Violette Review

The film

Throughout Claude Chabrol's fifty year old directing career he has tended to have favourite leading actresses in his films. At the very beginning of his career, this was often Bernadette Lafont and it became, for his Helene cycle, his second wife Stephane Audran, and finally, for the latter stages of his career, it has been the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. The place of women in Chabrol's cinema has been a subject of some debate with his use of eroticised nude tableaux earning him the description "misogynist" from some, but in later years this has been proved to be nonsense with the place of his daughter and his third wife in his film-making, his regular collaborations with Odile Barski, his adaptations of Ruth Rendell, but above all the plethora of female leads in his films(seven times in his last eleven films). His very early cinema, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, was much about men but there were still exceptions like Les Bonnes Femmes, and since the late sixties women have often been at the heart of his films rather than on the periphery.

Violette is a crucial film in Chabrol's filmography for two main reasons. It was the first of the seven times that Chabrol has worked with Huppert on feature films, and in some ways the torch for Chabrol's women is handed to her by both Audran, cast as her mother, and Lafont, starring as her cell-mate. The second and more important reason is that Violette represents a vital maturity in Chabrol's approach to his ongoing theme of complicity in that it explicitly considers the family from a trapped feminine perspective. In Violette, the dysfunctional family becomes an obstacle to both the daughter's desires and her liberation whilst for others it is presented as a symbol of propriety and social order.
Violette is adapted from a true story of a young woman, Violette Noziere, who attempted to murder her parents, a train driver and his wife. Noziere's lifestyle and actions caused public outrage in 1930's France where her prostitution, blackmail and attempted murders provided a lot of headlines for scandal sheets. It is difficult to label Chabrol's film as part of the genre ghetto that he is usually assigned to, that of the thriller, as this is a tale with an ending that most of its intended audience knows, and typically Chabrol is not interested in presenting a whodunnit or even excusing Violette's actions. His central interest is, however, in exploring this woman's life within her family and outside of it in the greater world that eventually judges her.

Chabrol plays his usual games with repeating structures, misleading flashbacks and disruptions to the time-line of the drama to create an unusual tension which is about defeating the viewer's need to judge his leading character. The bare bones of the tale are that a young woman lives a double life fuelled by stealing from her parents and blackmailing a eminent personage who has compromised himself with her. When she meets an elegant chancer, she falls in love with the idea of escape he represents, and he lives off her favours and stealing. When the relationship starts to stall, Violette realises that having more money would secure his affections and on his suggestion she considers what extra resources she would have without her father around. She then hatches a plot where a poisoning is disguised as a gas leak.
Chabrol's film gets to the heart of things when the murder attempt is made and the morals of the dysfunctional family and daughter become the meat and drink of public interest. Some of the public see Violette as an example of low morals and an affront to bourgeois decency and others see her as a damaged young woman fighting an incestuous family. Neither of these opinions are supported or advocated by Chabrol. The incest remains implied in some wonderful sound and image montages where the whistle of a train acts as a motif for the father's abuse, and Violette is both trapped and motivated by her bourgeois dreams.

Chabrol's ongoing interest in families that become breeding grounds for evil has continued in his films right up to 2003's Fleur du Mal, but Violette is the first time that this interest becomes explicit in how this affects wives and daughters. Violette is a daughter whose father's unhealthy interest has left her cold to his love whilst her mother's overweening efforts to control her morality are hypocritical and based on her own regrets and her mental imbalance. Violette learns that the key to her freedom is the falsehood of keeping up appearances - Violette fakes that she has studying to do, she fakes that she is seeing the doctor and she has fake friends - she does this so that she can have a secret life away from her parents and do the things they tell her not to whilst doing them themselves. When Violette starts to find some love she will do anything to keep it and so she steals and lies to do so. This becomes threatened when her father falls ill and her murderous thoughts start to coincide with her romantic survival.
Violette's mother represents a pole of social order. She may suspect something is wrong with her family but she tries to keep her daughter straight by insisting on strict rules and, when she discovers she has taken a lover, she demands that Violette marry her love out of propriety. When Violette comes to trial, her mother is more bothered that her daughter has brought shame because of her allegations of abuse than about the fact that she murdered her husband - her maternal love is in second place to her concerns about loss of status. Whatever else is true, this is one hell of a deranged family.

To manage such drama and subtlety requires actresses of the ability of Audran and Huppert and they are both magnificent. Huppert shines in a role which a weaker actress would have made childish or unsympathetic. Huppert keeps an element of sociopath about Violette which makes her real life rehabilitation seem all the more chilling but she is essentially an immature damaged girl who learns her mendacity from the world around her. Huppert does makes any old nonsense interesting and has rescued many a Gallic mess but when she is placed within a great script and superb direction as she is here there is no one to match her. Her performance is a companion piece to her later turn as the Vichy abortionist is Chabrol's Story of Women - two misadventuring women trying to escape unsatisfying families and caught by the state for their acts of attempted liberation.

Violette is one of the most important of Chabrol's films, it is also one of the best. Chabrol has always had his share of glorious mistakes, and a lot of his films from the late seventies and the eighties deserve such a soubriquet, yet Violette doesn't deserve such faint praise. Every bit as good as many of the great films he has made if not quite at the pinnacle of them, Violette is a welcome addition to DVD and a great film.

The Disc

This is clearly taken from a source which has been cropped for television as the reel change marks are only partly visible and this full screen presentation obviously requires some adjustment from the likely aspect ratio of the original film. Even saying that, the print is far from pristine with marks, lines, general print damage and hairs visible throughout the film's duration. The transfer shows constant compression artefacts, shimmering and aliasing, and the colour balance is wayward with skins having a red hue at times and a whiter one at others. The contrast is overly dark and the night time sequences lose shade and texture because of this, it is generally grainy and disappointing. The print is sourced through Canal Plus so it may be the same source as the planned R2 French release coming in June, but for Francophones it may be worth waiting 'till that disc is released. The audio is a single French mono track which is a little rough around the edges and rather scratchy with background hiss, pops and some mild distortion in the music. The dialogue is always clear and the imperfections are not too irritating but the overall AV quality here is fair at best. The removable English subtitles are the large yellow font type and the translation is sound and sensible.
The disc comes with a still menu which offers trailers for other Koch Lorber discs like La Belle Captive, Nathalie, Changing Times and Chabrol's latest Comedy of Power. The insert within the disc case is similarly plugging the Koch Lorber catalogue.

Summary

A debut on DVD for one of Chabrol's most important films and one of Huppert's best performances. My high hopes were met by the movie but dashed by the presentation, still with few alternatives this is a budget disc of a great film. Chabrol fans will have to own it, but patient viewers with good French may want to wait on for the forthcoming French release.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
4 out of 10
Audio
4 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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