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The Cohen Media Group has brought us terrific vintage French classics by René Clément and Jean-Pierre Melville, and lately has been trying its hand with newer French fare. Their latest is The Inspector Lavardin Collection, a single release containing four separate mysteries filmed in the 1980s by the great Claude Chabrol. By the beginning of that decade Chabrol was splitting his time between excellent film thrillers (Violette Nozière) and television work.
The big-screen attraction Chicken with Vinegar (Poulet au vinaigre) is an impressive murder tale that just happens to introduce the interesting detective hero, Inspecteur Lavardin, played by Jean Poiret. Lavardin would return for the next year's Inspector Lavardin, and a TV series would follow in 1988 and 1989. Although made for the small screen, they show little change in director Chabrol's style, just fewer name stars. The stories and the Lavardin character are the creations of mystery author Dominique Roulet.
Chicken with Vinegar has the most unusual plot, which at times reminds us of Clouzot's Le Corbeau, with a dash of Psycho thrown in for good measure. Ugly things are happening in a rural French town. Fancying themselves developers, a lawyer, a doctor and a butcher put pressure on a widow (Chabrol's wife Stéphane Audran) and her son Louis, a postman (Lucas Belvaux, now an accomplished director) to sell their run-down chateau. The handicapped mother spies on the conspirators by having Louis intercept their mail, which she opens for clues. It appears that the doctor's wife Delphine refused to bankroll his moneymaking scheme, and now she's gone missing. The lawyer's mistress Anna knows all about the crooked deal, and tries in vain to communicate with Delphine, but the doctor sends her away. Meanwhile, all three 'businessmen' harass Louis and his mother. Louis must put up with his mother's possessiveness while carrying her up and down the steep stairs. He hasn't time to deal with his amorous co-worker Henriette (Pauline Lafont), who figures that seducing the boy is a good way pry him away from his mother. Inspector Lavardin (Jean Poiret) doesn't enter the picture until the butcher dies in a traffic accident... it seems that someone poured sugar into the gas tank of his car.
Once the good Inspector arrives, Chicken with Vinegar becomes a superior version of an American whodunnit tale. Nobody will cooperate so he works on each of them bit by bit. He noses into everyone's business and is as pushy as hell, but with a wry sense of humor. Lavardin also has the instincts of a common thug. When the quiet Louis keeps avoiding him, he finally loses his patience and bloodies the kid's nose, and keeps slugging him until he talks.
The Inspector is almost amused by the bad blood he finds in the town -- everybody seems to hate everybody. His main trick is to act charming with unresponsive suspects and then turn tough just when they relax. The lawyer (Michel Bouquet) and the doctor both claim to have the ability to get him fired at any time. To get one of them to cough up information, Lavardin basically waterboards him in a bathroom sink. It's all on the side of good, but we get the feeling that this is exactly how some French Gestapo creep would have operated forty years earlier.
Also making Chicken with Vinegar interesting is Lavardin's rather personal attitude toward the law and justice. He lets a somewhat guilty person off the hook entirely. Louis's grasping mother finally overplays her hand; her brand of tyranny isn't much better than the conspirator's threats and warnings. Happily enough, within all the twisted relationships Louis has got a much better thing going with Henriette, whose sex drive is presented as a positive force. More power!
The busy Lavardin shows up right at the outset of the theatrical follow-up Inspector Lavardin (Inspecteur Lavardin), an equally complex murder tale that also concentrates on unusual relationships in a small town. Having suddenly been shifted to a new part of the country -- Lavardin mentions an 'incident with a washbasin' -- our good detective lands plunk into the middle of the murder of a well-known author and devout Catholic, Raoul Mons. His widow Hélène (Bernadette Lafont) happens to be an old flame of Lavardin's. The Mons household is truly weird. Hélène lives with her gay brother Claude Alvarez (Jean-Claude Brialy of Chabrol's first film Le Beau Serge). Claude's wife and Hélène's first husband Pierre Manguin died together on a boat, the Véronique, and Hélène married Raoul just to hold the family together.
Lavardin stays at the Chateau Mons and soon spies Hélène's daughter Véronique Manguin (Hermine Clair) sneaking out at night to a nightclub run by a sleazy operator who admits that the supposedly righteous Raoul Mons came there for drugs and sex. The cheerful Claude is hiding secrets as well -- he's helping Véronique sneak around at night. And then there's the ragged young Francis, who comes to collect money from Claude. Francis is presumed to be Claude's lover, but one of Francis's co-workers in a theater troupe claims that he's not gay. To get to the truth Lavardin needs to put pressure on Véronique, but he resists doing anything that might hurt Hélène.
"You used to be a thug", says somebody to Inspector Lavardin, and by this time we're convinced. When push comes to shove Lavardin pulls a page from the Mike Hammer book on the care and handling of uncooperative witnesses. This time out Chabrol co-wrote the script with author Dominique Roulet, and Jean Poiret's character is even more dryly amusing. Lavardin dubs his cop assistant "Watson" and radios-in polite instructions to police headquarters, but isn't above crashing onto a disco dance floor and insulting everyone, just to see who reacts the most violently. Then he'll turn around and lecture a maid on how to cook eggs the way he likes them ... with paprika.
A central scene in Inspector Lavardin threatens to become a French version of Paul Schrader's Hardcore. Lavardin comes upon a secret hideaway room with a hidden TV camera in the ceiling, and reviews a videotape that shows poor Véronique being assaulted by a middle-aged rapist. It's the key to everything. The Inspector watches the tape in rapt attention, as the reality of what happened begins to match exactly his theory when he first entered the room and saw a blood stain on the floor. Véronique is still intact and stubbornly uncooperative, so he isn't fearing for her safety when he watches the tape. It's as if he's fascinated to be seeing a record of an actual crime, which is usually a past event that must be addressed on a theoretical level.
Once again Lavardin brings an, ahem, personal interpretation to justice, which one would think would result in a movie called 'The Trial of Inspector Lavardin.' Not only does he let a felon off the hook for cooperating, he happily frames someone for murder. Or at least that's what it looks like to me ... all corrections or explanations are welcome.
The two theatrical Lavardins come on separate Blu-ray discs, each with a TV episode from the later series called Les dossiers secrets de l'inspecteur Lavardin. The series ran for two years but Chabrol directed only two installments. The stories are a little less distinguished; I watched The Black Snail, which was standard fare enlivened by the Lavardin character. Stéphane Audran has a featured role. Danger Lies in the Words (Maux Croisés) takes Lavardin to Italy, where he tangles with a millionaire arms smuggler whose wife is murdered. She's a crime novelist, which adds some interest to the tale. Of the four films, this one is the most relaxed and the least Chabrol-like.
The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of The Inspector Lavardin Collection gives us four good transfers on two discs. The theatrical films are formatted widescreen while the TV films have been given 4x3 flat transfers. They look perfectly capable of being scanned widescreen as well -- lots of empty space at the bottom of the frame -- but I'll not argue that one.
Colors are good, and we can tell that the lighting and art direction are a bit more refined on the theatrical shows.
The features are given audio commentaries by Los Angeles-based film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein, while Peter Tonguette provides a diverting insert pamphlet essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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