“The Color of Lies”: Claude Chabrol and the art of the offhanded thriller

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Claude Chabrol made thrillers that didn’t seem to realize they were thrillers. From his first film of the French New Wave, “La Beau Serge (modeled on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”) to his later films a half-century later (like 2004’s haunting tale of obsession “The Bridesmaid”), his films had a very distinctive take on the thriller genre. Rather than amp up the lurid details, Chabrol’s camera felt almost detached from the action, letting the actors give naturalistic, almost languid performances, until they sort of just happen into a murder plot.

Many of Chabrol’s movies aren’t available on DVD in America, but that’s starting to change. Cohen Film Collection has released Chabrol’s 1999 “The Color of Lies,” in a digitally restored edition on Blu-ray, a sterling example of the kind of sly Hitchcockian homages that Chabrol was best at.

“Lies” starts right off with a murder — a 10-year-old girl is found raped and strangled in the woods outside a picturesque seaside town in Brittany. Immediately suspicion falls on a local artist, Rene (Jacques Gamblin), who had given the girl an art lesson just an hour before her death. Chabrol follows the local detectives in their investigation, but he seems more interested on how the town slowly turns against Rene, not because there’s any evidence against him, but they have to blame somebody. Rene starts to buckle under the weight of their stares; growing haggard and sweaty, he starts to look like a guilty man.

As Rene grows more unstable, his wife Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire) has her own secrets, having started an affair with an arrogant writer Desmot (Antoine De Caunes in an eminently punchable performance). By the time it’s all over, a second dead body as joined the first, and Chabrol seems less interested in finding justice than in exploring these characters, and how crime becomes an extension of their passions. As one woman puts it, “You don’t know the person you sleep next to. You know nothing.”

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Chabrol’s shooting style feels almost deliberately flat, the picturesque scenery and realistic dialogue concealing the darker motives beneath. There are a few touches that border on the surreal, such as a nighttime boat ride in a fog, or a scene where we see Vivianne with her lover, and later Vivianne has come home to see that Rene has painted almost the exact same scene (only with his wife now nude).

The Blu-ray’s only real extra is a chatty commentary track by Wade Major and Andy Klein, who are especially good at pointing out seemingly innocuous shots and lines of dialogue that pay off later in the film. “Color of Lies” isn’t essential Chabrol; it’s just one of many good films he made in a long career, good films that we need to see more of on these shores.

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