Inspecteur Lavardin: Directed by Chabrol

Watching Claude Chabrol’s Inspecteur Lavardin, made in 1986, makes one think of the changes that have taken place in the conventions of the suspense-thriller and of the differences between American and French genre films, thematically and stylistically. By contemporary American standards, the movie is a civilized, almost old-fashioned, entertainment–a murder mystery without shock values, dashing visuals, or montage.

The narrative concerns the killing of a Catholic writer, Raoul Mons, whose naked body is found on the beach, with the word Pig written all over it in big letters. At first, the main suspects are the actors, whose “blasphemous” play was banned by the seemingly devout Mons. As the story unfolds, additional characters, including his family members, are brought into the puzzle.

The most interesting aspect of Inspecteur Lavardin is the portrait of the family that emerges. Helene Mons (Bernadette Lafont) is a widow whose first husband disappeared in a boat accident and whose second marriage was one of convenience. Her openly gay brother, Claude Alvarez (Jean-Claude Brialy), is a man of leisure who drives around in a white Jaguar. Claude’s main concern is taking care of Helene’s daughter from her first marriage, the seemingly shy and introvert 13 year-old Veronique (Hermine Clair).

True to formula, appearances and first impressions are deceptive. The movie builds up tension by unveiling more and more bizarre events of the protagonists’ past. For example, Helene and her brother were married on the same day; later, her husband and his wife were involved in an adulterous affair. By the end, the movie weaves a tale of duplicity, drug dealing, sleazy sex, a hint of incest, attempted rape, and the crucial presence of a video camera.

The movie treats the script (written by Dominique Roulet) with respect and intelligence, but it lacks two essentials: real suspense and humor. The pace of the slow-moving narrative gradually become faster but, by the time the murder is resolved, the revelations are no longer surprising. The film’s sets–the country house, where most of the action takes place, the roads, the meadows, and the weather–appear to be authentic. But this handsome movie is without life at its center and without an engaging story line.

With the exception of Jean-Claude Brialy, who plays the flamboyant gay uncle, who paints glass eyes as a hobby, the performers are just adequate. In the lead role of inspector Lavardin, that reliable pro, Jean Poiret, is not eccentric enough to hold our attention; the banter between Lavardin and the other cop assigned to the case is not witty or funny enough. The gifted Bernadette Lafont who, along with Brialy, began her screen career in Chabrol’s very first film (Le Beau Serge in l958) has a rather bland and thankless role.

Inspecteur Lavardin is not a vintage Chabrol–the noted director errs on the side of understatement. This workmanlike movie lacks the irony and moral ambiguity of Chabrol’s The Story of Women or the meticulousness of his recent screen adaptation of Madame Bovary.

However, Inspecteur Lavardin, like most of Chabrol’s films, is painstakingly realized, proving again his proficient technical skills, great ease at story telling and, unlike many of his French colleagues, unpretentiousness. As usual with Chabrol, the movie contains some fascinating visual touches. The resolution of the mystery, for instance, a long-take shot from high angle, is particularly gratifying. Chabrol’s known admiration for Hitchcock, is also evident in this movie. The uncle’s collection of glass eyes (including a set of Ray Charles!) is arguably an hommage to Hitchcock’s stuffed birds in Psycho.

In the final account, Inspecteur Lavardin may be interesting only as a specimen of French commercial genre films and as a footnote in the prolific career of one of the most versatile filmmakers of the New Wave.