Friday, July 21, 2023

Blue Panther (1965)

Claude Chabrol’s Blue Panther (the original title is Marie-Chantal contre Dr Kha) is a lighthearted 1965 eurospy romp, or at least that’s what you might assume.

It opens with a murder on a train heading for Switzerland. Then Bruno Kerrien (Roger Hanin), who claims to be an advertising man, meets Hubert de Ronsac (François Moro-Giafferi) and his pretty cousin Marie-Chantal (Marie Laforêt) in the dining car. Bruno gets jumpy when he realises he is being watched. He asks Marie-Chantal to do him a favour. He wants her to hold on to a piece of jewellery for him for a day or two. The jewel is a blue panther with ruby eyes.

Marie-Chantal senses some kind of intrigue here and that sounds like fun so she agrees.

Later on the ski slopes she encounters reporter who tells her he is in Switzerland in pursuit of a story about international espionage. She guesses that the blue panther is involved.

There are all sorts of shady characters at the hotel. And pretty soon there’s a murder. And Marie-Chantal makes a dying man a promise.

She now realises that she’s playing a dangerous game but she’s kind of excited. At least having people chasing you and tying to kill you isn’t boring.

The Blue Panther is of course the movie’s McGuffin. Marie-Chantal has no idea what its significance is and neither does the audience. But there’s a bewildering assortment of people who want that jewel. Some might be good guys but we figure that most are bad guys and there’s no way of knowing which are which. There are two Soviet agents, one of whom is a young boy. He’s the boss. There’s a guy who could be a CIA assassin. Another guy might be working for an African terrorist organisation. And there’s the mysterious Dr Kha, presumably a diabolical criminal mastermind.

Plus there’s Olga (Stéphane Audran). She could be working for Dr Kha or she could be a freelancer. And Paco (Francisco Rabal). We have no idea what his affiliation might be. He seems like a good guy but it would be dangerous to jump to conclusions.

Luckily Marie-Chantal is a judo expert. She also seems comfortable with handguns. As innocent bystanders caught up accidentally in espionage go she’s pretty competent. She’s a smart girl - she’s suspicious of everybody. She never panics. She’s breezily confident that she can outsmart all these spies. She behaves as if getting caught in the middle of a web of espionage is just one of those things that a sophisticated girl should be able to handle. And the spies find themselves having to dance to her tune.

Marie Laforêt really dominates the movie in an effortless fashion. It’s an odd detached performance but it’s intriguing.

This is a strange movie. It seems on the surface to belong to the eurospy genre but it doesn’t really. It’s more like Chabrol was embarrassed by having to make such a movie so he decided to approach it in an off-kilter mocking sort of way. It never develops the energy or the sense of fun that you expect in a eurospy movie. There is some violence but there are no action set-pieces. There’s no suspense. It’s the sort of movie you’d get if you asked an intellectual who despises spy movies to make a spy movie.

Chabrol was associated with the Nouvelle Vague and this movie has all the flaws that one associates with that movement. It’s more like an intellectual exercise than a movie. Chabrol was clearly trying to avoid doing anything sordid like making a popular commercial movie. And it’s self-consciously clever. If you enjoy clever-clever self-referential movies that deconstruct the genre and get all meta and play elaborate games with audience expectations then you’ll enjoy it. But this sort of thing has been done a lot more effectively. If you want to see this sort of thing done really well watch Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express instead. It’s a much better and much more enjoyable movie than Blue Panther and it’s cleverer and wittier as well.

Blue Panther often gets compared to Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise, made a year later. You could say it’s Modesty Blaise without the crazy outrageous fun elements.

As a spy movie or a spy spoof Blue Panther just doesn’t spark.

And then it just ends. Which I’m sure is very clever and avant-garde but I’m old-fashioned enough to enjoy movies with actual endings.

Of course Chabrol was not trying to make a spy movie, and he was not trying to make a spy spoof. He wasn’t interested in telling anything even resembling a coherent story. He was trying to deconstruct the genre and turn it inside out and make a movie about movies so if you’re looking for a spy movie you’ve picked the wrong movie.

Whether you enjoy this movie or not depends on whether you’re prepared to accept it for what it is. If so you’ll probably enjoy the game that Chabrol is playing, assuming that you like those sorts of cinematic games. Blue Panther is recommended if you’re a fan of this sort of thing. If such cinematic games are not your thing then you’ll be extremely bored.

Kino Lorber’s DVD provides a very nice transfer and there’s an audio commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.

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