Color, 1995, 112m. / Directed by Claude Chabrol / Starring Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, Valentin Merlet / Home Vision (US R1 NTSC), Mk2 (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

In a small French city, lovely, middle-aged Catherine (Bisset) interviews and hires a new live-in housekeeper, Sophie (Bonnaire), to look after their country house and family: herself, opera-loving husband (Georges (Cassel), and children Melinda (8 Women's Ledoyen) and Giles (Merlet). Though she does her job well enough, Sophie refuses to socialize with her employers or accept their aid; though she cannot read or drive, she instead turns to the local postmistress, Jeanne (Huppert), who enjoys snooping through the town's private letters. Jeanne and Sophie soon become inseparable, due in no small part to the fact that both were involved in mysterious deaths for which they may or may not have been responsible. Their resentment of the well-to-do family grows to the boiling point, leading to a chilling climax.

After years of well-received but largely overlooked art films, director Claude Chabrol experienced a dramatic career resurgence with this razor-sharp adaptation of mystery writer Ruth Rendell's A Judgment in Stone (previously filmed with Ria Tushingham as the more linear The Housekeeper). Transposing the setting to provincial France, he also emphasized the Jeanne character to an equal status with the housekeeper to essentially create a variation on Jean Genet's classic melodrama, The Maids. (Director Todd Solondz must have noticed this, too, since he essentially remade this - slightly stretched to black comedy - as part of Storytelling.) Subtle and cunning, Chabrol's directorial tactics are matched with excellent performances from Bonnaire and Huppert as sisters in pathology. Bisset has less to do, but her beauty and marquee value pay off at the end as viewer expectations are flipped upside down. Simply put, this is one of the great, essential French thrillers and holds its grip right until the haunting, open-ended closing titles.

Both DVD editions of La Cérémonie offer a solid anamoprhic transfer; the opening titles are deliberately overlit and appear somewhat bleached out, but the visual quality improves dramatically for the bulk of the film. Note that viewers with 16:9 monitors that don't automatically windowbox 1.66:1 transfers on the sides of the screen will notice a lot of awkward compositions as actors are constantly cut off at the hairline -- a common trait with most Mk2 anamoprhic transfers of Chabrol's films. Only the HOme Vision disc offers optional English subtitles, so that would be the only option for English-speaking viewers. Extras for the Home Vision edition include the theatrical trailer and a 20-minute making-of documentary containing interviews with the principals and footage of Chabrol shooting various outdoor driving scenes.

Color, 2000, 99m. / Directed by Claude Chabrol / Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc / First Run (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.55:1), Artificial Eye (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Mk2 (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

The sixth pairing of chameleonic leading lady Isabelle Hupper with psychological suspense master Claude Chabrol returns the director to his standard territory of sadistic mind games, filled with characters either brimming with psychosis or clueless to the dangers around them. As with many of his previous thrillers, Chabrol adapts a mannered British literary mystery (in this case, Charlotte Armstrong's The Chocolate Cobweb) and transforms it into a work that is undeniably stamped with his eccentric and irresistible personality.

In the Swiss province of Lausanne, elegant chocolate magnate and newly married Mika (Hupper) enjoys a tranquil life with her pianist husband, André (pop star Jacques Dutronc). Also on the scene are Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), André's son from a previous marriage (which ended when his first wife died in a violent car accident), and young Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), a young piano prodigy who learns of a hospital mix-up in which André thought she might be his daughter. Jeanne slowly wiles her way into the maestro's life, much to Mika's frustration; even more strangely, Jeanne begins to suspect that Mika might be tampering with the family's hot chocolate.

Riddled with in-jokes and moments of self-reflexive humor, Merci pour le Chocolat (shown on the festival circuit as Nightcap, a title that never took hold) is primarily a showcase for the always watchable Huppert, who anchors the story with a wry sense of menace which never fully erupts even during the peculiar final scene. Though the film constantly threatens to veer into melodramatic suspense, Chabrol instead tightens the screws in an entirely different manner by keeping the viewer in the dark about character motivations and whether any menace truly exists. Almost a deadpan comedy, this is certainly lighter Chabrol compared to the explosive viciousness which erupts in, say, La Cérémonie or Cry of the Owl; it's almost quaint in its quirky, stylish focus on a bourgeois family coming apart at the seams due to a few skeletons in the closet.

