Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Claude Chabrol and Inspector Lavardin

Jean Poiret gets ready for a day of detecting in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

This piece is a contribution to Ten Days' Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, hosted by Flickhead.

Although Claude Chabrol ended up making four films featuring the character of Inspector Lavardin, he had a hard time getting the first project off the ground. Coming out of a fallow cinematic period –he’d kept busy with various TV projects - Chabrol was unable to find a TV co-producer, and wasn’t even able to benefit from the “avance sur recettes” mechanism that’s employed by so many French filmmakers. The script eventually ended up on the desk of Marin Karmitz, who was just flowering into a producer of considerable power, and Karmitz proposed a budget of 6 million francs (about $700,000 at the time), about half the average cost of a French film in the mid-1980s.

Dominique Lavanant in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

Chabrol, never one to turn down the opportunity to work, said yes, and Karmitz ultimately signed him up as a salaried employee, going on to produce most of the director’s films during the subsequent two decades. That kind of off-screen fidelity is reproduced in many of Chabrol’s casting choices in the Lavardin films. Poulet au vinaigre and L'Escargot noir both feature Stéphane Audran, who has appeared in more than twenty Chabrol films – and was, not incidentally, married to him for sixteen years - as well as Michel Bouquet, a stalwart of Chabrol’s work in the late 1960s/early 1970s, while Inspecteur Lavardin reunites Dominique Lavanant and Jean-Claude Brialy, who appeared together in two key early Chabrol films, Le Beau serge (the director’s debut) and Les Godelureaux.

By contrast, Lavardin himself is played by the comic actor and playwright Jean Poiret, who had never worked for Chabrol before; few of Poiret’s films are familiar to English-speaking audiences given that French comedies don’t tend to travel well. Chabrol and Poiret both appeared in a 1964 film (Les durs à cuire, directed by Jacques Pinoteau), and I believe they shared the screen in a climactic scene, but that was the extent of their prior collaboration. Poiret, like Chabrol, was coming out of cinematic mothballs in 1985. After making roughly three films a year from 1956 to 1970 he more or less disappeared from the screen and spent much of the 1970s on stage in La Cage aux folles, which he also wrote. He credited a role in Truffaut’s Le Dernier métro with giving him “the desire to make movies again,” and he remained active in films until his death in 1992 (his one film as director, the minor but rather enjoyable Le Zèbre, which features his wife, Caroline Cellier, was released three months after his death).

Lavardin turns on the charm in L'Escargot noir (1988)

It’s hard to avoid comparison between Hitchcock and Chabrol, and the casting of Poiret seems very much of a piece with Hitchcock’s use of an actor like Cary Grant - that is, a player known for lighter roles who reveals a darker side. Chabrol uses Poiret’s Janus-like ability throughout the four Lavardin films. It’s consistently unsettling to see the often jocular inspector suddenly turn on a suspect, unleashing verbal and occasionally physical violence, and the character himself is aware of the alarming impact of the transformation, carefully cultivating an unruffled demeanour the better to demolish it when necessary.

Jean Poiret and Michel Bouquet in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

Still, despite Poiret’s lengthy experience as a performer, it’s not clear that Chabrol knew quite what he had on his hands when making the first film. Poiret doesn’t appear until 40 minutes have elapsed, and then proceeds to walk away with the movie. Chabrol doesn’t mess about on the second occasion, even though the script for that outing wasn’t originally conceived with Lavardin in mind, and Poiret appears as soon as the opening credits begin to roll. While Lavardin flew solo in the first film, in the sequel Chabrol pairs him with a Watson character, a local cop who helps to orient him. That pattern is repeated in the two telefilm outings, and in Inspecteur Lavardin, the inspector even refers to his sidekick as Watson.

