Just Before Nightfall Review
“I'm going to kill a man.”
Regarded by many as the French Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol seems to take great delight in putting the middle classes through various psychological and emotional nightmares, the sting of which being that these nightmares are often of their own creation. Fashioning tales of intense moral dilemmas and obsessions that tend to nudge towards murder, he nevertheless likes to poke fun at the social mores of the times to essay what he clearly believes to be the tragic decline of standards amongst the well-to-do. But, beyond a relish for sometimes complex plotting and a nice degree of good guy/bad guy line-shading, the similarity with the rotund master of suspense, I feel, ends right there, with Chabrol fascinated more by scrutinising damaged characters over a long, slow-moving narrative, than plunging his audience deep into an engrossing mystery. Thrill-rides, his films are not. The darkness and danger he concocts is reliably realistic, set in the everyday realm of normality, and the perpetrators, by and large, are just everyday people who have unwittingly placed themselves into fateful situations. He grounds them in the rustic setting of the rural French countryside, and sidelines high-drama for conversational interplay, the dark side of human nature manifesting itself in the minutia of the conventional, the mundane, even. But whereas Hitchcock fractures psychology and perverts his cast of ne'er-do-wells with gleeful malice, Chabrol seeks out the sadness and the irony that has his characters resort to ill-deeds.
The four films in this collection are all available separately and mark Chabrol's most revered period of work, between 1968 and 1974. However, I feel that only two deserve special mention as they reveal the director at the two ends of his own spectrum, offering a diversity of mood and motivation, and both supplying plenty of tension and interest. The first, and best of the overall four, is Que La Bete Meure (This Man Must Die) which is also the earliest, hailing from 1969. When his young son is killed in a hit and run incident, writer Charles Thenier is determined to exact revenge upon the cold-hearted driver. Believing strongly in chance and coincidence pays off quite spectacularly for the vengeful father, as he meets first the lovely young Helene, who was the passenger in the killer's vehicle, and then uses his bogus love for her to aid his infiltration into the home and the trust of the killer, himself. He informs us, as he writes in his notebook narration, that his “only weapon is patience. I can wait,” and, indeed, he spends a lot of time getting to know the killer, Helene's brother-in-law, and his family, becoming a confident and a possible business associate of the man he wants to destroy. The clever angle here is that the murderer's own family despise him as much as Thenier does, and Chabrol, indeed, takes great pleasure in painting him as a truly despicable character in every respect. Thenier's first meeting with the ruthless Paul is at a family dinner, and Paul's oily womanising and cruel manipulation of his own wife and son are wholly abhorrent to watch. It is perhaps a little clichéd to make Paul such a nasty piece of work, but it plays marvellously well against Thenier's outwardly calm and friendly demeanour. We know the secrets of both men, but only our hero is the one hiding behind a mask.
The film offers a great build-up of tension, Thenier's early charade of romancing the actress Helene, by posing as a scriptwriter, is an icy and well-played game of deception. Check out the awkward seduction scene with the two separated by a symbolic chessboard, and the subsequent tease that Helene delivers by snatching up the dead son's teddy-bear and playfully refusing to give it back. The emotional knee-jerking here is brilliantly captured with the viewer literally urging poor Thenier to throttle the unknowing girl for this disgrace. This is a highpoint that really draws you into what amounts to a Greek tragedy full of twisted allegiances, missed opportunities for Thenier's scheme and a wonderfully cool trick that Chabrol plays on us later. This trick takes the movie into a whole new direction that, whilst still a clever switch of perspective, somehow robs the movie of the emotional pay-off that we crave. It somehow indicates that Fate is actually dealing the cards in this game, again operating on Thenier's own belief in chance. Yet, whilst I admire the plot's gear-change, it cannot help but come over as vaguely unsatisfying.
Michel Duchaussoy, as Charles Thenier, looks and performs like a Gallic Gregory Peck - all stoic resolve and granite-edged conviction, though tinged with a haunted agony perfectly exhibited when we see him watching home movies of his son. He deftly handles the difficult job of juggling what we, as the audience, know as the truth, and the sham that he has to convince his enemy of. The cute thing here, being that he somehow manages to keep hiding behind the truth, itself. His confession of what Helene thinks is true love is actually a magnificent play on words, a red herring that is in fact, no deceit at all. Witty and intelligent stuff in a film that constantly shifts expectation. It may often appear a bit too contrived - with the puzzle fitting together all too easily - but this is a carefully constructed morality play that, as is Chabrol's obvious intention with such material, chooses to explore the dark and devious motivations of the soul. It would undoubtedly be a far more uncomfortable experience if it were played more naturalistically.
