Sunday, May 5, 2013

Film Review: Just Before Nightfall

"Just Before Nightfall"  *** (out of ****)

"Just Before Nightfall" (1971, though released in the U.S. in 1976) starts off with a naked blonde rolling on a bed. A man looks on. They must be lovers. Or husband and wife. He walks over to her. She is asking him to choke her. He does. She dies. Maybe they weren't lovers. Or are we watching a kinky sex game which has gone too far? Did he mean to kill her? Have they even met before? Maybe one of them answered an ad in a newspaper.

The movie, which was directed by Claude Chabrol, instantly raises all of these questions. And, because it is a Claude Chabrol film the audience assumes they know where all of this is going to go. Chabrol was given the nickname "the French Hitchcock", something Chabrol never approved of. He made tightly constructed suspense films which were an attack on the bourgeoisie.

His movies always dealt with murder. Middle-class, respectable people committing crimes, trying to bury secrets. Their lives weren't as perfect as they would have you believe. Sure, they dress nice, have lovely children, seem to be in loving marriages but often the husband or wife was hiding something and often someone was going to die in order keep it all a secret.

But "Just Before Nightfall" is a bit different. Chabrol has something else up his sleeve. For me, it isn't quite as effective as his other films, especially the films he was making at this period in his career. The late 1960s, mid 70s showed Chabrol to be at the peak of his cinematic powers. In "Just Before Nightfall" he tried something different. It isn't a failure by any means but I can't call it a total success and declare it a masterpiece. Or say it is one of Chabrol's best films.

We learn the man is Charles Masson (Mich Bouquet). He is married to Helene (Stephane Audran, a Chabrol regular who was married to the director at one time). They have two children. The murdered woman was Laura (Anna Douking). Her husband is Francois (Francois Perier). He and Charles not only know each other. But have been friends for 25 years. Francois built Charles' home.

Naturally after the murder a police investigation begins. It is being conducted by officer Cavanna (Henri Attal). At this point the audience may suspect the film will be about Charles trying to cover his traces. Maybe even kill again to protect his name, his business and his family. Maybe the wife will find out or Francois before the police do.

That would be normal in a Chabrol film but the master has take a different route. "Just Before Nightfall" is about remorse and guilt. In many ways it is comparable to the Woody Allen film "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989). What happens if you get away with murder? What happens if the police don't catch you? What if you've outsmarted them? Could you live with yourself?

It is an interesting question but I never felt Chabrol had a true handle on the material. There were times I felt the movie just sits there. Audran is nearly wasted. She is far too good an actress to go unnoticed. And she does have a few brief moments to shine. But largely I felt she was in the background. Some might argue it is just as well. This is Charles' story. Fair enough. But his performance didn't hits the notes it should have. A lot of this has to do with the screenplay which doesn't go in the directions it should have.

The movie never really involves itself with the police investigation. A mistake. If the audience can see the police keep hitting a wall and counter it with Charles' reaction to this it may have helped build more tension and suspense. Or maybe if the police started to suspect another man. Now Charles would be faced with the dilemma - do I turn myself in or let another man take the rap? We are still dealing with the same themes and inner conflict only we've made the movie more interesting.

Chabrol, Bouquet and Audran collaborated on a similar film prior to this, Chabrol's masterpiece "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969). In that movie once again Bouquet is a murderer. His name is even Charles again. He is married to Audran and her name is once again Helene. This time she cheats (the title of the movie kind of gives it away). That movie was much more suspenseful and tightly constructed. It had more of Chabrol's wit and playful insights. And yet managed to touch on some comparable ideas.

At its time of release "Just Before Nightfall" had its fans. Former Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called it one of Chabrol's best films. Many Chabrol fans took delight in it too. And you may even find some today who like it but the movie is now largely forgotten in the Chabrol cannon. He made too many great movies during this period; "Les Biches" (1968, I have reviewed it), "The Unfaithful Wife", "This Man Must Die!" (1971), "Le Boucher" (1972), often regarded as his best work, and "Wedding in Blood" (1974, I have reviewed it) that "Just Before Nightfall" gets lost in the shuffle. It is not up to the standard of those movies. Yet, as I say it is not a waste of time.

There is an audience for the movie. I like that Chabrol tried something different. The movie raises interesting questions. It has an unique premise. Moments of good acting and some nice visuals. If that sounds like enough for you to enjoy a movie by all means explore the world of Chabrol Chabrol.