Lavardin and his local Watson in Inspecteur Lavardin (1986)

Although made for a cinema audience, the structure of Poulet au vinaigre reminds me of a good British television mystery, and the late arrival of the detective is very much part of the pattern. Chabrol using the first section of the film to set up a complex web of local relationships in P.D. James or Ruth Rendell style (hardly surprising, then, that Chabrol turned to Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone as the source material for his 1995 La Cérémonie). Cinematically, the most obvious forebear is Henri-Georges Clouzot. If the resemblance to the acidly-drawn village of Le Corbeau, a place riven by poison-pen letters, wasn’t already obvious one of the key characters in Poulet au vinaigre is an employee of the postal service who, along with his mother (a very unglamorous Audran), steams open the correspondence of the local bigwigs. The film is not without references to Chabrol’s own earlier work, too: the film’s first victim is a butcher, in whose shop window appears the sign “Closed Because of Murder”!

The plot of that first film is the most twisted and the most satisfying of the quartet; Chabrol and Dominique Roulet wrote the script from Roulet’s novel, and it’s a tight interweaving of murder and small-town loyalties and betrayals, allowing Chabrol ample room to peel away the onion layers of relationships and class distinctions. It’s also the one film that transcends the Lavardin character rather than being dependent on him for much of its interest.

Jean-Claude Brialy in Inspecteur Lavardin (1986)

After the first film's success, the Lavardin character was injected into a pre-existing, and apparently rather poor, script after Chabrol’s plan to make a film about Camille Claudel fell through. Isabelle Adjani had contacted Claudel’s family and snapped up the reproduction rights to her artwork, but Chabrol had a measure of revenge, alarming Adjani's producers by initially retaining the title of his Claudel project for the second Lavardin film so that they thought he was pressing ahead. As Chabrol himself admits, the plot on the second occasion is “a banal whodunit, it’s plot 12b,” probably because there was a bit of a rush to get the project moving to capitalize on the first film's success.

Indeed, the main point of Inspecteur Lavardin is not to solve the mystery but rather to have Lavardin attempt to bring a measure of moral justice to the lives of old friends (credibility goes out the window, since he stays in the home of some obvious suspects, one of whom is an old flame). It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to apply Chabrol’s plot judgment to the two telefilms, L’Escargot noir and Maux croisés, although the first of the pair does at least have an appealingly twisted motivation, and Chabrol assembles a nice gallery of players from Chinon’s bourgeoisie.

There’s nothing rote about Chabrol’s visual approach, however. Even in films that many rate as fairly lightweight, he is careful to create a coherent visual style. On the DVD extras for his 1988 film Une Affaire de femmes, he speaks about the issue of finding an appropriate style during the first few days of shooting a new film (Une Affaire de femmes was released the same month that L’Escargot noir was broadcast, which provides an interesting illustration both of Chabrol’s work ethic and of his diverse interests), and on the Lavardin films he also sets himself playful technical challenges. Thus in Poulet au vinaigre he decided that “there would only be a single shot/reverse shot,” and in Inspecteur Lavardin that “there wouldn’t be a single shot at exact eye level” – an apt choice for a film so obsessed with looking and seeing that it features a character (played by a very fey Jean-Claude Brialy) who paints human eyes mounted on stands! The shot choices also serve as a constant prelude to the film’s stunning climactic shot, which shows a death from the perspective of an overhead camera that has been placed in a bedroom.

L'Escargot noir (1989)

Indeed, cameras – artificial eyes - and high-angle shots abound in the four films. The first three minutes of Poulet au vinaigre are shot through the lens of a camera, which takes pictures of the guests at a party in a provincial town (introducing to many of the key players in the process), while Maux croisés centers around a TV quiz show, giving ample opportunity for Chabrol to play with shots of television screens; Lavardin watches one key sequence on a television in a hotel room while the reality plays out down below. Similarly, L’Escargot noir has several important scenes that appear to be filmed from close to ceiling-level - a meeting between two potential suspects, a shot of Lavardin interviewing a chef – or from high above the scene, such as the shots from Lavardin’s hotel room down to a square where one of the suspects owns a pharmacy.

