It was inevitable that Chabrol, "the French Hitchcock," to allow for a moment that utterly inaccurate sobriquet, would at some point tackle the most famous of French murderers, the real-life Bluebeard who murdered ten women (plus one child). Perhaps too inevitable: the task may have felt like an obligation. So it's probably good that M. Chabrol took the plunge relatively early in his career, when he was barely typed as a master of crime movies. And indeed, Landru (1963) is more black comedy than thriller.
At first, this seems curious: hadn't Chaplin already made a comedic version of the "Bluebeard" case, one that was rather highly regarded in France? But Chabrol, working with screenwriter Françoise Sagan, has his reasons. Firstly, his version differs from Chaplin's by telling the story relatively faithfully, without changing character names or crucial facts. Secondly, it's tonal similarity (although really, the sense of humor displayed is quite distinct from Chaplin's) is probably inescapable: how can we follow the exploits of a man we know is a serial killer, as we woos and marries a succession of ten women, murdering them in turn and selling their belongings, without running into the kind of horrible irony that is inevitable comic? It's not that there's anything remotely funny about Landru's chosen method of making a living. It's just that every moment he spends with each victim is redolent with grotesque foreshadowing, since we more or less know the outcome even before the pattern has been established.
Chabrol, no fool, is aware of the pitfalls surrounding this venture. The queasy bad taste of creating comedy from real-life atrocity is handled deftly: Chabrol gently encourages us to laugh, then stands back, eyebrow raised, as we realize what we're laughing at. We're monsters! Yes, we are, says Chabrol.
More grotesquerie: Landru is played by Charles Denner, later cast by Truffaut as The Man Who Loved Women. Denner is hampered by a preposterous makeup, which conceals his chiseled cheekbones and sensuous lips, and manufactures a resemblance to the historical Henri Landru, but not as much as it makes him look like a waxwork of Georges Méliès. Or a vengeful, Old Testament Santa. Great fuzzy-felt eyebrows and a stained cotton wool beard are a considerable impediment to any thespian, one would think, but Denner uses them, playing the part with a great deal of theatrical artifice, a sing-song vocal delivery and a rhetorical style which suits a man who is himself play-acting the whole time. Slowly, the puppet-like figure works his charm. Sucked into Landru's story, baffled as we must be at his protestations of revulsion at his crimes, his pretense of innocence, and his mocking, sick sense of humor, all facets of the real man which cannot be reconciled into a functioning psychology, are we finally more convinced by this greasepaint Lothario, this stick figure with a shaved bald patch, than we would be by a convincing simulacrum of a human being?
Guest stars! Landru murders Danielle Darrieux and Michele Morgan, nearly offs Hildegarde Neff, and takes Stephane Audran as mistress. He professes his love for her, and doesn't seem motivated by murderous larceny in her case, but then again, he doesn't use his real name with her, so maybe he was just keeping his options open. Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Melville plays politician Georges Mandel, plotting to use the case to keep the troubles signing the peace treaty off the front page, and Raymond Queneau plays Clemenceau, reluctantly accepting his associate's sinister logic.
The glorious, somewhat unreal sets mimic the look of cinema from the nineteen-tens, and Chabrol's direction allows each new wide shot a chance to hang around and be appreciated. While the use of closeups, traveling shots and freeze frames in no way follows the fashion of pre-WWI film-making, and indeed rather reeks of the 1960s, those establishing shots serve as a useful bit of period detail. And the settings portrayed, beautifully designed by Jacques Saulnier and decorated by George Houssaye, emulate the style of production design found in films of the teen years: three-dimensional and solid, unlike the painted flats of the previous decade, yet still hyper-unreal, in a way that's a little hard to pin down but impossible to miss. The vivid colors help to highlight the dreamlike wrongness.
Philosophically, Chabrol's film does differ from Chaplin's in another key way. Chaplin allows Monsieur Verdoux to plead his case eloquently, and while he may not personally feel that warfare on a world scale makes a few domestic homicides for gain morally insignificant, he certainly puts the argument forward as if he wants us to think about it. In the Chabrol film, the war is relevant chiefly because it reduces Landru to potential penury, sparking his desire to raise cash in novel ways, and it also supplies him with a ready supply of lonely women, since so many men of Landru's age are away at the front, or dead. He's not such a classic beauty that he could make a living this way in peacetime, and as soon as the armistice is signed he realizes that his career as wife-killer is kaput. His behavior in court is so erratic and arrogant (faithfully reproducing the reality of Landru's megalomaniacal showmanship) that any arguments about the insignificance of his crimes tends to be swamped by the sheer callousness of the character before us.
Chabrol does screw up with a couple of gags at the expense of the French police, which might be fair game in another movie but seem like cheap shots in an elegant drawing room comedy of seduction serial murder. A simple cut from a happy woman buying a train ticket with her new husband, to smoke emerging from a chimney as she's cremated, is all this movie needs to express its sinister humor.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.