BEIRUT: In the little plastic bag of stories that cinema loves to repackage, law enforcement tales are among the most-gnawed. Film depictions of police have long been skeptical – witness the hoards of keystone cops stumbling through the silent movie era.
The skepticism acquired aesthetic credibility in the 1940s when French critics began lauding U.S. cinema’s stylish explorations of the murky lines supposedly separating heroes and villains.
Inhabited by heroes sometimes indistinguishable from the criminals with whom they occasionally drank, and morally ambiguous “femmes fatales” for whose affections both sides competed, the French anointed this loose-limbed genre to be “film noir.”
As with so many American transplants to Europe, noir was discreetly altered in French, and seldom with more creative verve than when taken up by the New Wave.
Take Claude Chabrol (1930-2010). Famously interested in ideas, and with a fine nose for the intimacy of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Chabrol wasn’t averse to making films that were at once intelligent and entertaining.
“Inspecteur Lavardin” (1986) is a convenient case in point. Skeptics can now sample this Breton confection, as it’s screening as part of Metropolis Cinema’s Chabrol retrospective Des Miroirs et des Masques.
Set in the village of Dinan, on France’s north coast, the whodunit begins at the stern supper table of Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine), a patrician writer renowned locally for his Roman Catholic disposition.
He shares his evening meal with his wife Hélène (Bernadette Lafont), her brother Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Véronique (Hermine Clair), her 13-year-old daughter by a previous husband.
Supper is interrupted by a squad of concerned villagers, wanting to enlist M. Mons’ support in banning a new theater production. (Its French title is “Our Father who art in Heaven,” with “Pere” (Father) written Paire (pair).)
Returning to his meal, Mons utters a sneering “Blasphemy!” The film jump-cuts to the seaside sometime later, where two little boys find Mons’ naked corpse, with the work PORC (pig) lipsticked on its back.
As the village gendarmerie has little experience solving murders, the eponymous Inspecteur Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) is called in.
Arriving at the deceased’s home, he is surprised to find that Mons’ widow Hélène is an old flame of his.
In another type of law-enforcement story, an investigating officer who shares a sexual history with an aggrieved widow might find reason to withdraw from the case. Not so with Lavardin, whose opening interview with Madame Mons relates less to her husband’s death than her having abandoned him decades before.
“So you’re a cop now!” Mme Mons smiles.
“Yes,” he grins grimly. “I started as an amateur, looking for you. So you can be credited with starting my brilliant career!”
Jean and Hélène’s shared back story is only one of the wrenches Chabrol pitches into the works of the police procedural. Another is that so few members of Mons’ family appear to be grieving his death.
Then there are the coincidences.
Over supper one evening, the inspector inquires into Hélène’s complex marriage history. Raoul’s murder, she informs him, marks the second time she’s been widowed.
Raoul’s pal Pierre Manguin was Hélène’s first husband. He stepped on his yacht, “The Veronique,” one day and never returned – although the boat did. Curiously Uncle Claude’s wife, Jeanne, was sailing with Manguin that day, so both Mons’ future wife and brother-in-law were widowed simultaneously.
While Hélène mourns, Claude is jovial about his loss, observing that since Jeanne died, he’s emerged from the closet as “the gay widower.”
The announcement of Uncle Claude’s homosexuality may come as a relief, given his attachment to 13-year-old Veronique – and his depiction of his niece as “an adorable child.”
Max Charnet (Jean-Luc Bideau), the owner of Tamaris, a cheesy nightclub where Dinan’s not-so-innocent youth spend their evenings, appears less impervious to the charms of under-aged women.
Most-Catholic Mons often frequented Tamaris as well, a contradiction that intrigues Lavardin.
The only slightly perturbable Lavardin flenses through the multiple layers of mystery about Raoul Mons’ life and death like a well-honed knife carving bloody cote du boeuf. Naturally the gristle at the core of the tale is far more interesting than you might guess from the opening supper table conversation.
As is the case with whodunits generally, though, the resolution of this crime is less compelling than the trail that leads there. In its writing and dialogue “Inspecteur Lavardin” is rich with wit.
Naturally the whodunit’s things-are-not-as-they-seem premises are well suited to the Nouvelle Vague’s preoccupations with social and cultural critique.
Raoul the pious Catholic keeps a hollowed-out copy of the Bible in his study, in which he stows a bottle of Otard cognac. Though he appears fond of bedding young women, Charnet the nightclub owner regards his young clients as “empty-headed a**holes.”
The effortless writing is evident not merely in the narrative mechanics.
Winking at the film’s literary antecedents, Lavardin almost immediately starts calling Sergeant Vigouroux, his faithful assistant in the local gendarmerie, “Watson.”
Knowledgeable viewers amused by the meaning of the deceased man’s family name (the Latin “mons” also protrudes into English) will also smile to learn that, in a caper in which so much is so openly hidden, mad Uncle Claude’s hobby is eyes: He laboriously hand paints little white ceramic domes to resemble the orbits of celebrities.
Claude’s pastime is to be contrasted with that of his sister Hélène – sitting in the sunroom of her palatial villa, oblivious to the world beneath a pair of state-of-the-art headphones, circa-1984.
“Inspecteur Lavardin” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Wednesday evening at 8pm. For more information see http://www.metropoliscinema.net.