While most of the filmmakers from the ’50s/’60s French New Wave acknowledged their admiration and respect for suspense master Alfred Hitchcock — and even helped to secure his legacy — only Claude Chabrol made films that could be reasonably compared to Hitchcock’s work.
Cohen Film Collection, following up some excellent triple-feature sets they released for fellow French filmmakers Maurice Pialat and Benoît Jacquot, has just put out “3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol,” a 3-disc Blu-ray set highlighting films from the ’90s which are not well-known here in the U.S.
The most surprising aspect of this set is not that Chabrol was still making good movies nearly forty years after his heyday, but that the films offer such a variety of tones and styles.
Over time, Hitchcock became a brand: when you bought your ticket, you knew pretty much what kind of experience you were in for. That is not the case with this pleasantly eclectic triple feature.
First up in the set is Betty (1992). Betty is adapted from a novel by mystery writer Georges Simenon, but it isn’t a crime thriller. Instead, we get a dark, psychological character study. Marie Trintignant is the title character, a lost soul that the audience initially sees guzzling down double whiskeys across the table from a nervous older doctor who clearly wants to take her to bed. Betty’s clothes are too nice for her to be a common streetwalker, but who is she?
We gradually find out, after Betty is taken in by a woman who seems to have lived a life not too different from our main character’s. Her name is Laure, and she is played by Stéphane Audran, director Chabrol’s ex-wife and frequent muse, who — in a real-life echo of her maternal character — was also briefly married to Marie Trintignant’s father before Marie was born.
Without getting too spoiler-y, we learn that Betty is a woman who got trapped in an haute bourgeois life, with a dull husband and kids she was never allowed to care for. She desired a life less ordinary, and so she lived it: drinking, smoking, and screwing other men on the sly. Eventually, it caught up to her. As these details come out to Laure, she seems half-sympathetic and half-bored, creating not only a growing tension between the two women, but also a question about what exactly Laure’s intentions are toward Betty.
Betty is well-acted and undeniably moody, but its cynical characters make it a film that inspires queasy fascination more than eager engagement.
Next in the set is L’Enfer (or Inferno), retitled here with the far less operatic name, Torment (1994). Torment is an attempt to remake and complete a famously unfinished film attempted in the ’60s by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique, Wages of Fear).
Nelly and Paul (Emmanuelle Béart and François Cluzet) are a happily married couple, with a young son, who run a small inn in the country. But there’s a problem. Nelly is hot. Insanely hot. Not only that, but she is vivacious and friendly in a way that can be downright flirty. No man would blame Paul for being jealous of his hot, hot wife, except that this is something more. This is compulsion, verging on madness.
Torment is a slow burn thriller that is a tad too slow. There have been plenty of movies about jealous husbands with vivid imaginations, and for too long, Torment does not do very much to distinguish itself from the pack. It doesn’t help that Cluzet makes his characterization of Paul fairly generic. There’s not much personality (good or bad) for us to latch onto, so it’s difficult to sympathize for, or root against, Paul as his nagging suspicions overwhelm him. It’s easier to instinctively side with Nelly, since Emmanuelle Béart gives a more open and appealing performance, but Béart offers enough ambiguous shading that we can never fully trust her either.
The final 25 minutes of Torment are so good that they almost entirely redeem the flaws of the preceding film. Without giving too much away, Paul succumbs to the madness that his jealousy has triggered. Nelly schedules an appointment to have Paul taken to a psychiatric clinic in the morning, but then she has to make it through another night, sharing a bed with a potential psychopath. Chabrol reveals a knack for audience manipulation on par with Hitchcock and Clouzot in this final act of the film. He also subtly intimates a metaphysical aspect to Paul’s predicament that gives the film unexpected weight and resonance as it concludes.
The third, and most entertaining, film in the set is a con artist caper called The Swindle (1997; French title: Rien ne va plus). Recent Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert and La Cage Aux Folles‘ Michel Serrault star as a pair of small-time scammers who tend to target drunk businessmen who don’t even realize they are getting robbed. Their escapades are mostly frothy fun — this is definitely more Ocean’s Eleven than The Grifters — but the film features a few dark twists that add a tense undercurrent to the proceedings.
We don’t know very much about Elizabeth (Huppert) and Victor (Serrault). Victor, with his gray hair, could easily be Elizabeth’s father — Elizabeth even calls Victor “Daddy” a few times — but the film leaves doubt as to whether or not she is just teasing the old man. After all, there’s something about the way that he looks at her to make us unsure.
Certainly, it looks more like jealousy than fatherly concern playing across Victor’s face when he realizes Elizabeth has hijacked one of his plans, deciding to instead seduce and destroy a handsome but vapid businessman named Maurice (Torment‘s François Cluzet). Not another small-potatoes mark, Maurice possesses a briefcase carrying 5 million Swiss francs, which he is supposed to send via wire transfer for his boss. But Maurice thinks that maybe he will just hold on to his boss’s millions, which gives Elizabeth the idea that maybe she will hold on to it for him instead.
Predictably, each character knows more than they are letting on. We can only assume that they are primed and ready to double-cross whomever crosses their paths. Huppert, who is the queen of inscrutable cool, is a perfect fit for this kind of role. She never gives away her true feelings or intentions, but we are left studying her every move for some sort of small clue. Serrault is innately likable, with appealing comic sensibilities and a quiet intelligence that suggest how gears in his character’s head are constantly turning. Cluzet, whose Peter Sellers-meets-Dustin-Hoffman looks make him better suited to this kind of yuppie dope, is more consistently in sync with his character here. In fact, we almost feel bad that he doesn’t understand he is in over his head.
Jean-François Balmer arrives late in the film as Maurice’s eccentric, possibly psychotic boss, and he nearly steals the show. By turns funny and quietly terrifying, he’s exactly the kind of guy you don’t want to catch you trying to steal 5 million francs.
All in all, this is a strong set for fans of French cinema. The HD video and lossless audio quality is almost flawless. Plus, Cohen has stuck a few bonuses on there, including two film critic audio commentaries, a new 40-minute interview with actor François Cluzet, and some new re-release trailers.
3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol is now available as a 3-disc Blu-ray set.
Betty: 6/10; Torment: 7/10; The Swindle: 8/10
Blu-ray presentation: 9/10
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.