Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Champagne Murders (1967)

Claude Chabrol’s The Champagne Murders was shot simultaneously in two different versions, an English-language version and a French version (released as Le scandale). Interestingly none of the main players are dubbed in either version. They all (including Anthony Perkins) spoke both French and English fluently. Naturally the more pretentious online reviewers insist that the French version is superior, even if they’ve never actually seen it!

Given Chabrol’s admiration for Hitchcock and the initial setup of this movie you might be expecting this to be a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not even a genuine suspense thriller, much less a Hitchcockian thriller. The plot is included more or less as an after-thought. There’s no suspense at all. This is more of a social comedy or a black comedy. A couple of years earlier Chabrol had made Blue Panther, a spy thriller which turns out not to be a spy thriller at all. It’s more of a demolition job on the spy genre and an elaborate cinematic game. This is to a large extent what Chabrol is doing to the suspense thriller genre in The Champagne Murders. Chabrol must have been immensely amused that most critics failed to get the joke.

This was Chabrol’s only Hollywood movie. It’s almost as if he wanted to make sure he would never be asked to make another movie in Hollywood.

The Champagne Murders begins with two friends, Paul (Maurice Ronet) and Christopher (Anthony Perkins), who pick up a young woman. They end up being beaten up and the young woman is murdered. Paul never really recovers his mental equilibrium and spends a long period in a mental hospital. He is released but his mental state is still a little shaky.

By this time Christopher has married into money. He has married Christine Belling (Yvonne Furneaux). Christine owns a vineyard, which had belonged to Paul’s family. In fact she owns a champagne empire and she has been offered a huge amount of money for it from two American buyers. The problem is that the business is worthless without the trade name and Paul still owns that. Christine has to persuade Paul to sell her the name. She wants Christopher’s help. If he’s a good boy and helps her she’ll buy him a yacht - a huge ocean-going yacht. Christopher likes boats.

Christopher and Paul make a business visit to Hamburg. Hamburg was at this time regarded as the sex and sin capital of Europe. While they’re there the body of a young woman, a lady of the night, is discovered.

Christine is always plotting something, and we get the feeling that often it’s for the sheer pleasure of manipulating people. She doesn’t seem to have a totally coherent objective in mind. Christopher may be doing some plotting as well. He thinks there’s something he wants but he doesn’t seem to know what it is. Paul is just increasingly confused. He thinks he may have done something terrible but he has no idea why he might have done such a thing. Paul’s grip on reality is steadily loosening.

The plot really only matters insofar as it sets up the situation Chabrol wants - a group of truly awful, fake, treacherous, manipulative people none of whom can be trusted and at least one of whom might be mad. All of them are so fake that they’re in danger of confusing their own fake personas with reality. Their personalities are not just fake but also fragmented. They lack any real sense of personal identity.

The performances are all slightly odd. This is clearly deliberate. When you look at the cast these are all very fine very experienced acting talents. If their performances are off-kilter that is obviously exactly what Chabrol wanted.

This is not a realist movie. This is one of the ways in which this film is most definitely not a Hitchcockian thriller. Hitchcock dealt with madness and obsession at times and his movies were often visually stylised but they never abandoned reality altogether. With The Champagne Murders we’re much more aware that we need to suspect that there are times when the movie may in fact have crossed the line into non-reality.

When looking at movies from other time periods it’s essential to remember that every decade has had its own distinctive cultural obsessions. The cultural obsessions of the mid-60s bear no resemblance whatsoever to the cultural obsessions of today. Trying to view a 1967 movie in terms of 2020s ideologies inevitably leads to a total misunderstanding of the movie.

You also have to bear in mind the intellectual climate of the 60s. Marxism, Freudianism, absurdism and existentialism were major intellectual currents at that time. They might not have directly influenced every film-maker but they were part of the atmosphere that intellectuals breathed. You can see traces of most of these intellectual currents in this movie.

There was much more consciousness of class. The protagonists of this movie very definitely belong to the decadent bourgeoisie. I don’t think Chabrol had any overt political axe to grind in this film, but in 1967 people would certainly have noticed the bourgeois milieu in which it takes place. Bored amoral rich people who have everything but still manage to be miserable.

Most modern critics still insist on seeing this movie as Chabrol attempting to do Hitchcock and failing. But while he admired Hitchcock he wasn’t trying to emulate Hitch here. Online reviews also insist on seeing this as a whodunit. At the end you do find out the murderer’s identity, which in a whodunit would be a satisfying conclusion. In this film it just raises more perplexing questions. The neat whodunit solution isn’t the point at all. The really interesting questions are left without neat tidy answers. If you’re looking for a conventional suspense thriller you’ll find this movie exasperating. It doesn’t obey any of the rules of the genre.

If you accept that Chabrol is teasing and toying with the viewer and if you enjoying cinematic game-playing you’ll have a much better time with The Champagne Murders. It’s still an oddball movie but it’s fascinating in its own way. The more you think about it after you’ve watched it the more fascinating it becomes. Recommended.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray looks lovely and includes an audio commentary.

No comments:

Post a Comment