Arrow follows up Lies and Deceit, their February boxset of late career Claude Chabrol films, with Twisting the Knife, a new collection of late period Chabrol films that highlight the fact that even in his mid-seventies, the French auteur’s creative spark had not yet quite dimmed.
While famed for being the first of the nouvelle vague directors to emerge from France in the late fifties, Chabrol never achieved the worldwide recognition nor acclaim that was bestowed on his more iconic peers, like Truffaut or Godard. Rather looked down upon by French critics for his adherence to genre cinema (as opposed to Godard’s attempts to reinvent the wheel) Chabrol’s films have certainly felt like the forgotten children of the French New Wave. Yet in the years following his death, a new found appreciation of Chabrol has begun to emerge, painting him as essential a filmmaker as Godard, Rohmer and Truffaut.
With a career spanning over fifty years (and almost sixty films) there is no doubt that there is a hell of a lot to choose from when releasing a Chabrol boxset. Like with their previous release Lies and Deceit, Twisting the Knife sees Arrow continuing to focus on the twilight end of the director’s career, which saw him re-emerge from a critical slump in the 80s to achieve new found respect and recognition, thanks to a string of acclaimed films that ran from the early 90s right up until his death in 2010.
Let us quickly address the elephant in the room before moving on. Out of all the films that Chabrol made in this latter period, it is arguably 1995’s La Cérémonie that stands out as his late period masterpiece. A chilling adaption of a Ruth Rendell novel, it consolidates and crystallises Chabrol’s favourite themes and preoccupations through the prism of a dark, brilliantly taut thriller. Unfortunately, presumably due to rights issues, it is nowhere to be seen in this new boxset, which is a crying shame. Yet how do the films that do make up Twisting the Knife, including The Swindle, The Colour Of Lies, Nightcap and The Flower Of Evil, fare on their own? Are any of them late period masterpieces too, or merely footnotes to the tail end of a great career?
THE SWINDLE (Rien Ne Va Plus)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Michel Serrault, François Cluzet
Duration: 101 mins
The boxset kicks off with 1997’s The Swindle (Rien Ne Va Plus) a film that actually feels rather incongruous when placed next to the rest of Twisting the Knife. A lighthearted crime caper starring Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault, the film follows con artists Elizabeth (Huppert) and Victor (Serrault) as they try to swindle a bucketload of cash out of the deluded Maurice (François Cluzet), a treasurer for a multinational company. Yet, as ever with these things, powerful people lurk in the background, ready to wreck vengeance on anyone who dares messes with their cash.
Beginning like an episode of BBC TV series Hustle mixed with the cool stylings of Stephen Frear’s The Grifters, The Swindle soon gets lost in a mish mash of conflicting tones, its lightheartedness grating as the plot shifts towards a darker tone towards the finale. Muddy plotting, weak comedy, an uneven pace and, most sinful of all for a con film, an uninspired and unimaginative heist plot at its heart, The Swindle certainly doesn’t rank among Chabrol’s more memorable or imaginative films. It was a huge flop upon release; it is not hard to see why.
The performances help to save things (which is to be expected, considering the calibre involved) and the film’s insistence on never revealing the true relationship between Elizabeth and Victor helps to add some sorely needed depth. Overall, however, The Swindle proves to be a rather inauspicious opening to this new Chabrol boxset.
THE COLOUR OF LIES (Au Coeur Du Mensonge)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Odile Barski, Claude Chabrol
Starring: Jacques Gamblin, Sandrine Bonnaire, Antoine de Caunes
Duration: 113 mins
1997’s The Colour of Lies (Au Coeur Du Mensonge) finds us back on far more familiar Chabrol territory, with murder, lies and small town hypocrisy all prominently featuring.
After a 10 year old girl is found murdered in a small Breton town, the police start to question her art teacher René (Jacques Gamblin) who was the last person to see her alive. As the town’s suspicions begin to grow, suave journalist Germain-Ronald (Antoine de Caunes) begins to pursue Vivanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) René’s unhappy wife, in the hope that he may get a vital break in the case.
For people of a certain age, you’ll have to get over the surrealism of Eurotrash’s Antoine de Caunes playing a serious role (in which he is actually very, very good). Once past that, you’ll find that The Colour of Lies is an sombre, effective crime drama that breaks away from standard genre conventions.
The film does not unfold like a conventional mystery, with Chabrol’s main interest being René and Vivianne’s marriage rather than the progress of the investigation, along with the town’s reaction to the murder (in this respect, it strongly presages Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt). While crime aficionados may be disappointed (although I found the almost lackadaisical nature of the lead female detective to be a breath of fresh air, compared to the usual alcohol soaked emotional wrecks we usually get in crime fiction) Chabrol successfully evokes enough drama out of the lies, infidelities and faults of the main characters to keep you hooked.
A sedate exploration of small town gossip, infidelity and secrets, The Colour of Lies is an unusual drama that uses the McGuffin of a crime to explore the the fallibility of marriage and relationships. Like so much of the director’s work, no character emerges as morally intact, but that is what makes Chabrol’s films so interesting and engaging to watch.