Merci pour le Chocolat first appeared on DVD in a pair of Region 2 PAL releases. The first from Mk2, a company responsible for numerous excellent editions of Chabrol's films, features French audio with no subtitles options but does boast a sharp, anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 transfer. On the other hand, the British release from Artificial Eye is a visual disappointment. Though 16:9 enhanced and quite sleek-looking, the 1.85:1 transfer loses significant chunks of information from the top and bottom of the screen, leaving many compositions way out of balance with characters' faces and eyebrows constantly scraping the edge of the frame. The American disc from First Run is something of a compromise between the two; it's subtitled and more correctly framed, but not 16:9 enhanced. The framing is actually a bit more open than any other transfer, measuring out closer to 1.55:1 than the 1.66:1 stated on the box. The much-needed headroom (and armroom) helps considerably; the UK disc displays a sliver more information on the sides, but overall the US framing is much more successful. However, the UK disc edges it out for picture quality, so in the end it's really a toss-up depending on the country in which the consumer lives. Subtitles on both the UK and US discs are unfortunately burned in, an oddity for such a recent film, but they're clear and always legible. Things get trickier when it comes to the extras. The French and British discs include an interview with Huppert (the latter with optional English subtitles), a 25-minute documentary showing the pipe-puffing Chabrol behind the scenes, Mouglalis' screen test, as well as a bounty of Chabrol-related text extras. The US disc contains a text introduction by Chabrol, bios, and a photo gallery. All three discs include the French theatrical trailer (which is misframed so badly on the UK disc the stars' names vanish off the top of the screen).

Color, 1987, 100m. / Directed by Claude Chabrol / Starring Christophe Malavoy, Mathilda May / AllDay (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Claude Chabrol's moody thriller Cry of the Owl (Le cri du hibou) was largely ignored after its marginal US theatrical release. A specialist in the psychological suspense genre, Chabrol has been mining into the darkest corners of the human psyche since the early days of the French New Wave, and this film continues the tradition. Many films have tried to ape Chabrol's style (most obviously With a Friend like Harry), but there's really only one original.

Estranged from his wife and finding solace in the countryside, morose draftsman Robert (Christophe Malavoy) discovers his voyeuristic side while lingering in the backyard of his beautiful neighbor, Juliette (Lifeforce's naked space vampire, Mathilda May). Much to his surprise, Juliette doesn't mind his Peeping Tom practices; in fact, she finds him a refreshing alternative to her boorish boyfriend, Patrick (Jacques Penot), and comes to regard Robert as death personified. Robert is less than amused, however, insisting he isn't death... and yet the Vichy countryside is soon populated with far more corpses than normal.

A clean, spare work of storytelling and filmic craftsmanship, Cry of the Owl seems like a film out of its time; you'd never guess it was a late 1980s title, so snugly does it fit with '60s Chabrol fare like This Man Must Die and Les Biches. The tricky narrative from a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) hums along with mechanized perfection, and all of the actors perform ably as pawns in this increasingly bewildering labyrinth of double crosses and murder. The oblique, haunting final shot - open and yet perfectly satisfying at the same time - perfectly sums up Charbol's approach, which suggests endless gulfs of emotional darkness yawning beneath all of his complacent characters.

Though his work is fairly well represented in his homeland, Chabrol has not fared nearly so well outside of France. Though Cry of the Owl was released on UK home video and made the rounds elsewhere as a bootleg title, its American VHS plans were thwarted when New Yorker apparently dropped the ball and lost it due to a legal snafu. After languishing in obscurity for well over a decade, the film was recovered by AllDay, whose transfer looks about the same as the British edition. The non-anamorphic framing looks fine, though the image quality is dated and benefits from some darkness adjustment via television or DVD player. The English subtitles are non-removable. Along with a still gallery, the disc also includes a feature commentary by Ric Menello (with an extended cameo appearance by AllDay's David Kalat) which dissects both this film's tangled history and Chabrol's place in the French New Wave, the history of suspense directors, and the pantheon of great directors worldwide. It's an informative discussion and will probably be useful to both newcomers and seasoned fans alike.

Color, 1994, 100 mins. / Directed by Claude Chabrol / Starring Emmanuelle Béart, François Cluzet, Nathalie Cardone

Wellspring (US R0 NTSC) / Letterboxed (1.66:1)

One of the very worst DVDs on the market. Claude Chabrol, the reigning master of French suspense films with miniature classics like Le Boucher and La Ceremonie, directed this emotionally probing look at a marriage torn about by suspicion and jealousy. Lovely Emanuelle Beart (Mission: Impossible) makes a strong impression as a victimized wife, and the long-unfilmed script by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique) seethes with menace and tragedy. The pace may be too slow and the ending too elliptical for U.S. viewers, but the film certainly deserves better than the treatment it receives here. The print itself is crawling with grain, the colors are distorted and smeary, and the DVD is poorly authored, with blotchy artifacts marring every night scene (of which there are many). Though the end credits sport a Dolby Stereo credit, this version is in very flat mono. The brief U.S. trailer is included, and the subtitles cannot be removed from the image. Someone needs to salvage this film, and fast.

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