Saturday, August 28, 2010

Film Reviews: Masques & Comedy of Power

"Masques" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Masques" (1987) is a title which could have been the title of any of French filmmaker Claude Chabrol's films.

Chabrol, who is credited with directing the first Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) film, "Le Beau Serge" (1959), has made a career making films about people who wear masks. People who never quite show their true identity. He usually takes aim at the French upper class, showing us they are not picture perfect. They have lots of buried family secrets and often are prone to murder. In America he has earned the title "the French Hitchcock". And, much like Hitchcock, Chabrol's films possess a dark humor. A witty cynicism.

"Masques" quite nicely falls into this category. The viewer never knows what to believe. Are these people on the level? How can they be in a movie called "Masques"? But what are these people hiding? And that is half the fun in this Chabrol film, which is a bit more tongue & cheek then we may be use to in one of the master's films.

Here we follow Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret, best known for his role in "Cinema Paradiso" (1989) which won an Oscar). He is a TV game show host who has granted a young journalist, Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) the opportunity to interview him for an upcoming book.

Christian seems like an extremely good natured person. Always smiling and friendly. Despite his wealth he wants Roland to know he comes from a working class family. He wasn't always rich and famous. But he appreciates his good fortune and wants to help others. He has even decided to "adopt" a young woman, Catherine (Anne Brochet). He was good friends with Catherine's parents, who died in a car accident.

But this picture isn't as perfect as it seems. Catherine is sick or is she? She suffers from one of those rare movie illnesses where she is often told to rest. It seems some time ago, another young woman was staying with Christian. The young woman and Catherine became very good friends but one day the woman just disappeared. Was it murder or just a coincidence? Ever since the young woman's disappearance Catherine has been sick.

Roland slowly starts to uncover these family secrets by pitting everyone against each other. There is Christian's secretary Colette Monique Chaumette) who is also a servant in his home and his masseuse (Bernadette Lafont) who may be more than just a masseuse. But does Roland have any alternative motive?

There is a great line early in the film which Christian gives; "it's very amusing to live several lives at once." And that is what "Masques" is about. And a great insight into Christian's mentality.

Of late I haven't enjoyed Chabrol's work as much as I use to. He is one of my favorite filmmakers but his most recent films; "Bellamy" (2009), "The Girl Cut in Two" (2008) and "The Bridesmaid" (2006) have just lacked the edge his classics have. But "Masques" is the most fun I've had watching a Chabrol film in years. Chabrol moves things at a pretty fast pace. There is some room for tension but the film has fun with the genre. Nothing is taken too serious. It is playful. And Philipp Noiret's performance is pitch perfect. He walks a fine line and never makes the character campy. But clearly he is having fun playing the part.

The script was co-written by Chabrol and Odile Barski, a frequent collaborator. Together they have worked on "Violette" (1978) and "The Color of Lies" (1999). Barski also wrote the wonderful Andre Techine film "The Girl on the Train" (2010), which had Chabrol elements.

At the time when "Masques" was released there was a perception in this country that Chabrol's best days were behind him. He was old hat. He couldn't make films on par with his earlier masterpieces such as "Le Boucher" (1972), "Les Biches" (1968) or "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969). But I find these remarks unfair. Chabrol was making some decent movies during this period. His "Cop Au Vin" (1985) is very entertaining and also tongue & cheek. His "The Story of Women" (1989) was considered to have one of his most interesting plots. Sadly the public does this a little too often. We are too quick to condemn our great filmmakers. While I may not enjoy some of Chabrol's more recent efforts I would never suggest his best days are behind him.

I wouldn't advise viewers start off with this Chabrol film if you aren't familiar with him. But, for those that are "Masques" is a playful diversion. It shows the old master still had some tricks up his sleeves.

"Comedy of Power" *** (out of ****)

"Comedy of Power" (2006) is another Claude Chabrol film this time starring one of his greatest collaborators, Isabelle Huppert.

I originally saw this film at the International Chicago Film Festival where critics were buzzing the film was a return to form for Chabrol. Some were calling it his best film in years. A new twist on familiar themes. I didn't quite buy into their hype.

My favorite more recent Chabrol film is "The Flower of Evil" (2003) which I put on my "top ten" list. But "Comedy of Power" is an interesting film which is much better then his two films which followed "A Girl Cut in Two" and "Bellamy". And we have the pleasure of seeing Chabrol work with Huppert on their seventh film together.

Huppert is known for her great poker face. She suggest an icy interior, a woman with a motive. Not since Chabrol's ex-wife, Stephane Audran, has an actresses been more suited to Chabrol. And Huppert uses elements of that this time around.

To be fair though Huppert isn't playing one of her sinister characters. This time she is on the side of the law playing a judge, Jeanne Charmant-Killman. Known for her tough, no nonsense ways. She is making a case against some CEOs whom she claims abused public funds. This is all supposedly based on a real life incident, the Elf Aquitaine scandal which happened in the 1990s in France.

Like "Masques", the title here "Comedy of Power" is one which can describe a good many of Chabrol's films, who often shows the "powerful" in powerless situations. The title would suggest we are getting a facade of power. These CEOs may have their connections but no man is above the law, right?

"Comedy of Power" is a good film if understated. The tone and pace of the film is much different from Chabrol's other films. As in "Masques" here we are seeing the dark side of "important" people. But I never felt like I was caught in a web with this film. The corruption didn't seem larger than life. And I live in Chicago, so I know a thing or two about corruption. With "Masques" we knew we were in the midst of a larger plot. This time around Chabrol doesn't really spell things out for us.

Still, there are admirable qualities about the film. The performances are sharp. Huppert is the best of the pack. I also like Francois Berleand as Michel Humeau, Killman's first victim. Chabrol's son, Thomas is also engaging.

Chabrol seems to be having fun though with this concept of "power". Who exactly is this "comedy" on? Who is under the influence they have power? Is it the CEOs, who are being watched by the police or is it the police and judges who think they have power but can be bought off? Is Killman as innocent as she seems? Does she really have power?

The script once again was co-written by Odile Barski and Chabrol, and compared to what Chabrol has released lately, this is one of his better films.