The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol. 1 Review

The Films

Artificial Eye's latest collection of Claude Chabrol's films contains two new releases to these shores along with a re-issued presentation of Merci Pour Le Chocolat. The three film are from the director's longest collaborative period with a producer, Marin Karmitz, which began in 1985 and ended with 2003's Fleur du Mal. Since then Chabrol has worked with Patrick Godeau, and for all the quality of some of his recent films it's hard not to see the Karmitz partnership as a more fruitful one. The three examples offered here of that collaboration evidence the director's growing interest in heroines and femininity under threat, a direct counterpoint to his early career largely built on the dissection of the male psyche.

Inspector Lavardin

First up is 1986's sequel of sorts to Cop au Vin, with the director returning to the character of Inspector Lavardin. In fact, Lavardin also found himself with a TV series, two episodes of which Chabrol took charge of. Here Jean Poiret returns to uncover the crimes of the bourgeoisie, punish the evil rich and liberate unfortunate innocents. Set in a coastal town where the body of a community bigwig is found naked on the beach with the word "PIG" written on his back, Lavardin is called in to bring home the bacon in the shape of his killer.

Writing again with Dominique Poulet, Chabrol adapted an existing script to include Poiret's character and in the casting he reunites himself with two of the stars of his first two films, Jean Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont. Brialy is wonderfully camp as a kindhearted uncle, showing the verve that impresses so much in Les Cousins. Lafont, following her daughter's appearance in Cop au Vin as a vamp very much in her mother's style, plays a glamorous widow and an old flame of the detective.
Chabrol revels in Lavardin's rudeness, his impertinence and unnerving ability to get to the root of things. Poiret provokes and pushes the boundaries of the rich and powerful, and he exhibits a gleeful twinkle as he flirts with danger and authority. The camera follows Chabrol's usual formalism in composition, very rarely reaching for impact shots such as the overhead scene that reveals the original murder.

Inspector Lavardin is great fun as a Chabrolian thriller but lightweight and a trifle silly. More interestingly it explores some areas of masculine power and exploitation that shows a growing concern for sexual politics in its concentration on the female characters and negative depiction of the male ones. Yet what really works is the character and Poiret's performance, who like Michel Bouquet and Michel Serrault before him is perfect for the tone of the director's work. Poiret's verve, intellectual energy and instinct for the director's intentions raise the film way above the quality of the screenplay.

Betty is reviewed on the next page


Betty is based upon a novel by Georges Simenon. It is is by no means a policier or a thriller, although it uses elliptical techniques and flashbacks in order to reveal itself fully. It features the tragic Marie Trintignant in a nakedly ragged performance as a haute bourgeois wife who finds herself jettisoned from the world of her children and opulent family. Rather than following the heroic route of the similarly themed La Rupture or playing out as a simple tragedy, Betty is really about the trajectory of a damaged soul driven by an acquisitive sexuality.

We meet Betty chain smoking in the clutches of a sadistic seemingly well to do doctor, who then takes her to the far from promisingly sounding pub "The Hole". She is clearly completely lost in the world, bereft of anything other than sadness. She is saved by Laure, played by Stephane Audran, who thinks she recognises a younger fellow traveller - a woman like herself who has been ejected from a loveless luxurious life. Betty is taken in, cared for and through flashback we learn the full truth about the life she has lost and the degradation she mistakes for love. As happens in Les Biches, Betty takes on the health and well-being of her patron and the two women's roles become reversed.
We learn of Betty's adolescence, her need to wound herself through sex and the failure of an empty passionless marriage to fulfil her. Upon her eventual recovery, we are left only too aware of the damage she will cause in future, perhaps not only to herself. This is all pretty gruelling and without an immensely compelling central performance, it could very well prove unwatchable.

That is most certainly not the case. Betty is tough going yet it is a clear development of ideas contained in classic films from the director's Helene cycle, especially the vampirism of Les Biches and the cast out woman of La Rupture. Love triangles, transfers of power and the bestial subtext of civilised relationships are all updated with a more modern sensibility and a deeper more believable feminine psychology in the title character. Key to this updating is the changing role of Audran in the director's work - in Les Biches, she usurped and consumed the status of her lover come rival and here, 25 years later, the tables are turned.
What though stays with me in one of the most accomplished and little seen of the director's later films is Trintignant. Her fate in life undoubtedly lends a sense of authenticity to her performance, but this is an amazing and convincing representation where her character's pathology switches between wreck and wrecker. She refuses to go for simple pathos or easy sympathy, and she never lets the viewer's attention slip regardless of how badly or destructively Betty acts. In an instinctive and complex role, Trintignant is quite peerless.

Merci Pour Le Chocolat is reviewed on the next page

Merci Pour Le Chocolat

One of the final films in Chabrol's partnership with Marin Karmitz is as characteristically elegant and well performed as any in the director's career. From it's deeply ironic title to the chilly performance of Isabelle Huppert, Merci Pour Le Chocolat is the most sardonic of thrillers from the most sardonic of film-makers. It possesses the finest score of Matthieu Chabrol's work, and appropriately the kind of passion for music that the director himself has. Families, secrets and the reality underneath the civilised exterior, familiar themes are offered up with perfect craft and characteristic wit.
Set, like a number of Chabrol's later films, in Switzerland the action follows the response of a matriarch of a confectionery empire to a threat to her perceived dominance. Isabelle Huppert is the chocolate heiress, the wonderful saggy Jacques Dutronc is appropriately cast as her pianist husband and Anna Mouglalis is the potential daughter that Dutronc never had.

Taking the narrative tack of following Mouglais's quest into her possible roots, the film delights in looking at the tableaux of this family's life. We open with the couple's re-marriage, there are many scenes of family meals and routines where the fabulously wealthy Huppert's brood are managed extensively by her and Mouglais' simpler domestic life contrasted with this. As we work back from marital bliss, we learn that Huppert's single mindedness in business is matched by the same obsession in "keeping up appearances".
Again, Chabrol's film has an amazing performance at the core. Watching Huppert is magnificent. Sole singular gestures reveal her character's basic disconnection, her impossible ambition and near sociopathy. An extended finger at the wrong moment, a furtive action caught in reflection - all of her micro-acting takes her character from self-admitted meddler to the person we finally learn she is.

Like in his later films, younger characters are given more prominence to balance the older cast. Perhaps the responsibility for the crimes that are exposed here are those of the older generation and perhaps it is the inquisitiveness of the young that reveals the truth. Like many of the characters in Chabrol who challenge the status quo, retribution or rejection can be the price they pay but here that message seems to be kinder and results in a gentler fate for the youthful interlopers.
What makes the film so accomplished though is that it is an excellent idea that has been executed well. Unlike Inspector Lavardin there is no compromised script, the production is first rate and the performances are perfect. Often, and reasonably so, Chabrol has been criticised for making too many compromises with his projects in any of these areas and here it seems he doesn't have to. Free to work with a good project that is well resourced and perfectly cast, Chabrol delivers a delicious tale of killing with kindness.

A/V comparisons and extras next

A/V Comparisons

All of these films have received English friendly releases before and in fact the disc for Merci Pour Le Chocolat is exactly the same as the previous one released by Artificial Eye. I've compared them to other versions that I own and the results are below, with the Artificial Eye images positioned above the previous releases:

Inspector Lavardin - Artificial Eye vs Kimstim Collection

Artificial Eye


Both of the R1 and Artificial Eye presentations of Inspector Lavardin seem to have come from the same print correctly framed at 1.66:1. The R1 release is far from great quality with combing and motion shaking and colours which lack vibrancy, and the Artificial Eye release is an improvement but only slightly. Contrast is higher, the image is sharper but there is edge enhancement and occasionally fleshtones are too warm. I imagine the Artificial Eye release is basically a port of the French disc so quality is likely to be similar to that release. The stereo track is basically sound and a little clearer than the Kino disc, and the subtitles are optional and solid.

Betty - Artificial Eye vs MK2

Artificial Eye

MK2 France

The new release of Betty also seems to be a port of the existing French release with a couple of differences in terms of increased sharpness and slightly warmer colours. This is the best of the transfers in this new set, but I do prefer the existing French disc for a more appropriate softer appearance. Both transfers are very good though, in the correct aspect ratio and both possess good optional English subtitles. The audio tracks are so similar that I noticed no real difference between them and both are well mixed with clear dialogue and strong reproduction.

Merci Pour Le Chocolat - Artificial Eye vs Artificial Eye!

No comparison really to make here other than to point out that by reissuing their previous release Artificial Eye have missed an opportunity to correct the cropping, softness and incorrect aspect ratio of their treatment of this fine film. Heads are frequently cut off at the brow, presumably to ensure that the burnt in subtitles on the print are not lost at the bottom of the picture. There are correctly framed DVD releases of this film in France and the USA so you may be better off searching them out. Burnt in subtitles are wrong, just plain wrong, and the perfectly fine and clear audio can't make up for this cardinal sin.

Special features

The two new discs are region free with the older release still being region locked. New menus are provided for the two new releases which will presumably be duplicated with the planned future release of the next collection of films from the director on this label in June. Trailers for the other films in the collection are included on the two new discs which you can see listed in the left hand column of this review. Some of these trailers are very poor visual quality, but the best fun to be had is Chabrol himself holding a faux press conference as Inspector Lavardin's superior in the trailer for that film.

Merci Pour le Chocolat carries all the extras from before and again you can read about them by clicking on the previous review by Gary Couzens here.


I welcome any releases of Chabrol's work but the transfers here are marginally better than previous releases and simply dishing out again the very poor cropped presentation of Merci Pour Le Chocolat is regrettable. Two of these films represent the best of the director's later work and Inspector Lavardin is good fun too, if you are new to the director you could do worse than trying these out but if you own previous releases I wonder whether you need to acquire them again.

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