reviewed the film, which stars Isabelle Huppert as the Violette of the title, but I have looked at the DVD and it is surely the poorest excuse for a DVD in this collection, with a blurry image, poor sound and a 1.33 aspect ratio, as if it was mastered from an old VHS tape.

Cop Au Vin (aka Poulet au vinaigre, 1985, KimStim/Kino)
Inspecteur Lavardin (1986, KimStim/Kino)
Jean Poiret stars as Inspector Lavardin, an eccentric lone wolf of an investigator, in these two mysteries featuring the character created by novelist Dominique Roulet. Cop Au Vin is a lightfingered little mystery set in a village of poisonous personalities and nasty little conspiracies. Lavardin bends protocol, breaks the law, beats suspects, and generally follows his instincts with a single minded ferocity, all behind the easy-going demeanor of an elegant, silver-haired veteran cop, and along the way he finds a murderer, just not the murder he thought he was investigating. Stephan Audran co-stars as a hate-fueled invalid who sends her son (Lucas Belvaux) to spy on a cabal of conspirators plotting to evict them from their house. It’s Chabrol light, enjoyable but hardly meaty. Poiret returns in Inspecteur Lavardin, a sequel that takes him to a cozy seaside village where a Catholic author has been murdered. Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont co-star. The KimStim releases appear to come from the MK2 masters used for French DVD releases.

Masques (1987, Home Vision)
Philippe Noiret stars as a glib TV game show host with a deadly secret life in this cat-and-mouse thriller between Noiret and biographer Robin Renucci, who visits his subject for a weekend at his country estate and uncovers the man’s murderous secret. Bernadette Lafont, Monique Chaumette, and Anne Brochet co-star. Home Vision’s disc provides a superior transfer, at least compared to most on this list.

The Cry of the Owl (aka Le cri du hibou, 1987, All Day)
Christophe Malavoy is a depressed but polite and gentlemanly Peeping Tom who introduces himself to the object of his obsession (Mathilda May) and becomes the target of her pathologically jealous husband, who is egged on by Malavoy’s own vindictive former wife. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, herself a master of psychologically disturbing characters, this is a perfect match of director and author, perhaps a little chilly and removed for some tastes but a devastating work about the systematic destruction of one man’s life. Chabrol’s direction is as cool and restrained and preternaturally possessed as Malavoy, which only makes the psychological swamp of mind games, menace, and obsessive all the more disturbing, right down the to the devastating, unsettling freeze frame of the final image. But beware this is a non-anamorphic disc of inferior video quality and subtitles burned into the print itself. The commentary by French film scholar Ric Menello and DVD producer David Kallat is as much an audio essay on the director and his career as an exploration of the film itself, and if it tends to digress it returns a wealth of information in return.

Story of Women (1988, Home Vision)
While this true story of a working class housewife (Isabelle Huppert) who performs illegal abortions in Nazi-occupied France may be a change-of-pace for Chabrol, it is not a change of style. François Cluzet, Nils Tavernier, and Marie Trintignant co-star. It’s a very good film and an excellent anamorphic transfer, and features scene specific commentary by director Claude Chabrol and interviews with producer Marin Karmitz and writer Francis Szpiner among the supplements.

Madame Bovary (1991, Koch Lorber)
Isabelle Huppert stars in Chabrol’s adaptation of the Gustav Flaubert’s novel. Originally released in the U.S. by MGM in 2002, which is out of print and replaced by Koch Lorber’s two-disc edition, though the only supplement on the set is the hour-documentary “Isabelle Huppert: Playing Life.”

Betty (1992, KimStim/Kino)
Marie Trintignant plays the young wife recently abandoned by her husband who spins her tale to an older woman (Stephane Audran). Chabrol adapts the novel by Georges Simenon. From the MK2 French masters.

Eye of Vichy (1993, First Run)
In the words of this documentary, constructed almost exclusively from pro-Nazi newsreels created by the puppet government of authoritarian Marshal Petain, “This film shows France, not as it was between 1940 and 1944, but as Petain and the Collaborators wanted it to be seen.” The narrative comments of Brian Cox (who fills in for original narrator Michel Bouquet in this English language release), consisting largely of brief historical background and factual corrections, are largely unnecessary as these clips extol the paternal Nazi occupation and the heroic leadership of Marshall Petain, brand Charles de Gaulle a traitor and the Allies as enemies to the simple French citizen, and spread the anti-Semitic poison of the Third Reich. Watch for one jaw-dropping piece of Axis propaganda: a cartoon with pirated parodies of Mickey Mouse and Popeye as incompetent bomber pilots dropping their payloads on collaborationist French peasants. Features a still gallery and trailers. The First Run release features the English soundtrack only.