“Pretty as a dead priest.”
Nada (1974) sees Chabrol enter the political stage with a tale of a small terrorist gang kidnapping the American ambassador from a Parisian brothel and holding him hostage in an isolated farmhouse. Calling themselves Nada, the group fit the typical genre requirements - we have the aging expert who only reluctantly agrees to take on this one last job, the educated anarchist who believes he can change the world, the nervous one and the drunken, rhetoric-spouting revolutionary who would just as easily sign up for any cause if it guaranteed him some action. None of them look like your conventional seventies-issue terrorists - they all seem quite old for the mission and somewhat settled in life to be running around with guns and making demands - but then again, isn't that the idea of the enemy within? We get to know the gang before they make their move and discover that they are all quite likeable, in fact, clearly indicating that our own loyalties will be tested later on when the heavy-handed police step in with some bully-boy tactics.
“A good civil war is worth more than a rotten peace.”
Looking spookily like a young Sean Connery, the leader of the group, Buenaventure, is the bohemian musician who thinks that with a gun in his hand, he can make a real difference. He becomes the catalyst for the movie's themes in more ways than one. His methods and beliefs may be questionable, but the screenplay deliberately attempts to make a hero of him when it sets him against the authorities who, it seems, will stop at nothing to bring the gang down. There certainly won't be a peaceful solution to this one, folks. With a much faster pace, some misplaced humour and some decidedly manic moments, Nada is a massive swing shift from Que La Bete Meure's slow, measured style. Chabrol attempts some action scenes here with unintentionally hilarious results and even an early Die Hard-style swinging through a window stunt. The violence is quite ineptly choreographed and, until some hapless cops try to intervene, the initial kidnapping must rank as one of the politest ever conducted - just check out the almost soothing way which people are rendered unconscious, and the placing of a garment by one of the gang to preserve a prostitute's modesty. Also, just watch for the terrible moment when one character is machine-gunned in front of another, only for the survivor to ask the corpse, “Are you hit? Are you hit?” But it does deliver a nifty, and bloody, slingshot murder, though.
The nice touch with this film is that it takes a moment to show us the aftermath of the police action and the beginnings of the witch-hunt that would surely follow. Once again, all the characters inhabit that grey, murky area that divides right from wrong, although Chabrol seems to indicate that no-one throughout this story is actually operating to a reasonable agenda. The authorities are especially given a hard time of it, their tactics taking in torture of suspects and wholesale slaughter. But, once again, the plot boils down to the obsessional drive of two violently opposed men, their final confrontation blurring the distinction between the good, and the bad guys still further.
The other two films in the collection are Les Noces Rouges (Wedding In Blood) and Juste Avant La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall). Neither are very appealing and come across as pure slow, sedate character study. Les Noces Rouges was, at the time of its release in 1973, quite controversial as its plot depicting a political sex scandal, affairs and murder, was deemed a little too similar to real-life events that had shocked France. A tale of adultery and small-town political skulduggery, this movie has its moments, but they are few and far between and hardly worth the wait. The pivotal murder though, when it finally comes, is quite surprisingly brutal given the pedestrian nature of the film surrounding it. Juste Avant La Nuit from 1971 details the painfully drab and tediously-slow story of an advertising executive who accidentally kills his lover when one of their S&M games goes a little too far. But forget any images of fun and titillation, folks, because the most shocking things on display here are the hairy armpits of his unfortunate bit-on-the-side. The majority of the movie chronicles his inability to cope with the situation and return to a normal life with his wife and two children, whilst Chabron's favourite bumbling police force struggle to solve the mysterious death. I have to admit that I found it extremely hard to stick with this one because it moved at such a wretchedly funereal pace. The performances are uniformly acceptable, but the story itself just lacks any sort of hook. That Hitchcock tag is incredibly hard to believe when viewing this slumber-inducing pot-boiler.
So, there you have it. Two out of four isn't that bad, I suppose. Que La Bete Meure is certainly worth a look for its twisted mind games, and Nada is a daftly quirky little tale that raises a few chuckles along the way. But, in all honesty, I've seen nothing in this collection that really makes me want to watch another Claude Chabrol movie. On the basis of this collection, that Hitchcock reference is sadly mistaken.