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3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol – Blu-ray Review

The Movie (Betty: 2/5, The Swindle: 2.5/5, L’Enfer: 4.5/5)

I’ll be honest. Before this brand new release, 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol, from Cohen Media Group landed on my desk, I had never heard of Claude Chabrol. After doing some research and learning that he was one of the leading filmmakers of the French New Wave, I kind of had a good idea of what I was getting into. The New Wave filmmakers were ambitious pioneers, playing around with editing and narrative technique. Their work during the 1960s changed the core of cinema as we know it, and their legacy cannot be understated in anyway. This new release from Cohen however, is not three films from Chabrol’s prime. Rather, it is a collection of 3 films from the later period of his career, a period where I often find many of these influential filmmakers sort of faded into the background and made films that were less ambitious, and much tougher to digest. This collection from Cohen, which includes the 1992 film Betty, 1994 L’Enfer (It translates to Hell or Inferno in French, but Cohen has decided to rename it Torment?), and the 1997 film The Swindle, is a collection of these type of films.

Betty:

Betty is a slow burning, cold examination of the life of a woman who holds no regard for the thoughts and feels of those around her. Starring Marie Tritingant as the lead role, it tells the story of a woman who, after cheating on her husband, is essentially sent into exile after she shows little to no remorse for any of her actions. Once exiled, she is taken under the wing of an older woman who attempts to set her on the right track again while her former family tries to set things straight and makes things right for the sake of Betty’s children.

Betty is a rather nihilistic film, one in which we are subjected to a lead that moves from man to man, hurting those she’s closest to and rejected any attempts to make amends as if making any serious personal connections is some sort of taboo in her life. She just doesn’t care. Throughout the film we are subjected to a series of flashbacks in which we gain some interesting insight into why she is the way she is, but it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to sit through or make her more sympathetic as a character. It paints her as a character that desperately needs to cry for help as we watch her destroy her marriage, abandon her kids, and sink into alcoholism, but rather than tell a story about a woman who struggles to or can’t help herself, she just doesn’t, intentionally.

Maybe I missed something during my screening of Betty, but I really struggled to pull anything meaningful out of Chabrol’s tale of a woman who dispassionately spreads disaster from place to place while she remains unchanging. Paired with a 103 minute runtime that feels like 6 years due to some anemic pacing, and a mostly unremarkable production design and musical score, I walked away from Betty as dispassionately as she walked away from her own life. Bleh.

The Swindle:

The Swindle, or the three films in this collection, promised to be the most cinematic of the 3 stories laid on the table by Chabrol. Rather than subject us to a personal examination of a horrible personality trait, this film is about a couple, played by Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault, who move from place to place performing small time con jobs on unsuspecting and naive businessmen or doctors in order to eek out a meager living. Unfortunately, Betty, Huppert’s character, drags her partner into their biggest crime to date, one that will potentially net them millions of Swiss francs. However, like most jobs with the highest payout, it comes with the highest risk, pulling Betty and Serrault’s character Victor into a world of ruthless criminals and brutal violence, forcing them to con themselves not only into a large pool of money, but also out of their own potential demise.

It’s a fairly standard story, one in which two criminal step out of their league, and witness great horror as they’re promptly put into place. Rather than make the film exciting or inject any real action or tension into it, Chabrol and his creative team spend the first 85 minutes of their 105 minute runtime moving at a snail’s pace, sucking the life out of an otherwise interesting premise. Instead, we get a slow trot to the finish line that focuses on mundane aspects of the criminal lifestyle, including going out to dinner, playing pretend a little too long, and scenes in which our two leads drive around in an RV like they’re on an elaborate camping trip. There are moments in which the film hints at a bigger network on con artists who are all in league with each other, but it never explores such a concept, moving on quickly in what feels like a major missed opportunity.

In its final act, late in the film, Chabrol and his screenwriter finally realize that they’re trying to at least make some semblance of entertainment, injecting a healthy serving of tension and terror into this otherwise uninteresting examination of the lives of two small time con artists. It doesn’t salvage an otherwise ineffective and boring film, but it does make an 85 or so minute slog fest feel somewhat satisfying in its endgame. Unfortunately, even though it had the most potential to be entertaining of the three films in this collection, The Swindle ultimately comes out the gate limping and tired. So much for that.

Torment (L’Enfer):

Last, but certainly not least is Chabrol’s 1994 feature film L’Enfer, which translates roughly to Hell or Inferno from the original French. A completed and modernized realization of a script that was written in the 1960s for a different director, the film is a haunting depiction of a man who slowly loses his mind after marrying a beautiful woman and opening a moderately successful hotel in a scenic part of France. As he succumbs to mental illness, he becomes sadistically jealous, condemning his innocent wife to what essentially amounts to torture as he imprisons her to soothe his own insanity. As his illness furthers and his world continues to deteriorate, we are forced to stand idly by as madness take its place, wreaking havoc and causing casualties left and right.

An examination of not only the crippling effects of mental illness, but also of the stringent marriage laws of the 1990s and the complacency of members of a harmful relationship as Paul, played with fierceful vengeance by Francois Cluzet, destroys his one wife’s freedoms to satisfy the voices in his head. We are forced to watch as time and time again his wife Nelly, played by the beautiful Emmanuelle Beart, goes to every single possible length to try and salvage their marriage, both for her own sanity and or the well being of her son. They both make moves to try and ease Paul’s pain, but it overwhelms and ultimately destroys them both in the most agonizing of ways.

