20 December 2000 | the red duchess
Sunny Chabrol frolic darker than it first appears.
It is true that Chabrol loosened his grip after 'Les Innocents Aux Mains Sales', possibly horrified by his own insights. This is probably a shame; but the light, comic mysteries and thrillers he has largely produced since are by no means negligible, always entertaining and full of Chabrolian irony and motifs. In this film, believe it or not, he seems to believe in the God of marriage. Normally that venerable institution is the site in Chabrol of repression, a (usually literal) stifling of humanity, a closed, rigid world not too far from hell. With the relaxing of his style comes a relaxing of his world view.
As ever with Chabrol, a young man is being emotionally strangled by his mother's dependence, her emotional paralysis somewhat unsubtly figured in her being crippled. Although the title punningly refers to the detective, and the film is nominally a mystery story, Chabrol seems more interested in his rites-of-passage narrative - the detective doesn't make his first appearance for forty minutes, and doesn't dominate the movie until the last third.
It would be wrong to claim that this is Chabrol in 'realistic' mode, but he certainly gets a sense of a rural town community, its unexpected connections, the malicious schemes of its most respectable citizens; pure soap opera, maybe, but the idea of a society turning in on itself, almost incestuously, is convincing. Louis Cuno is the unexpected centre of the town's secrets, a sullen, gangly, lovestruck teenager, but as postman he connects as no-one else can, betraying his civic trust as he takes home to his mother incriminating letters to peruse, as a defence against plans to demolish their property, destroy their home.
Chabrol usually deals with the threat to the home from within; the extending of focus here, leads to a more relaxed film. Because the film focuses of Louis, whose not always legal actions are treated indulgently by director and detective alike, the other characters are more shadowy, more like caricatures, minimising the mystery, making its potentially horrifying conclusions somewhat perfunctory. Chabrol doesn't let his hero off too easily, as we suspect Louis is exchanging one mother for another; his initiation into the delights of sex is in the grounds of a country house, a typically Chabrolian green space blighted by the surveilling eyes of the detective.
Spying is one of the main themes of the film, from the camera taking pictures at the beginning, to Louis' nocturnal amateur detective work. In such a community, private and public space are not so clearly marked, and one's identity is as much defined by one's public role (doctor, butcher etc.) as by any personal merit, so there is something creepy as well as comic about this police (the Law) spying on the sexual act.
There is something creepy about this policeman, anyway. Unlike the rooted, defined villagers, he is a rootless stranger, without motive, personality, role, except to solve the crime (he keeps insisting that he is the 'flic'), in order to do which he resorts to alarming thuggery, even more objectionable than Harry Callahan, whose heart at least was in the right place. Don't be fooled by Chabrol's autumnal cheerfulness - this is a vinaigre with a very bitter aftertaste.