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Savant Short Review:

Cry of the Owl

Cry of the Owl
All Day
1987 / Color / 1:66 flat full frame / 102 min. / Le Cri du hibou
Starring Christophe Malavoy, Mathilda May, Jacques Penot, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Virginie Thévenet, Patrice Kerbrat, Jean-Claude Lecas
Cinematography Jean Rabier
Production Designer Jacques Leguillon
Film Editor Monique Fardoulis
Original Music Matthieu Chabrol
Written by Odile Barski, Claude Chabrol from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Produced by Anthony Pass
Directed by Claude Chabrol

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A chilly thriller by Claude Chabrol, Cry of the Owl weaves a tale of romance, jealousy and murder in the most ordinary circumstances imaginable. Taken, like Purple Noon, from a Patricia Highsmith novel, it proves once again that mentally troubled characters make for interesting noirish movies.


Robert (Christophe Malavoy) is an artist separated from his wife Veronique (Virginie Thévenet) and working in Vichy. She won't let him forget his history of nervous breakdowns, and likes to torment him as best she can. Robert's been peeping into the window of Juliette (Mathilda May), watching her innocuously interact with her fiancee Patrick (Jacques Penot). He seeks not a sexual thrill, but simply the calm of imagining a peaceful life with a stable person. One day he stops being a passive observer, introduces himself, and finds her completely receptive. She wants to break off with Patrick, but Robert tries to dissuade her; for his part, Patrick becomes insanely jealous and attacks Robert on the road. They fight and Robert leaves, but the next day Patrick has disappeared, and Robert is suspected of murder. Now everything goes bad ... Juliette entertains morbid fantasies, the police hound Robert about the shady circumstances under which they met, and the petty Veronique has twisted plans of her own.

A master of business-as-usual murder stories and other kinds of thrillers, Claude Chabrol is by far the longest-lasting and most prolific of the original New Wave French directors. His The Cousins was an instant stylistic hit, and his Les Bonnes Femmes still plays as if it were filmed yesterday. Of his 70s films, Savant's seen Violette Noziere and A Story of Women, both of which star Isabelle Huppert and are cold-blooded accounts of conscienceless murder, by a disaffected teenager and a collaborating government, respectively.

Cry of the Owl starts as a strange romance which never gets beyond the dating phase, because of the woman's jealous ex-lover. There's nothing unusual about that, as it's the old story that almost always has a bad ending - last year's In the Bedroom covers the same territory. But there are always particulars, and the situation here militates against the lovers - rumors of his supposed mental problems lead police and others to jump to conclusions about him, and her preoccupation with fate and death weakens her defenses against stress and disappointment.

Robert begins by 'window-shopping' other people's lives, and then starts no end of trouble when he dares to 'enter' a window that catches his fancy. We find him charming, resourceful, and patient to the very end, no matter what terrible things are done to him or suspected of him. He's a classic noir victim. Unlike Al Roberts of Detour, he's not a fatalist asking for trouble. But it finds him just the same. Cry of the Owl most resembles a cross between Detour and In a Lonely Place, with a psychological subtext.

Claude Chabrol is the least experimental and the least flashy of the New Wave directors, and his controlled, subdued style is a perfect match for the quiet menace of Patricia Highsmith's story. Like the hero of Strangers on a Train, or Purple Noon, Robert omits secrets he prefers not to tell the police, and therefore becomes a prime suspect. A few malicious words from his ex-wife about some supposedly violent past behaviour, coupled with the schemes of a jilted lover determined to win back his girlfriend, and Robert is pegged as a psycho killer who shoots old men and his neighbor's dog. Because we see the annihilating conclusion unfold in such a matter-of-fact way, there's no doubting its plausibility. Robert's tormentors aren't at all in control of themselves. But explaining any of it to the police - how Robert could possibly be innocent in four deaths - is obviously going to be impossible.

Cry of the Owl has a hidden moral, it seems - thorny relationships have to be dealt with proactively or they'll bite you in the tail. Robert dreams about a girl, but rejects her when she offers herself to him. Too late - a chain reaction has started, and one's personal preference for detachment isn't going to help.

Christophe Malavoy makes for a very interesting hero, a self-admitted oddball whose depression may be a simple reaction to his ex-wife's personality. Mathilda May (the stunning space vampiress of Lifeforce) is the woman whose fatalistic dreams verge on clairvoyance. And Jacques Penot's jealous villain is actually just another guy who's lost control of his emotions. Cry of the Owl is about negative chemistry - Robert's peeping, Juliette's morbidity, and Jacques' rage combine in ways that none of them could have predicted. In Claude Chabrol's hands it becomes a muted thriller that holds our rapt attention.

All Day's DVD of Cry of the Owl is technically a decent effort. The image is not top standard, but it looks as if the element provided may have been a pre-existing transfer, probably from when the film was prepared for home video in the late 1980s. A company that specializes in films that it describes as 'fallen through the cracks', All Day would seem to have rescued this title from oblivion. A nicely recorded commentary track from Chabrol author Ric Menello (and given life by an unbilled David Kalat) explains that after a successful theatrical run, the film disappeared because its rights were confused with a string of other Chabrol pictures. An ensuing court case tied up the title beyond what was considered a reasonable window for a video release.

The color is a bit murky and dark scenes that must have been unreadable on the screen are a bit blotchy, but the grim lighting always looks appropriate to the onscreen mood. The soundtrack is basic but clear. All Day is once again to be commended, for casting about for lost and abandoned titles, and coming up with a winner.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry of the Owl rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Adequate
Sound: good
Supplements: Audio commentary from critic/author Ric Menello and All Day producer David Kalat
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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