It is quite fitting and fortunate that Claude Chabrol's 1969 simmering suspense film La Femme Infidele/ The Unfaithful Wife finds its release on DVD- no doubt timed to coincide with the home video release of Adrian Lynne's recent Unfaithful with Diane Lane and Richard Gere, which was based on Chabrol's film.
Charles suspects his wife, Helen, of cheating on him. Despite a seemingly happy home life, they are wealthy, have a smart and amiable child, Charles begins to notice little signs, possible lies and inconsistencies in Helen's behavior. His fears are proven justified after a detective he hires to track Helen reveals that she is carrying on an affair ("three times a week, around two hours at a time") with Victor, a divorced writer living in the city. Charles confronts Victor under the pretense that he is an understanding husband secretly seeking the details of the affair, but Charles is searching for answers as to why Helen has become involved with another man. Charles initial cool is lost and in a spontaneous act of rage, he kills Victor. Guilt settles in on Charles shoulders. The police begin to sniff around, and Helen is depressed and unbeknownst to Charles, discovers his knowledge of her affair.
The thing most often said describing Chabrol was that he was the French Hitchcock. Both men shared the same affinity for mystery and murder. Where I draw the distinction between the two is that Hitchcock was the more popcorn film maker and Chabrol was the more art house and tad more cerebral. Always conscious of sex, Hitchcock wanted to get into the pants of his characters, whereas Chabrol wanted to get inside their psyche. Both are pretty primal wants, one for the sizzle of desire the other for the leaden weight of a guilty conscience. Or perhaps it is best put this way- in North By Northwest Hitchcock takes the standard mistaken identity, the innocent man in trouble scenario and makes it a sexy suspenseful adventure. In Chabrol's version of North by Northwest it would be the same suspense scenario, but maybe with the added plight that although innocent, Cary Grant would be plagued by Kafkaesque guilt, like the situation was some bad karma he deserved.
If you are wanting an introduction to Chabrol's particular style of suspense, look no further than La Femme Infidele. It has all of the marks he was known for the subtlety, the precise visuals, the perfect casting (in this case Stéphane Audran and Michel Bouquet)
. It also has much in common with one of my favorite Chabrol films is 1994's L'Enfer, another take on the possibly cheating wife syndrome- the two would make a great double feature. Here, the suspense is so simple, the murder is clumsy, disposing of the body clumsier, but the true tension comes from the unspoken, from the drama being played out in the minds of the husband and wife. And Chabrol manipulates the viewer with a masters touch, like when Charles has it confirmed that Helen is cheating on him. He arrives home but instead of a confrontation, he is subdued by the news that his son did well on a test and they are celebrating. As Charles bristles with confusion over the infidelity and his marriages future, they raise a toast to their sons good news and proclaim "To a wonderful day." And that is the kind of sour note Chabrol can hit so well, and its is just as heavy as a brick to the skull or a knife in the back.
The DVD: Pathfinder
Picture: Hmmmnnnn... This is a bit tricky. It is barely 1.77:1. I'm unsure if it was shot in fullscreen and then slightly matted for theaters or if it is supposed to be in widescreen. I've seen many of Chabrol films on video and even when fullscreen they looked fine. He's not a large palette director, so no grand letterboxing, he always keeps things tight and intimate. Regardless, the image still shows its age pretty badly. The print is very soft (even beyond the soft filters they were using anyway), the colors faded, and is quite grainy. The grainy/softness factor does improve a bit in later scenes. Its fair to say that the disc doesn't look much better than the vhs transfers of Chabrol's films I've seen.
Sound: French, Mono with optional English subtitles. Sound is pretty basic but presented well. Particularly nice in the film is Chabrol's use of score, mainly dischord piano, which he cuts in rather jarringly. Subtitle translation is flawless and clear and easy to read.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailer--- Bios for Chabrol, Audran, Bouquet. Very nice lengthy bios for each, especially Chabrol.--- DVD Production Credits
Conclusion: Well, I wasn't too impressed with the image quality. It looks like there could be some improvement over the elements presented. I guess if you are a real Chabrol/French cinema nut it will be decent enough. Oddly, Chabrol's L'Enfer which I mentioned earlier, had a similar displeasing image transfer when it was released on DVD. So, I'm guessing getting really great prints of his films must me a problem? La Femme Infidele is such a good film, despite my quibbles with the image, I still think the presentation acceptable enough (especially considering the decent pricing), but those who are a stickler for absolute perfect quality may want to give it a rental first.