Maux croisés (1989)

Beyond these shots, I wasn’t able to discern a consistent technical challenge in the telefilms, except to note that Chabrol makes his camera exceptionally mobile, constantly tracking down streets and moving from one character or object to another. The dolly crew, crane operator and steadicam operator all earned their keep on the films. Even where the mobile camera is especially notable – following a woman down a street, or or panning to show us Lavardin's destination – there’s nothing gratuitous about such shots, which are almost always designed to add additional information through camera movement rather than through a cut. It’s a technique that Chabrol frequently favours in other films, even where the subject is much more sober – as in Une Affaire de femmes, for instance.

That said, the telefilms are a significant fall-off from their cinematic counterparts, and the final outing in particular commits some familiar bottom-of-the-barrel sins: bringing back a character from a previous film (André, the barman played by Albert Dray in Poulet au vinaigre) in absurdly coincidental fashion, and sending Lavardin to an exotic location, the Italian spa town of Montecatini, for no apparent reason other than the needs of co-production with Italian television. Lavardin’s outlandish behaviour towards suspects hardly marks him as the kind of cop who would have been entrusted with a sensitive cross-border mission (he’s transferred between the first two films, for dunking a suspect in a basin of water). Still, as Chabrol points out in an interview, Lavardin might be outrageous but he’s never stupid. He’s aware that almost everyone he speaks to has something to hide, and as a consequence as long as he doesn’t go too far over the line no-one is likely to complain. In the third film, he sits his various suspects down and when they aren’t as forthcoming as Lavardin would like he says “I feel like I’m going to make a blunder,” adeptly making reference to the widespread image of the French police at the time, while having no intention of actually doing something foolish. Claude Zidi’s films Inspecteur la Bavure (1980) and Les Ripoux (1984) capture, and perpetuate, that negative image, albeit in largely comic terms. Throughout the four films, put-upon suspects threaten Lavardin with lawyers or sputter sentiments like “You’re crazy, you’ll go to prison,” though both they and Lavardin know that nothing serious is likely to happen.

Don't trust those innocent faces - Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

As the cycle moves along, the greatest pleasures come from the ways in which Chabrol references earlier incidents and re-works them. For instance, Lavardin is properly introduced to us over his breakfast at a bar in Forges-les-Eaux (a small town in Normandy), and breakfasts form a key part of his routine. There’s an amusing scene where Mario David (the Watson character in Maux croisés) brings croissants for breakfast and proceeds to dunk his pastry in Lavardin’s coffee, a compliment that Lavardin returns when he breakfasts with his Italian Watson in the final film. More spectacular repasts are at the centre of the investigations in Inspecteur Lavardin and L’Escargot noir, which has numerous references to the culinary possibilities of a good snail, while most of the policework in Maux croisés appears to take place at a hotel dinner table.

Lavardin and his Italian Watson hard at work in Maux croisés (1989)

Poulet au vinaigre (1985, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet)
Inspecteur Lavardin (1986, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet)
L'Escargot noir (1988, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol; for television)
Maux croisés (1989, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet; for television)


Chabrol's old friends at Les Cahiers du cinéma gave the two Lavardin cinema films fine coverage: the first film was on the cover of the April 1985 issue, while the second was the lead article in March 1986. The following articles were particularly helpful in writing this piece:

"Éloge de la fantaisie. Entretien avec Jean Poiret (Interview by Olivier Assayas and Marc Chevrie), Les Cahiers du cinéma, April 1985, pp. 38-43.

"Attention les yeux! Entretien avec Claude Chabrol" (Interview by Marc Chevrie and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, March 1986, pp. 9-14.

“Claude Chabrol de A a Z” (Interview by Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, Spécial Chabrol, October 1997, pp. 6-31.

“Masques et bergamasques: Entretien avec Marin Karmitz” (Interview by Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, Spécial Chabrol, October 1997, pp. 72-77.

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