Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This review is part of Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.
What do Claude Chabrol and the Coen Brothers have in common? They’ve both sought inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey. While the Coens provided an impeccably turned-out riot of music and over-the-top adventures with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Chabrol turned out a delicious mess of a revenge story, both films treat their respective social strata—rural America and the nouveau bourgeois—with a certain condescending humor. While This Man Must Die’s tone changes may have more to do with Chabrol trying to develop Nicholas Blake’s pulp mystery The Beast Must Die into a sophisticated French thriller, there’s no question that Chabrol takes full advantage of the melodramatic aspects of genre to make his cast look ridiculous.
This Man Must Die opens with the central crisis that will set the plot in motion. An American sports car—a Mustang—is speeding down a curvy, single-lane road. A boy is fishing from the ocean shore. He climbs an access road with his catch proudly displayed in his net and heads toward the center of town, smiling. The boy and car collide. The woman passenger screams, but the man bellows at her and drives off. A high, overhead shot shows the boy, a small body sprawled in a large, empty, gray square. In the next scene, a close upward shot captures the faces of curious onlookers until a man, mostly hidden from view, parts them, stoops below camera level, and rises with the boy in his arms. A cry of despair escapes him.
In the first genre touch of the film, a chalk outline of the boy with a red splotch of blood emerging from the tracing of the boy’s head gives us our only relatively close view of the crime. Was the outline drawn before the body was moved? Probably not, but we’re not concerned with police procedure here. Chabrol wants to shock us into caring about his protagonist in the same way he plucks at our heartstrings through his manipulations of the boy’s father, Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy). He shows Charles returning home after a three-month stay in a hospital—shock and depression—warning his maid not to speak of the boy, crying into a teddy bear left in his son’s room, and playing a home movie of his son from infancy to the end of his life. The absent mother (dead? divorced?) is seen only in these films; if she still existed, she would only slow the plot down.
With no witnesses or physical evidence, the police investigation goes nowhere. Charles, however, has dedicated his life to tracking down and slaying the man responsible for his son’s death. He scours the car repair shops and junk yards looking for the telltale dent without success. In another genre convention, chance moves him closer to his target. Charles’ car gets stuck in the mud, and he learns from the man who will tow it out that the same thing happened on the same day as the fatal accident. The car held a television star named Hélène Lanson (Caroline Cellier) and an unpleasant man.
Charles keeps a notebook in which he writes his angry, murderous thoughts in red. He writes, “I hadn’t considered it might be a woman. But I will show no mercy.” He locates the television station where she works and hangs out at a bar she frequents until she shows up. Under the assumed name of Marc Matthieu (coscreenwriter Paul Gégauff’s pen name was Martial Matthieu), Charles courts her and slowly extracts details that convince him her brother-in-law Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne) was behind the fatal wheel. When he is at last invited to Decourt’s estate in Brittany for a weekend, he savors the thought of his coming revenge.
A mansion near a seaside cliff, a well-to-do family, an indulgent mother of a monster hated not only by Charles, but also by his wife, son, and probably his business partner—how did we suddenly enter an Agatha Christie novel? Chabrol, by focusing on Charles, skews the standard mystery story, but also, perhaps inadvertently turns the film into a comedy of sorts. His characters are typically shallow bourgeois and totally mockworthy. Charles starts by laughing at the perfectly dreadful taste of the room to which he is shown. Paul is a caricature of evil, a Snidely Whiplash twirling his metaphorical mustache with malice and greed. Paul’s doormat wife Jeanne (Anouk Ferjac), in an endless attempt to find something to do with her life, writes poetry so bad that I actually don’t blame her husband for reading it aloud to mock her. Hélène, who, when confronted by Charles as someone who not only had an affair with Paul but also was in the car that killed his son, talks about her own suffering. Even Paul’s son Philippe (Marc Di Napoli), on two days’ acquaintance, tells Charles he’d rather have him for a father; perhaps we can forgive a needy boy for such an instant attachment, but would he really confess to killing his father to save a near stranger, even if he feels his life is over already for having defective Decourt genes? The situations and motivations are so ridiculous that it’s hard not to laugh.
The biggest laugh of all is that Charles, spouting some bullshit philosophy in a letter to Hélène, sails away to “find my own punishment.” Yup, and I have some farm land in Death Valley I want to sell you. Chabrol has taken us from an affecting tragedy, to a paint-by-numbers revenge story, to a drawing-room murder mystery, and finally to Homer. His lying, sneaking Odysseus, having completed his mission, sets sail—perhaps to return to his home-movie version of Penelope? That this might be his “punishment” is just another twist of the knife to the bourgeois sensibilities Chabrol has been murdering all along.