Péril en la Demeure Review

Péril en la Demeure is a strange kind of thriller, although in many ways it's a typical example of a certain type of French cinema during the 1980s, lying somewhere between Beineix's Diva and Jean-Luc Godard's more abstract works in the genre (Prénom Carmen, Détective) with plenty of casual nudity and an impenetrable plot. Michel Deville's however films never made as much of an impact overseas as some of the now almost-forgotten names of the 'cinéma du look', even though he managed to attract and give terrific roles to some of the biggest stars of French cinema. Péril en la Demeure (known in the US and UK as 'Death in a French Garden'), did however manage to achieve some notoriety in its day, and it still has much that stands up well in its latest Blu-ray release.

Like Diva, the plot and actions of many of the characers in Péril en la Demeure not only seems to be incomprehensible, but also highly improbable in respect of just how cool they can be. David Aurphet (Christophe Malavoy), the lead character here in Deville's film, despite being modestly employed (unemployed even) lives in one of those impossibly trendy large, sparsely furnished garrett rooms (somewhere in the Bordeaux region), but can afford an expensive top of the range hi-fi unit. A former French teacher, he now earns a living as a tutor in classical guitar playing, and has been engaged by Graham Tombsthay (Michel Piccoli) to give lessons to his daughter Viviane (Anaïs Jeanneret). David instead gets seduced by Mrs Tombsthay, Julia (Nicole Garcia), the two of them wandering around David's apartment full-frontally naked for a significant part of the running time.
Although music and recordings play a part in the development of the crime thriller theme, the resemblance to Diva comes more from the nature of how David is subsequently attacked in his home, and how he comes thereby to be connected with an enigmatic figure played by Richard Bohringer. Daniel is a shady agent or operative of some sort, perhaps a private detective, seemingly involved in some larger espionage operation that is interested in M. Tombsthay, and specifically in a globe in his possession that is said to contain a microfilm. Quite what this is all about never becomes clear, but it seems safe to assume that the attack on Aurphet is motivated by jealousy on the part of Graham Tombsthay. Indeed, some video footage of their affair surfaces, although that might also have something to do with the Tombstay's strange neighbour Edwige (Anémone) who has an interest in photography and seems to always be around when David calls by.

There's a kind of abstraction to the plot that reminds you of Godard's work in this area. With Godard you get the impression that he is not particularly interested in the plot and is more concerned with deconstructing the genre, painting the sets in primary colours and riffing on dialogue, music motifs and cultural references. Other than a few linking devices and a strong use of music (Brahms, Schubert), there's not the same level of formal experimentation in Péril en la Demeure. The film does have a distinct sophisticated aesthetic of its own however, with painterly compositions and cool blue and green Eastmancolor hues that look simply stunning in the High Definition presentation. The abstraction however is more in relation to the plot and the difficulty one faces trying to pin down its themes.

Even as a crime thriller, it takes quite a while before the film builds itself up to a central crime or a murder. This, along with the strange behaviour of each of the characters, suggests that Péril en la Demeure is something more than a straightforward genre film or an erotic thriller. There are repeated motifs and variations on technology and communication that suggest we are to make something more of it. The telephone plays a large role in the connections between the characters, tape recorders and video recorders feature prominently, as do cameras, recording images and sounds, but they don't necessarily succeed in capturing the truth. The central theme then seems to be one of manipulation. Manipulation of people and media through technology, and the sexual elements would also eventually seem to come under the same theme.
There are however many other readings you could make from the way the film itself enigmatically toys with its characters and the plot. And the actors. Nicole Garcia is the last kind of actor you expect to find cavorting around wantonly and naked in a film, and it does come as something of a shock (unless you're familiar with how many famous actresses strip everything in Michel Deville films), but it does give the film an added edge of surprise, as characters reveal unexpected sides to their personality and behaviour. It might not entirely hold together simply as a genre entertainment or as an erotic thriller, but Péril en la Demeure at least has the virtue of having a character of its own that still manages to be constantly surprising.

Péril en la Demeure is released on Blu-ray disc in France by Gaumont as part of a series of new low-budget editions of classic French cinema. There is however no compromise in the quality of the transfers or the supplements. Many have already given fine HD restored transfers on DVD several years ago, but in the case of Péril en la Demeure, the upgrade to High Definition on its Blu-ray release is very rewarding. The disc is BD50, full 1080/24p, with an AVC/MPEG4 encode. Presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the picture quality is just superb, the image clear and detailed with natural grain, the transfer stable and free of flicker, showing the full saturation of the Eastmancolour hues with perfect contrast and brightness. It really 'pops' off the screen. The DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 mono audio track is clear with no audible distortion, dampening or noise. English subtitles are available, as well as French hard of hearing captions.

Extra features (in SD and PAL format) are thorough and of great interest, although they are not subtitled. The interviewer catches Richard Bohringer on a bad day, but it makes for a terrific 25-minute interview. He appears very disillusioned by the industry, but hasn't a bad word to say about his time working with Michel Deville. Deville himself talks in detail about the film and its reception in a 45-minute making of, which also has significant recent contributions from Christophe Malavoy, Michel Piccoli and Nicole Garcia. The film's trailer is included (in HD). Packaging indicates that the BD is all-region compatible (A/B/C).

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