This Man Must Die (Que la bête meure, 1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol

Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 11:12 am

    Interesting take on this film, Marilyn. It’s funny we both reviewed it at more or less the same time.
    You pick up on one of the things that always nags at me in Chabrol’s work: the question of character motivations. It’s always so tricky to get a handle on Chabrol’s characters, on what makes them tick, because there’s something so chilly and faintly absurd about his aesthetic. He always seems to be keeping his characters at arm’s length, but then he’ll unexpectedly push in for startling moments of intimacy and revelation.
    Charles in particular is an enigma here; how are we supposed to feel about him? He’s a typical revenge thriller hero at times, the upset father avenging the loss of his beloved child, but at other times he’s both more and less than that — sometimes more human, more emotional, sometimes nearly cold-blooded in his unemotional scheming. And the ending seems particularly ambiguous to me, on multiple levels. Is Charles really atoning for what he’s done? Maybe, maybe not. What’s clear is that Chabrol is constantly toying with the black and white morality of the typical revenge thriller, in which murder is justified and rationalized: Chabrol never allows his audience such comforts, forcing them to deal with the moral implications of a murder, even if the victim is as thoroughly reprehensible and caricatured as Paul.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 11:27 am

    Ed – I read your very thoughtful review and felt flippant and superficial in comparison. But I honestly found this film very comedic (I find Faulkner funny, too). I think Chabrol wanted something more indepth, more ambiguous, but he placed Charles not only in a “better” moral position, but also a better social one. Charles has good taste, is (perhaps) a writer, not a tradesman, whereas the Decourts are his social inferiors, nouveau riche. This is a turnaround of the Christie-style mystery where the flatfoot is the stand-in for the audience, and the upper crust are the ones plotting and committing murder. Here, we are made to sit in the superior being’s shoes and justify his murderous impulses against the coming tide of wealthy mediocrity. How can a baboon like Paul Decourt take over his rightful spot, the loving paternalist intelligensia/elite?

  • Flickhead spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 11:38 am

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, Marilyn. Your review reminded me that I need to go back and see this one again. Chabrol’s family scenes are… well, you pretty much nailed it on the head. I was thinking of the family in this combined with the equally bizarre families of A Double Tour, the parents of the Lucile Saint-Simon character in Les bonnes femmes, the parents of the deranged son in La Rupture, the in-laws of Betty, and that amazing ingrown family tree of La fleur du mal… “family is everything” is something I’ve heard chanted far too often on prime-time TV in the last ten years or so; in his own private way, Chabrol bears that out.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 11:48 am

    La Ceremonie has a pretty nice family. One truly regrets what happens to them. But then, the theme of class warfare is better articulated in that film than in this one. I think Chabrol made a mistake in trying to adapt an American novel and fit it with his classist themes. It’s just very awkward. Not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this film. It was a hoot.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 12:19 pm

    This review is far from superficial, Marilyn. You reacted very differently to this film than me, but I enjoy your take on it. Personally, I thought there were flashes of dry humor but didn’t think of it as so thoroughly comedic until I read your review — now I see your point. And you’re right on about the way the film deals with the class issues. That moment where Charles is left alone in his room at the Decourt house and reacts with glee at the tacky decor: it’s a real indictment of his shallowness and self-satisfaction. Of course, it’s then nearly forgotten when the abominable Paul is finally introduced.
    This goes back to what I was saying about the ambiguity of Chabrol’s films: I think his work can get very different reactions from different people depending on how they decide to read what he’s doing at any given moment.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/06/2009 to 1:09 pm

    Thanks, Ed. I enjoyed your take on it, too, and agree that Chabrol travels in ambiguity. I think he is conflicted himself about the relative merits of each side of the class warfare. I like that he chooses not to take sides, that is, has sympathy and contempt for both.

  • Greg spoke:
    25th/06/2009 to 8:43 am

    I haven’t started watching Chabrol until recently thanks to Ray and have been pleased with everything I’ve watched so far. This one I haven’t seen but would love to now. And I’m very interested in purchasing farmland in the Death Valley area so what a lucky break that you not only own some but are looking to sell. Now I just need to find a big brick suspension bridge to put on the property and I’ll be good to go. Let me know if you know where I can find one.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    25th/06/2009 to 3:43 pm

    Hey Greg, I’ve got one of those in Brooklyn. I think I can get you a good price on it.

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