LEnfer (1995, KimStim/Kino)
Chabrol has been called the Gallic Hitchcock, but where Hitchcock is fascinated by doubles and guilty innocents, by the everyman rising to the challenge when his very existence is questioned and redefined and spinning out of control, Chabrol is more interested in the guilty and the reverberations of their action on loved ones, in the inner lives and the possibilities that may save them from themselves, and in the ambiguous relationships and emotional connections between victims and victimizers. The harrowing LEnfer (1995), directed from an unfilmed screenplay by Henri-George Clouzot, is a perfect example. Francois Cluzet is a happily married man with a beautiful wife (Emmanuelle Beart) and an adorable son, running a little lakeside inn that they have transformed into a gorgeous resort getaway. But he becomes convinced she is having an affair and his jealousy spins to insane proportions. Hallucinations and nightmares twist his dementia until he imagines her sleeping with every man in sight and his obsessive spying turns he life into a living hell (which, coincidentally, is the loose translation of the film’s title). Chabrol’s empathy for the tormented husband make him far more interesting than merely a madman; his pathological jealousy spins out of control in a chilling conclusion that leaves the viewers uncomfortably nestled in his madness. Chabrol film faced charges of misogyny upon release largely because Chabrol remained steadfast in his portrayal of Paul not as a monster but a victim of madness (somewhat at the expense of Nelly, an angelic sexpot whose loyalty and love is almost sacrificial), but ultimately that’s what gives LEnfer its unsettling power. KimStim’s release features select scene commentary by director Claude Chabrol and a bonus interview with Chabrol (both in French with English subtitles) and replaces the inferior, long out of print Fox Lorber edition.

Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert in La Ceremonie
Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert in La Ceremonie

La Ceremonie (1995, Home Vision)
Part social drama, part psychological thriller, Chabrol’s adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is not only the latest of his crisp, character-rich thrillers to revive his critical reputation and his commercial clout, it’s one of the finest films of his career. Sandrine Bonnaire is creepily impassive as the neurotically silent maid who rebuffs the kindnesses of the offhandedly condescending upper-class French family she works for and lives a lonely, solitary existence. When she meets the town’s gleefully misanthropic postmistress (Isabelle Huppert), an insolent gossip with a vendetta against the family, the two push mischievous acts of rebellion in the class struggle into a psychotic explosion of hatred. Chabrol charts it all with his trademark God’s-eye remove and an empathy that gives the tragedy its emotionally shattering power. Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, and young Virginie Ledoyen co-star as the oblivious but well-meaning family. The transfer on the Home Vision edition is excellent and the disc features a 20-minute French language documentary and an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The Swindle (1997, New Yorker, out of print)
Chabrol’s fascination with character and conflict often has him playing against the plots of his films. In this rather lightweight thriller, a con spins out of control and Chabrol surprises us by focusing on the insular sparring of longtime cohorts Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault, and their clever (possibly duplicitous) mark Francois Cluzet, letting the complications spring almost from nowhere. It takes too long to get started and the playful coda is far too precious, but Chabrol builds to a vice grip tension as small timers face the terror of big time killers, playing their little cons for their very lives. The transfer appears to come from a PAL master.

The Color of Lies (1999, KimStim/Kino)
Another murder mystery on the lighter side, with the mesmerizing Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the investigating cop and Sandrine Bonnaire and Jacques Gamblin as the prime suspects. Features a French making-of documentary.

Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000, First Run)
Isabelle Huppert serves up a nightcap in Claude Chabrol’s continental thriller. The director is more cool with each film and this one hardly fits the description of “thriller,” though it is rife with his love of Hitchcockian elements: suspicion, jealousy, possessiveness, psychosis, and mistaken identity. Huppert is married to concert pianist Jacques Dutronc, but her generosity to a visiting young prodigy (Anna Mouglalis) “adopted” by her husband is motivated by shadowy impulses. Features an introduction by Chabrol.

Flower of Evil (2003, Palm)
Chabrol’s family drama turned murder thriller is built on a foundation of social satire and tarnished family roots that are yanked back to the surface when the mother (Nathalie Baye) runs for Mayor of a small French town. I haven’t seen the finished disc, only an advance screener, but it appears to come from a French PAL master.

The Bridesmaid (2004, First Run)
“We’re very special people. We’re above everything. Laws. Morality.” Philippe (Benoit Magimel) isn’t all that well adjusted – he sleeps wrapped around a stone bust he calls Sophie – but he’s the model of normalcy compared to his passionate, sexy, and utterly wigged out girlfriend (Laura Smet). She proposes they prove their undying love with ritual acts of adultery and murder and he humors her delusions and fantasies, which is hardly the healthiest step he can take in their relationship. Chabrol is once again more interested in unbalanced psyches and emotional extremes than mystery and suspense. His deliberate and drawn-out observation often work against the dramatic tension, but his gift is making the audience believe that emotion and obsession trumps logic for these deluded characters gripped in the psychotic narcissism of love. Aurore Clément and Bernard Le Coq star. Includes an interview with Chabrol and the French documentary featurette “Chabrol directs The Bridesmaid.”

Comedy Of Power (2006, Koch Lorber)
This dryly sardonic legal drama opens with a wry angle on the traditional disclaimer: “any similarity with real person or event would be, as they say, coincidental.” It’s in fact unmistakably similar (at least to French audiences) to a real life scandal known as “The Elf Affair,” but this is no investigative drama. Chabrol is after bigger game in his clear-eyed look at the culture of corruption in national and international corporate business and the mechanism that keeps it alive long after the scapegoats have been prosecuted. Isabelle Huppert stars as a powerful magistrate whose dogged determination, legal theatrics, and record of indictments has earned her the nickname “the piranha.” She makes a show of the blood in the water to sweat and pressure the corporate officers, but an even greater power is wielded to shield the politicians and the power brokers pulling the strings and raking in the real graft. Chabrol observes the power games and intimidations with a matter-of-fact directness, inflected with nothing more than a shrugging resignation and a bitter, ironic wit. Also features a 30-minute French language making-of featurette.

And for the Chabrol obsessive, the Criterion edition of Fritz Lang’s M features Chabrol’s 1982 M. le Maudit, a short film inspired by M.


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