Based on the characters created by author Dominique Roulet, Claude Chabrol's Inspector Lavardin films may be considerably lighter in tone and content than many of his darker suspense classics but they're still good entertainment. Working more in the vein of Agatha Christie here than Alfred Hitchcock the two features compiled here (in addition to the two additional features included as supplements) are solid detective stories ripe with mystery and intrigue and shot with plenty of slick style.
Chicken With Vinegar (1985):
The first film begins when a photographer covertly snaps pictures of the attendees at a birthday party being held for a wealthy socialite woman named Delphine (Josephine Chaplin). Various characters are introduced here, fairly quickly and without a whole lot of focus, after which we meet up with a postman named Louis Cuno (Lucas Belvaux) and his mother, Madame Cuno (Stephane Audran), the later of the two bound to her wheelchair. The Cuno family has seen better days. The home the share that was once obviously quite lavish is no longer what it once was and the powers that be at city hall would just as soon see them leave so their land can be developed.
This tension comes to a boil when a man named Filiot (Jean-Claude Bouillaud) and Delphine's husband, Doctor Morasseau (Jean Topart), collaborate with a lawyer named lawyer Lavoisier (Michel Bouquet) to confront Louis and pressure him, but Louis really won't crack under their pressure. Why? Because he and his mother have been using his position as a postman to their advantage by cleverly opening and reading the mail of those conspiring against them. As such, they know all about the townsfolk's dirty laundry, including the fact that Delphine is involved in a torrid love affair. When Delphine goes missing and then later her best friend, Louis, who has been out causing pretty trouble for his foes late at night, winds up in the hot seat. Inspector Lavardin (Jean Poiret) is called in to try sort out the mystery and find out not only what has really happened to the two missing women, but of course, also who is responsible for the crime in the first place.
Anyone even half way paying attention early on in the picture should be able to figure this one out without too much of a stretch, but the story is one well told and the movie one worth watching. Chabrol lets the plot unfold with an emphasis on tension and while the camera work is effective and at times even slick, he takes a minimalist approach to the visuals so as not to distract from the plot. As is typical with most of the director's work, Chicken And Vinegar takes some potshots at the bourgeois elitists out to do away with the Cuno, though neither Louis nor his mother are noble, let alone innocent. This is one of those movies where everyone is guilty and everyone has a skeleton in their closet that they'd rather not have exposed.
While the titular Inspector Lavardin doesn't really appear in the film until the second half, Chabrol manages to make him the focal point of the movie. Poiret plays this part well, drawing from influences like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson as much as he is actors like Peter Ustinov who played Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. He approaches the case without much emotion and instead uses cold, clinical logic and solid detective work to crack it. Supporting efforts from Josephine Chaplin (Charlie's daughter) and both Lucas Belvaux and Stephane Audran are notable and very effective but it's Poiret who is truly memorable here. He's tough as nails and not opposed to getting tough if he needs to and while the story does allow him to figure things out as easily as an attentive viewer might, that doesn't really take away from the quality of the work on display. The character is handled so well, in fact, the Poiret and Chabrol pretty much immediately went into production on a follow up film (and then a television series), which brings us to…
Inspector Lavardin (1986):
The second film begins when the corpse of a man named Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine) washes up on the beach of a small town. While this is reason for concern in and of itself, the fact that he appears to have been stripped naked and had the word ‘PIG' carved into his torso is definitely a reason to get the cops involved. Mons, before his murder, was a bit of a puritan, a devout Catholic who exercised his political influence to serve his own personal morality rather than in the interests of fairness.
Lavardin is, expectedly, called in to investigate and logically he starts by talking to the late man's wife, Hélène (Bernadette Lafont). Upon meeting the newly widowed woman, Lavardin is surprised to find that she's an old flame, a woman he was involved with years ago. Before you know it, Lavardin and Hélène are gleefully reunited and he's befriended both her brother Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) and her daughter Véronique (Hermine Clair). Now with more or less unfettered access to Raoul's life and work, he does set about trying to figure out who his killer was, but the more that comes out about what Raoul was involved with behind closed doors the more suspects there seem to be…
Chabrol's sense of black humor and disdain for both the bourgeois and the hypocritical all mix together in interesting ways in this second film. While the mystery isn't nearly as taut and the film is sometimes played more for laughs than for thrills, and in fact at times the director takes things into territory that is downright farcical as we witness firsthand the habits and traits of the upper class that he so enjoys taking down a few pegs. By inserting Lavardin wholly into this environment, wherein his paternal instincts and old feelings for Hélène become completely bloated, we see this accelerate and as the inspector closes in on the truth behind the case that has become now so entwined with his personal life, the movie manages to provide some pretty twisted entertainment.