The only film of the three in this collection that I was able to pull any meaning out of, L’Enfer is a brutal movie that starts off as an unassuming drama that melts into a horror show as it charges through its 102 minute run time. The film’s uneven pacing, which I can only assume was intentional, helps to make Paul’s descent into madness more convincing, as time skips occur in slide show-esque transitions, speeding things up only to have the following sequences move slow as molasses, giving us ample time to take in the torment he subjects his poor wife to. L’Enfer is not a fun movie, but is well made and highlights some interesting flaws in the French lakeside society it takes place in. Ending ambiguously, it might be the only film I’ve ever watched that ends with a title card that recites in French, “Without End.” It’s gripping and terrifying all at once. It is 102 minutes of hell.  

The Video (3.5/5)

Typically I would offer three separate sections for each of the three films in this collection, but I feel my comments apply to the visual qualities of the presentations of all three films.

Betty, The Swindle, and Torment were all shot on 4-perf 35mm film, and cropped in post to the slightly conservative 1.66:1 aspect ratio for theatrical projection. Scanned from what most certainly must be interpositives of each film in HD, each film is presented in 1080p, maintaining the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

All three of these films for the most part look excellent, with sharp detail and a healthy, organic layer of film grain that give each one a nice filmic quality. Color is muted across the board, occasionally showing off nice reds and yellows against fairly basic set design and location work. Skin tones resolve nicely, but black levels are fairly inconsistent, especially during L’Enfer and Betty, making their nighttime exposures pretty ugly. Each one of the three features plenty of instances of dirt and scratches on the prints used to generate these new 1080p presentations, but not enough to become particularly annoying. These films look good, but not great.

The Audio (3.5/5)

Each of these three films features 2.0 LPCM Stereo soundtracks in the French language, all with English subtitles.

These three films are driven primarily by dialogue, with little to distinguish them from standard mono soundtrack productions. Sound effects and music typically take a backseat to crafting the drama on screen, resulting in a pretty minimal sound design across the board. These tracks are clean and serviceable, but do little to impress in the long run.

Special Features/Packaging (3/5)

3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol, released to home video by Cohen Media Group as part of their Cohen Film Collection, is packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The front artwork features the release’s title, as well as shots of the main characters from the three films next to their individual titles and lead cast members, all surrounded by the typical red and black Cohen design. The back artwork features no pictures, just a paragraph about the release, one paragraph for each film, a list of features, technical specs, and credits for each one, surrounded by the red and black Cohen design. Within the case, we have a lovely full color booklet with cast info and chapters for each film, accompanied by some beautiful full color images, and inner artwork for the case of a shot of Paul and Nelly from L’Enfer. It looks nice, but doesn’t stand with the best of Cohen releases in terms of packaging.

Onto the features:

Betty:

Re-release Trailer – the film’s new trailer, prepared by Cohen for their release of the film to arthouse theaters prior to this home video release.

L’Enfer:

Commentary – a feature length commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein, who discuss the film in depth, exploring themes and various aspect of the film, etc….

Re-release Trailer – the film’s new trailer, prepared by Cohen for their release of the film to arthouse theaters prior to this home video release

The Swindle:

Commentary – a feature length commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein, who discuss the film in depth, exploring themes and various aspect of the film, etc….

Interview with Francois Cluzet by NY Film Festival Director Kent Jones – a 40 minute taped interview between the aforementioned parties, one the director of the NY Film Festival, and one of the lead actors from the film, in which the film and L’Enfer are discussed, as well as Cluzet’s history with the director, and other topics. In French with subtitles.

Re-release Trailer – the film’s new trailer, prepared by Cohen for their release of the film to arthouse theaters prior to this home video release

A standard, light on quantity set of extras that offer, at least for two of three films, some depth and interesting commentary regarding these films.

Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)

Video

Codec: AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Audio

LPCM 2.0 Stereo (French)

Subtitles

English

Runtime: 103 minutes (Betty), 102 minutes (L’Enfer), 105 minutes (The Swindle)

Overall (3/5)

Since this was my first exposure to Chabrol’s work, maybe this was a rough place to start. The films in Cohen Media Group’s 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol are distant, slow, and cold experiences that don’t really offer a lot of interesting commentary on the human experience or condition. Of the three, I was only able to really pull anything substantial from L’Enfer. The other two films, The Swindle and Betty are plagued by brutally slow pacing, and stories that are stretched too thin over 100 minute runtimes. They’re not wholly unwatchable, just not wholly interesting experiences to sit through. Regardless of my thoughts on the films, Cohen has done a decent job bringing them to home video, with decent 1080p video transfers, adequate audio, and good packaging. Extras are lacking as usual, but there’s enough to engage die hard fans who really love these movies at least for a little while. Jump on this one at your own risk – your results may vary.

Chris Haller

Chris is currently completing his final year of undergraduate studies at SUNY Brockport in Biological Sciences, with intent to enter a career in public education. When he's not throwing a Blu-ray on for review, or watching a Laserdisc, he can probably be found playing competitive Overwatch, and whining about the shifting balance in the meta.

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