NIGHTCAP (Merci Pour Le Chocolat)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Caroline Eliacheff, Claude Chabrol, Charlotte Armstrong (novel)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Anna Mouglalis, Rodolphe Pauly
Duration: 101 mins
Chabrol’s muse in the latter part of his career (after making literarily dozens of films with his wife Stéphane Audran during the 70s and 80s) was European cinematic royalty Isabelle Huppert, with whom he made seven feature films. In Nightcap (Merci Pour Le Chocolat) she presents us with arguably her greatest performance out of those seven films, a coldly inscrutable study of misplaced anger and inadequacy.
When young, aspiring piano student Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis) finds out that she may be related to famous pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), she turns up unannounced at his house to introduce herself. Swiftly taken under his wing, she evokes the quiet resentment of both his son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) and wife Mika (Huppert) the heiress of a Swiss Chocolate empire. Yet is there something more sinister and dangerous about Mika, whose feels of resentment grow towards this stranger who has so effortlessly infiltrated her home?
Easily the most plot driven out of the four films included in Arrow’s new boxset, Nightcap begins as a masterfully intriguing thriller. Unfortunately, that tension isn’t fully sustained throughout. By the end of the film, characters react to shocking revelations with such calmness and lack of emotion you wonder if they been guzzling Valium off screen, completely killing any realistic sense of drama and tension. Ultimately, this means that Nightcap concludes, plot wise at least, with a fizzle rather than a bang, which feels like a great shame considering the strength of the film’s opening.
Yet perhaps that is inconsequential in light of Huppert’s performance. Ending with a simple yet devastating final shot that ends the film on much a needed emotive note after the damp squib of the previous ten minutes, it is quite simply a masterclass in screen acting from Huppert, which sees emptiness congeal with despair, proving all along that we have not been watching a thriller but a coldly brutal character study. Fusing Chabol’s love of Hitchockian plots with deeply cynical depictions of rich bourgeoisie characters, Nightcap stands, despite its flaws, as one of the key works of Chabrol’s late career.
THE FLOWER OF EVIL (La Fleur Du Mal)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Caroline Eliacheff, Claude Chabrol
Starring: Benoît Magimel, Suzanne Flon, Nathalie Baye, Mélanie Doutey
Duration: 104 mins
The final film of the Twisting the Knife boxset, The Flower of Evil (La Fleur Du Mal) feels like an odd amalgamation of what has come before, fusing the light tone of The Swindle with the darker elements of The Colour of Lies and Nightcap – and not always with the greatest success.
Feeling similar to yet another Vinterberg film, Festen, with its focus on a rich family harbouring dark secrets, the film begins with François (Benoît Magimel) arriving home after three years in the US. He swiftly re-ignites a relationship with this step sister and cousin (you read that right) as his political step mother (Nathalie Baye) continues her campaign for election to the local council. Yet the arrival of malicious letter spelling out the family’s dark history soon threatens the strained equilibrium, the consequences of which might see a dark past doomed to repeat itself…
For a director so influenced by Hitchcock, it is funny that Claude Chabrol films rarely exhibit the Master of Suspense’s famed virtuoso technique. While The Flower of Evil still may not quite live up to Hitchcock in that regard, it is also easily one of Chabrol’s most technically polished and impressive films, filled with beautiful, gliding camera work. Subtle segues into the past are also adroitly accomplished in camera, lending The Flower of Evil an impressive sheen that elevates it above the elegant naturalism that marks out the rest of the director’s filmography.
It is a shame that the film’s story, however, doesn’t quite match up. As ever, Chabrol is interested in the hypocrisy of the middle classes, this time constructing a story that quite bluntly spells out his themes and interests. Told with a tone that feels at times more facetious than dramatic, by the end (as logic is thrown out of the window) it becomes clear that Chabrol is more concerned with presenting his audience with a theme and message than a carefully studied drama.
The Flower of Evil is yet another relaxed, almost subdued, study of the dark side of human nature. A humorous, incredibly cynical ending doesn’t do quite enough to save this slickly made but ultimately hollow study of the petite bourgeoisie.
Arrow’s new Chabrol boxset comes out on the 25th April. The Swindle, Nightcap and The Flower of Evil have all been struck from new 4K restorations and look fantastic in motion. The Colour of Lies may look slightly rougher than the other three, but still comes from a pretty decent source. There was some controversy about the colour grading on Arrow’s previous release – I don’t know if that is still the case here, but, coming to these films for the first time, I thought that all of them looked fantastic.
Like the previous boxset, Twisting the Knife is positively bursting with extra features. Some of these features are offered for every film, while some are unique to each disc. Lets go through all the similar extras first.