By domesticating Lavardin this time around, Chabrol allows for more character development than we got in the first picture. Introducing Hélène as an element of his past serves to offer up some background information about the strong willed detective, their banter alerting us to some interesting details about his younger days and fleshing him out in effective ways. Again, Poiret plays the part well and his on screen chemistry with both the gorgeous Ms. Lafont and the far more rascally Brialy as the brother is interesting to watch. In fact, while Claude's character may seem as just one of the many quirky supporting players Chabrol uses in his pictures, he soon proves to be a far more important part of the story than is first apparent and Brialy crafts in him quite an interesting character.
Both of the movies on this release are presented on their own separate 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in their proper 1.66.1 widescreen aspect ratios. These transfers won't floor you but they look like accurate representations of the source materials used and they are quite film like with what would seem like an appropriate amount of grain visible. Colors don't pop the way they do in some films, they look a bit flat, but skin tones look natural enough. Detail is good but never reference quality and both movies look like they were shot with a fairly soft style. Black levels are solid and texture is decent. There are no issues with any obvious noise reduction, edge enhancement or with any nasty compression artifacts.
The only audio options for the two features are French language LPCM 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles provided in English only. Audio quality is a bit limited, again by the source material, but otherwise completely fine. Levels are nicely balanced and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. There's some appreciable depth to the music used throughout the features and the English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
The extras for both features start off with an audio commentary from film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein. These guys have provided collaborative commentary tracks in the past and they get along well here as they discuss the obvious influence of Hitchcock on Chabrol's output in addition to some of the themes that recur throughout his fairly extensive body of work. They offer up insight and trivia regarding the cast and crew that Chabrol worked with on these two films and also provide some background information on the lead character as well as the locations. These are decent tracks, a fair balance of criticism and historical information.
We also get the inclusion of two additions full length Lavardin features, The Black Snail and Danger Lies In The Words. Both of these are presented in 1080p high definition in 1.33.1 fullframe with LPCM Mono French language audio and English subtitles. They run about ninety minutes each, having originally been broadcast on French television as two entries in the four part The Secret Files of Inspector Lavardin series. The Black Snail, from 1988, sees our titular inspector (again played by Jean Poiret) travel to a quaint French town where he sets out to investigate a trio of killings, each involving a woman and each with a strange calling card from the murderer: a black snail is left on the corpse after the deed is done. Lavardin pairs up with the town's top cop, Inspector Mario (Mario David), to try and crack the case. Danger Lies In The Words was made a year later in 1989 and again features Poiret in the lead. This time around Lavardin heads to Montecatini in Italy for some rest and relaxation but soon finds himself involved in trying to solve the murder of a woman renowned for writing popular murder mysteries. The victim is the late wife of a wealthy Italian businessman involved in some shady dealings himself. Both entries are enjoyable on very much the same level as the feature presentations and Cohen is to be commended for including them here, essentially making this double feature of Chabrol helmed suspense into a quadruple feature!
Rounding out the extras on the disc we get 2014 Re-Release Trailers for both features, menus and chapter stops. Additionally, inside the clear Blu-ray case is a twelve page insert booklet made up of some nice archival photos and promotional materials in addition to chapter listings and credits and an essay by Peter Tonguette.
Cohen's Blu-ray release of The Inspector Lavardin Collection is a very good one, offering up both films and the two supplemental pictures in strong high definition transfers. As to the movies themselves, they're not in the upper echelon of the director's output but they are quite well made, very entertaining and serve as a good showcase for Poiret's skills as an actor. This, coupled with the fact that you really get four separate features here, gives this set some serious value and for fans of Chabrol or quirky detective stories in general it comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.