Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune Review

Written in 1907 by the author of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (1910), Gaston Leroux’s Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) is a crime thriller classic already filmed three times for the cinema – the first a silent version in 1912 – and it has also been adapted for television. It’s not hard to see why the story is almost as frequently filmed as Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, as it has all the classic elements of murder, mystery, adventure and romance.

In Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, an attempt is made on the life of Mathilde Stangerson while she is in her bedroom – The Yellow Room – a room with barred windows, one locked door and no other obvious means of entrance or egress. Her cries and gunshots are heard in the laboratory next door by her father and his housekeeper who knock down the door to find Mathilde (Sabine Azéma) unconscious on the floor, with strangulation marks on her neck and the bloody mark of a monstrous hand on the wall. There is no sign of any assassin.

Gaston Leroux’s Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune is one of the all-time classics of detective fiction, the locked-room mystery being one of the defining types of the genre. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ (1841), perhaps the first detective novel and an important influence on the genre, was itself the original locked-room mystery. A closer relation to Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune would be Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, ‘The Speckled Band’, where a strange noise in the night heralds an attempt on the life of woman alone in her room, locked and barred with no means of entrance or escape for any would-be assassin. Doyle’s great detective is also clearly obvious in the character of Joseph Rouletabille (Denis Podalydès), investigative reporter for L’Epoque, who with sidekick photographer, Sainclair (Jean-Noël Brouté), will attempt to solve the mystery through deductive reasoning.

Denis Podalydès is a little too old to play the 18 year-old reporter, but he has the same boundless energy and playful eccentricity of the character and can’t really be faulted in his performance. My only other minor misgivings would be the crashing around of Sainclair in the clock that took a lot of the suspense out of a crucial scene and changing La Bête du Bon Dieu for no comprehensible reason. Otherwise, the skimming off a few extraneous sub-plots and characters and updating of the period to the 1920s does no harm whatsoever. The film retains all the elements that make Leroux's novel one of the most exciting and entertaining crime thrillers ever.

Of course, the real test of a murder-mystery thriller is not only in how successfully it conceals the identity of the killer or how well it keeps you guessing and distracted, but how convincing and plausible those secrets are when revealed. Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune does not disappoint on any of those levels. Written in serial form for the French paper Le Matin, Leroux’s novel is constantly inventive, providing plenty of shocks, surprises, revelations and excitement from episode to episode. The film matches the breakneck pace of the novel, maintaining a well-paced, exciting and ...well, it would be a bit dull if the resolution to the mystery was too easily credible and mundane, so the melodramatic revelations and contrivances at the end of the film are not only permissible, they are pretty much essential.

There is not a great deal to say about the video quality of the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. There are no marks, there is no grain, there are no artefacts of any kind, just a clear balanced image with strong colours, depth and sharpness. Only a slight sign of edge-enhancement prevents this from being a perfect picture.

The audio however is faultless. There is not a tremendous amount of surround use, but the sound is strong and clear and really packs a punch in the dramatic scenes.

English subtitles are kindly provided and are fine. They struggle with coming up with English equivalent to a French mnemonic, but otherwise are excellent. French hard of hearing subtitles are also included. There are no subtitles of any kind on the extra features.

Disc 1
Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune Trailer (0:40)
More of a teaser for the film.

Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir Trailer (4:43)
Not actually a trailer as the film has not yet been made, this is a behind the scenes look at the development of the not quite as exciting sequel to Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, Leroux’s second Rouletabille mystery. No clues here as to how they are going to overcome the identity-switching nature of sequel's mystery that the casting of this film has made problematic.

Disc 2
First Meeting between Rouletabille and Sainclair (1:32)
This appears to be a deleted scene, an introduction to how the two main characters met – narrated by Jean-Noël Brouté over a black and white still photograph taken at the scene of Rouletabille’s first successful investigation.

Everything that is not seen (34:41)
...and everything that shouldn’t be seen in my opinion. This is a making of feature, behind the scenes. There is no narration, but a few lines from an interview with Denis Podalydès are used here and there, otherwise the sound is noisy on-set sound while they prepare and shoot scenes from the film. Not at all interesting or necessary.

Interviews with the Cast (1.17:43)
The ten principal members of the cast are interviewed. A long series of interviews and nothing much of interest in any of them. The questions, when they are not edited out, are dull, the actors look very uncomfortable, are far away and can barely be picked up by the microphone on the video camera. Not really worth ploughing through, particularly as there are no English subtitles anywhere.

Mister Sarde at Abbey Road (8:38)
Philippe Sarde, the composer, is shown directing a recording session of the exceptionally good music score at Abbey Road studios in London.

The film in pictures
Two photo galleries - one of publicity shots and stills from the film, the other behind the scenes photos taken by the director, with explanatory text.

The Glandier Château (6:57)
The owners of the château show us around and provide a few anecdotes about having a film crew in your home.

Fabien sculptures (8:38)
The designer of the rolling ball devices in Professor Stangerson's laboratory is interviewed.

The final section of extra features includes a Poster Gallery for the current film and archive posters for the Herbier and Aisher versions - a section on Ballmeyer the Magician posters, which I will say nothing about (major spoilers)- Covers and illustrations from various editions of the novel over the years - a biography of Gaston Leroux and a period mock-up of a period Newspaper used in the film. A not-to-difficult-to find Hidden Extra is a word-association game providing clues to the influences that contributed to the film - from Tintin to Alain Resnais.

With recent films such as Vidocq, Le Pharmacien de Garde and 8 Women, it is great to see French cinema casting its eye back on a distinctive and rich cinematic history which was founded on the popular French pulp murder-mystery elements of Leroux and Feuillade. This is a well-made entertaining crime adventure, with a strong plot and cast. The DVD is well up to the usual standards for French releases, although the extras disc is unnecessary for this film and without English subtitles, you may want to wait for a single disc release of the film on DVD.

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