Commentaries: Each film comes with a commentary. Film critic Barry Forshaw and author Sean Hogan provide commentaries for The Swindle and The Colour of Lies, film critic Justine Smith offers one for Nightcap and film critic Farran Smith Nehme provides one for The Flower of Evil. Out of these, Forshaw and Hogan’s are the most interesting and listenable. Both commentaries by them are lively and chatty, each very effectively balancing a wonderful analysis of the films, along with a wider discussion and analysis of Chabrol’s career. Justine Smith’s commentary for Nightcap is slightly more subdued, but offers a lot of decent info and trivia (the film was shot in Bowie’s old house!) alongside some insightful thoughts and interpretations of the film, as well as offering an appreciation of Chabrol and his body of work. The weakest commentary is from Farran Smith Nehme for The Flower of Evil. This is a gently informative commentary that is nice to listen to and that effectively highlights the strengths of the film, but it doesn’t go into a huge amount of depth. It falls occasionally into the trap of narrating what is happening on screen and it feels like Nehme runs out of steam by the end – the commentary even abruptly ends five minutes before the film does!
Claude Chabrol Commenteries: Claude Chabrol himself offers select scene commentaries for all four films, ranging from around 20 minutes to 40 minutes. All of these are great to listen to. Chabrol continually reveals the depth and complexity that he put into his deceptively simple filmmaking, going through camera techniques and blocking and how he used them to reveal character and plot. One of the great things about these commentaries is seeing Chabrol actually giving them in the recording booth. The Flower of Evil even includes some amusing behind-the-scenes footage, showing just how Chabrol managed to achieve some key moments in the film.
Archive Introductions: Film scholar Joël Magny offers short, 2-3 minute introductions to each of the films. These are concise, affective summaries of the films that manage to cram rather a lot of insight into their short running times.
Behind the Scenes: Each disc here also includes an EPK style making of. Just under half an hour each, they offer interviews with all the main players but the real bonus here is a fantastic amount of behind-the-scenes footage showing Chabrol at work on set. These are definitely worth a watch.
Each disc also comes with a theatrical trailer and image gallery, along with unique extras that are generally specific to each film. These include:
The Swindle: The disc for The Swindle contains Chabrol’s “Soap Bubble”, a visual essay by Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze exploring the games Chabrol plays with his characters and audience. Dousteyssier-Khoze analyses The Swindle in the context of the rest of Chabrol’s work, alongside some other films. There are some interesting thoughts here, but overall, this might be too overtly analytical for some tastes. Film as a Family Affair is a candid and heartfelt look back at the director by his stepdaughter Cécile Maistre-Chabrol, who worked as a 1st AD and occasional screenwriter for him since the early 1990s. Filled with plenty of great behind-the-scenes photos, she first recounts her time working with Chabrol on film sets before moving on to discuss him as a man and the projects she explored after his death. This is a great, personal insight into the director. The final extra on The Swindle is an interview with Isabelle Huppert. The actress provides a brilliant deconstruction of the director and his work before moving on to discuss three of his films, one of which is La Cérémonie (which ruins quite a lot of the plot if you have not seen it).
The Colour of Lies: The only unique extra on this disc is Nothing is Sacred, a visual essay by film critic Scout Tafoya, examining the ideas of art and legacy in Chabrol’s The Colour of Lies. Despite decent nuggets of analysis and thoughts, Tafoya’s portentous VO, filled with long gaps, takes itself far too seriously – this was certainly a challenge to listen to. Please note that an advertised extra (a visual essay by David Kalat) was nowhere to be found on my review disc, so I assume that it must have been dropped at some point.
Nightcap: Nightcap’s unique extras begin with I Prove, another visual essay by Scout Tafoya. There is no doubt that he has interesting things to say, but the portentous and over serious delivery makes these very hard to sit through. Nightcap also provides an archival interview with Huppert (although this one is only 7 minutes long). She discusses what makes a typical Chabrol heroin, exploring the similarities and differences throughout the director’s work. There is a far lengthier archival interview with actor and musician Jacques Dutronc, who discusses music and cinema, as well as his experiences working with Chabrol. This interview is only hampered by the actor’s rather ridiculous appearance, who sits indoors, wearing large sunglasses and smoking a huge cigar – this is quite a clash from his clam, gentle appearance in the film! Finally there is a 10 minute screen test with actress Anna Mouglalis. Shot on a low quality video camera, it is still worth a watch.
The Flower of Evil: This disc offers Behind the Masks, a brand new appreciation of Chabrol by Agnès C. Poirier, who shares her personal reminiscences of the director and considers his unique position in French culture and cinema. This is a concise, efficient and thoroughly insightful look at the Chabrol, exploring his different personas, as well as the themes and preoccupations of his films. A great extra and definitely worth a watch. There is also an archival interview with Nightcap and The Flower of Evil’s screenwriter Caroline Eliacheff, who compares both those films as part of a trilogy with La Cérémonie, finding common themes and links throughout all three, before going into a deeper discussion about The Flower of Evil itself.
The boxset also comes with an 80-page collector’s booklet of new writing by Sean Hogan, Brad Stevens, Catherine Dousteyessier-Khoze, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and Pamela Hutchinson – unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to read a copy for this review.
Overall then, this is another brilliant Chabrol boxset by Arrow. While I found that the films didn’t quite live up to the quality of Lies and Deceit (and the absence of La Cérémonie is severely felt in any collection of Chabrol’s later work) the quality of the discs, along with the extensive and exhaustive amount of fantastic extras make this an essential purchase for fans of the director. If you liked what Arrow did with Lies and Deceit, you won’t go too far wrong by picking up Twisting the Knife as well.