Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Claude Chabrol's most Hitchcockian thriller has its coy touches, as when the
familiar Funeral March of a Marionette is cued - more than once. The clever show relies less
on plot tricks than o n impressive character development, and what begins as a straight mystery has a couple
of unusually dark levels.
Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret) is a fabulously successful gameshow host who
makes his living presenting softhearted fantasies for aged couples. He engages a writer, Roland Wolf
(Robin Renucci), to commemorate his illustrious career in book form and they retire to Legagneur's
country estate for several days of interviews. Wolf finds his host at the head of an odd household
of retainers and servants happily taking care of Legagneur's suspiciously sickly stepdaughter
Catherine (Anne Brochet), whom Leganeur won't trust to "incompetent" doctors. But Wolf has
a suspicious side as well - he's smuggled a gun into the house and starts searching for signs of an
earlier visitor, a Miss Chevalier who disappeared mysteriously.
Claude Chabrol may admire Alfred Hitchcock, but compared to "the master" his thrillers tend to be more
relaxed in the visual formalities and more persuasive in character details. In this case, the
idea of an amateur sleuth invading the home of a respected celebrity brings back other possible
models, including Edgar Ulmer's
Strange Illusion, and Michael Curtiz'
The Unsuspected with Claude Rains as a Legagneur-like broadcast star. Masques is a
cat-and-mouse game, but never a gimmicky puzzle picture like the superficially similar Sleuth.
The great actor Philippe Noiret is the star here, and Chabrol uses his charm brilliantly. Unlike the
haughty, imperious Claude Rains, Noiret is the soul of cultured charm, always attentive, always
concerned for the welfare of his guests and his servants. His attention to his stepdaughter's
"condition" is so keen as to raise our first suspicions against him - she has a number of weird
symptoms but is being attended to without the help of doctors. Is Catherine being slowly poisoned,
like Ingrid Bergman in
Roland turns from intruder to would-be-rescuer when it becomes clear that his intention is to exact
revenge on Legagneur (it would be wrong to explain exactly why). He's sort of a one-man
spy operation there not to sing the TV star's praises but to bring him down. Some of the servants
are potential allies and others are not, and he has to maintain a consistent facade to face
Legagneur's probing questions. Does his host suspect, or is he only concerned that Roland is
seducing his daughter?
The title Masques becomes clear when we realize that the ostensible hero Roland (such a noble
name) may have just as much to hide as the culpable TV star. Roland tries not to show any of his
cards, yet lets slip that his motives aren't as pure as they might seem. If his entire
nice guy-writer persona is just an act, how do we know he's not simply seeking to replace Legagneur
as "curator" of Catherine's considerable fortune?
Catherine's sickly status is enforced with a few clever tricks, such as the sunglasses she always
wears. It looks as though actress Anne Brochet's pupils were dilated for many scenes, which leads
us to hope that her eyes were protected from the studio lights. The result is that Catherine looks as delicate
and helpless as Édith Scob's Christiane in Eyes Without a Face, the perfect damsel
in need of rescue.
The cleverly-plotted film wraps up in a studio scene where Legagneur delivers an almost touching
tirade against the hypocrisy of his television act, the public face that pretends to be enchanted by the warmth and
devotion of the elderly couples in his daily talent contest. His mask of loving concern
is a fake, and Chabrol's "cure" for the whole business is to simply turn off the offending television
I see a cogent political parallel in Masques. Catherine is the nation (France), rich with
material wealth and cultural beauty (those Monet paintings) but in the clutches of a ruthlessly
cynical political party (Legagneur) that pretends to care for her while secretly looting her resources.
The politicians broadcast a false front of selfless concern, pieties, homilies and other calculated
b.s. in all directions. Roland is the reformer, armed with facts about the ruling party and eager to
find the weaknesses that will bring it down. Under full scrutiny of his enemy, Roland has to convince
Catherine (the nation) that her situation is a lie and that she needs a radical change of management.
And who shall take over the reins after Legagneur is brought low? Roland, of course, who has already
expressed a keen interest in Catherine's money and paintings.
Masques is a pleasant thriller with only a few really tense moments and a last-minute rescue
that never seems too threatening. But the character subtleties are rich and rewarding. We don't remember
stunning suspense sequences, but we do remember the devious twinkle in Noiret and Renucci's eyes.
Home Vision's DVD of Masques is another handsome MK2 transfer, impeccably presented in 16:9,
lush color and transferred at a proper 24 fps speed. The only disappointment is a lack of extras,
but the picture is reward enough on its own. Guy Austin's perceptive liner notes focus evenly on
Claude Chabrol's career in France - all intriguing analysis - and thoughts about Masques itself -
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 24, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson