Claude Chabrol's Entertaining, Insightful Lies and Deceit

Movies Features Claude Chabrol
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Claude Chabrol's Entertaining, Insightful Lies and Deceit

The least substantial movie in Lies & Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol, Arrow Video’s tribute to the late, great French New Wave director, also happens to best embody the set’s spirit: In Inspector Lavardin, nearly everyone’s a deceitful liar, even the amoral police detective himself (played by the equally great, tragically late Jean Poiret). Lavardin passes off someone else’s family photo as his own in order to engineer an excuse to leave town; Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine), the priest whose murder Lavardin means to solve, is a big time creep; layabout Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) and his sister Hélène (Bernadette Lafont), Raoul’s widow, both know a little bit more about his death than they let on; Hélène’s daughter, Véronique (Hermine Clair), isn’t as innocent as she acts.

Everyone’s guilty of something, in other words, except for Lavardin’s chaperone, Marcel Vigoroux (Pierre-François Dumeniaud), a policeman in Dinard, where the film is set. He’s just doing his job. There’s a bitter comedy to his forthrightness in contrast to Lavardin’s unethical approach to law enforcement, just as there’s a bitter comedy to how well Inspector Lavardin sums up Lies & Deceit’s unifying motif. Chabrol was famously known as “the French Hitchcock.” Inspector Lavardin hews close to Hitchcockian principles of storytelling as the most accessible mainstream film of the lot: Madame Bovary, Betty, Torment and, of course, Cop au Vin—Chabrol’s first Lavardin picture, where Lavardin plays a supporting part in the ensemble instead of serving as the story’s centerpiece.

It speaks well of Chabrol’s gifts as a filmmaker that he so seamlessly weaves the same idea through each of these productions despite their wildly different genres. A pair of provincial whodunits; a character study of one woman’s interior life and sexuality; a bleak paranoiac domestic thriller; an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel of marital dissatisfaction. In some cases, Chabrol makes clear who is lying in his movies and who is telling the truth. In others, notably Torment, he leaves judgment to the audience—a form of torment unto itself. When we’re privy to the truth the characters in these movies are denied, we’re able to simply enjoy them as expertly crafted entertainment. When we’re forced to guess for ourselves whether there’s a lie in the air or not, we have to grapple with uncertainty.

That’s what makes a movie like Torment art and not a lecture, and perhaps why Inspector Lavardin was received by the New York Times’ Caryn James as “a trifle” (but a trifle to savor, as the rest of her review makes clear). It’s a mystery. Chabrol doesn’t give the game away until the end. But before he makes his climactic reveal and shines bright light on falsehood and chicanery, he expends little effort to cover the fact that Lavardin is surrounded by a pack of fibbing cheats. Rather than tell the viewer that everyone’s a suspect, Inspector Chabrol underscores that everyone’s in on or aware of Raoul’s murder to varying degrees.

It’s all a bit too neat, but it’s a great deal of fun, and much more so than its companions save for Cop au Vin, where Hitchcock’s influence on Chabrol shines once again. Parapelgic Madame Cuno (Stéphane Audran) plots with her son, Louis (Lucas Belvaux), against a trio of unscrupulous businessmen attempting to intimidate them into selling their dilapidated old house: A lawyer (Michel Bouquet), a doctor (Jean Topart) and a butcher (Jean-Claude Bouillaud). Madame refuses to sell, going so far as to coax Louis into sabotaging these men, which leads to the butcher’s accidental death and summons the attentions of Lavardin. The lies in Cop au Vin are fewer than in Inspector Lavardin, but they’re much bigger—in particular the matter of the good doctor’s missing wife. It’s assumed she left him for a lover. The truth is a good deal grimmer.

The lie, on the other hand, is more appealing, and that’s the glue cementing Lies & Deceit’s quintet together: Lies might be sins, but they’re also way more satisfying than truths. If they weren’t, liars would have very little reason to lie. Raoul lies by putting up a righteous moral smokescreen as cover for his perversions; the same-named lead of 1992’s Betty (Marie Trintignant) lies to her husband (Yves Lambrecht) in the pursuit of her own pleasure; Madame Cuno lies about her disability to prevent Louis from leaving her; Emma Bovary (Isabelle Huppert) entertains affairs with rotating men as a cure for malaise. Cop au Vin playfully dramatizes the cost-benefit of lying in Louis’ relationship with his flirty coworker, Henriette (Pauline Lafont), who relentlessly comes onto him until he gives in to her charms. Sex is a powerful enough lubricant that he confesses to her his role in the butcher’s demise. His crime becomes theirs, a naughty secret kept between them that only makes them hornier for each other’s bodies.

Torment, where no one is proven a liar, strikes a stark contrast with Cop au Vin, but that makes the movie the exception that proves Chabrol’s rule. Here, Paul (François Cluzet) is convinced his bubbly, beloved-by-all wife Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) is screwing a friend of a friend behind his back. Over the course of the story, he unravels with remarkable speed, devolving from devoted, loving husband to jealous, distrusting and eventually—maybe inevitably—violent. Unlike in Cop au Vin, Inspector Lavardin, Betty and Madame Bovary, where Chabrol ensures that his audience is aware of the betrayal when the betrayed isn’t, we and Paul are denied the satisfaction, the relief, of the truth.

Bleak as Madame Bovary is, at least we know the depth of Emma’s wrongdoing. Seedy as the Lavardin films are, we’re able to enjoy the ruthlessness and sleaze because Chabrol’s choice of genre promises the guilty will be exposed in due time. Meanwhile, in Torment, the most blatant lie he tells occurs in the opening credits: Bernard Zitzermann, Chabrol’s cinematographer, sumptuously shoots a placid lake on a sunny day, invoking a sense of calm that’s absent from the rest of the film. Chabrol’s fixation on the lie cuts deep. It haunts much of his filmography, from Le Beau Serge to Le Boucher, and hums especially loudly through the works collected in Lies & Deceit.

Somehow, Chabrol’s name isn’t as instantly recognizable as his New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette. Maybe the way his work relates to Hitchcock has kept him from enjoying the same degree of recognition in cinephiles’ consciousness; where Godard helped pioneer a whole new grammar for filmmaking, Chabrol contentedly leaned into the comparisons made between his movies and those of the Master of Suspense. To the incurious, this might be read as the mark of an unoriginal talent. But Chabrol invests a devious subtlety in his films about the nature of truth and the temptation of the lie, and he rewards perceptive, patient viewers with an insight into the psychology of deception rare among even his peers. For others, Lies & Deceit is an essential lesson in the underlying theme of his career.


Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.