Twisting the Knife is the follow-up to Arrow Video‘s previous box set Lies and Deceit, and like that offers several of the later films of acclaimed French director Claude Chabrol, along with a host of bonus features.
1997’s The Swindle is a terrific crime caper starring the always magnificent Isabelle Huppert and perennial French actor Michel Serrault as Betty and Victor, a pair of smalltime crooks who spend their time conning money out of easy targets, such as the boring lawnmower salesman who Betty seduces to steal the thousands of francs he’d just won at the casino. Victor has a golden rule about never getting greedy, but this is thrown to the wind when Betty meets Maurice (François Cluzet), a courier for a criminal ring who has to transport millions for his employers. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing goes south when they decide to switch his attache case and the big boss demands to know what Maurice has done with his money.
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What makes The Swindle is the central performances of Huppert and Serrault, with the former being the firebrand playing against the more cautious latter, which means both actors work off each other beautifully. Chabrol is masterful with tone here, so what starts as something fairly lighthearted gets significantly darker without any awkward shifting, and from that, the film explores the amorality of Betty and Victor and what they do, and also how far they’re willing to go. But it’s very funny, and just watching Huppert and Serrault is a delight.
Even better is 1998’s The Colour of Lies. A sharp psychological thriller with a police procedural side, the film is based around the relationship of a married couple in Brittany whose relationship is threatened by a local tragedy. Rene (Jacques Gamblin) is an art teacher for children and Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a nurse, and their world is quickly torn asunder when one of Rene’s pupils is found dead after leaving his home from a lesson, with police inspector Lesage (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) immediately suspecting Rene. Things are further complicated with the reappearance of a local celebrity (played by Eurotrash presenter Antoine de Caunes) who has eyes on Vivianne, but who later also turns up dead.
The Colour of Lies is an expertly written and directed exploration of the trust we place in people in relationships and how that can change on a knife-edge. Gamblin and Bonnaire are note-perfect, with the former in particular portraying the harried Rene so well in a performance that not only elicits sympathy and empathy, but also ambiguity. Tedeschi is charismatic but underused, and de Caunes is very good at playing an arrogant rich twat. Chabrol underlines the narrative with a dose of jet-black comedy, but it’s still presented as a serious, and quite fantastic, psychological drama.
The same goes for 2000’s Nightcap, which effortlessly mixes pianos, chocolate, and death for a fine mystery tale. The film begins with the marriage of chocolate company owner Mika (Isabelle Huppert) and famous pianist Andre (Jacques Dutronc) and we quickly learn this is not their first time at the altar; they were originally married and then were divorced, after which Andre married another woman, who he had a son with. However, after his new bride dies in a car accident, he decides to remarry Mika. Shortly after, music student Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis) learns that the day she was born there was a mixup at the hospital with Andre’s son, and begins to wonder if she isn’t his daughter, which compels her to study piano with him. However, she doesn’t account for the jealousy of Andre’s son, not to mention the possibility that Mika has been drugging his hot chocolate.
Nightcap is a fascinating character study that is dominated by Huppert’s Mika, the perennial sweet lady of the piece who nevertheless has a compulsion for very bad things. What’s interesting is the structure of the film; it’s a mystery of sorts, but it’s less about who did what but why they did it. Initially, the story of Jeanne is posited as her finding out the truth about her parentage, but it’s more of a red herring and is dropped fairly quickly and quietly as she instead thinks more and more about Mika’s behaviour. Huppert is great at playing someone who doesn’t seem to have any real moral barriers, and there’s a sadness behind that, as well as a perversity. With an outstanding cast, Nightcap turns out to be much more than a standard whodunnit.
2003’s The Flower of Evil is another fascinating character study, this time about a pair of families that have been integrated for decades, and whose murky past is threatened to be revealed to halt the political career of matriarch Anne (Nathalie Baye). Anne’s husband Gerard (Bernard le Coq) is a womaniser who disapproves of Anne’s aspirations, while her daughter Michele (Melanie Doutey) and Gerard’s son Francois (Benoit Magimel) fall in love with each other. This mirrors the shaded past and acts as another potential catalyst for the implosion of the family.
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The Flower of Evil is an uncomfortable film to watch, but it’s also intriguing and captivating in the way it presents a fragile ecosystem of a family, like an ice floe that is steadily disintegrating with every minute that goes by. There’s a feeling of inevitability that runs through the picture, but the instinct is that the cause of the fracture will come from within, and will eventually cause an implosion of some size. The haunting confession at the heart of the film from the family’s dedicated aunt (a brilliant Suzanne Flon) is also an agent of healing and an explanation for the supposed sordid history of the families.
Arrow has done an exceptional job with Twisting the Knife. Each film looks and sounds great, and there are a wealth of bonus features including audio commentaries, featurettes, and video essays that greatly supplement the films. One can only hope they have more Chabrol sets up their sleeve – it would be especially nice to see some of his earlier work.
Twisting The Knife: Four Films by Claude Chabrol is out on Blu-ray on 25th April from Arrow Video.