Judge P.S. Colbert suspects Colonel Grey Poupon with a guillotine in the Pigalle district.
"Do you live in Paris, Detective?"
Just what we needed, right? Yet another quirky European sleuth, alternately ingratiating and irritating to the sets of upper-crust murder suspects he navigates through on a case-by-case basis.
Never mind. The real value of The Inspector Lavardin Collection has less to do with the roguishly enigmatic crime-solver (created by novelist Dominique Roulet, and expertly portrayed by Jean Poiret, The Last Metro), than the fact that it provides a rare treat for discerning American audiences by uncorking some mid-eighties vintage Claude Chabrol for domestic consumption.
Though not necessarily among the filmmaker's masterpieces, this pair of commercially successful features more than resonate with the hallmark ingredients of the nouvelle vague pioneer's finest works: meticulous casting, sophisticated surroundings, a trenchant wit, and the amazingly subtle-yet-acrobatic cinematography of long-time Chabrol collaborator Jean Rabier.
The first and finest of the pair, Chicken With Vinegar, barely qualifies as a mystery: when the first casualty occurs, the audience knows exactly why, and who is responsible for the death.
Ostensibly the tale of a sleepy—though affluent—bedroom town, where a quiet campaign of deceit is being perpetuated against young Louis Cuno (Lucas Belvaux, American Dreamer) and his invalid mother (Stéphane Audran, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), by a cabal of neighbors who've formed a real estate development firm, this cinematic introduction to Inspector Lavardin holds him off until nearly halfway into the film, by which time events have turned deadly.
Lavardin's arrival on the scene is remarkably low key, and in the process of gathering information, he makes his way amongst the townsfolk almost insidiously. Though polite and deferential at first, the good detective soon becomes frustrated by the tight-lipped locals and dispenses with amenities, eventually applying coercion and torture to suspects he deems unworthy of lawful protections.
Movie history has proven time and again that ticket buyers have a soft spot for bullying "heroes" who dispatch "baddies" by sinking to their level, and French cinema goers of 1985 were no exception, greedily gobbling up Chicken With Vinegar and demanding seconds.
Hence, the arrival of Inspector Lavardin, almost a year later. Now the titular character, Lavardin makes his first appearance just five minutes in, having been summoned to investigate the murder of author and über Catholic crusader Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine, The Ninth Gate).
Surprise! Raoul's widow, Hélène (Bernadette Lafont, Le Beau Serge) happens to be the very same Hélène that left Lavardin standing at the altar twenty years before. Sadly, the film largely squanders the opportunity to mine this interesting personal development, choosing instead to go the whodunnit route. To be fair, it's a darned good one, though—bolstered by a richly dark-humored script and a scene-stealing support performance by Jean-Claude Brialy (Les Cousins).
First, the middling: These 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers suffer from a flat and anemic color balance with some minor grain apparent, as well. The films are eminently watchable, but this lack of pop is a betrayal to Chabrol, who was nothing less than a master of aesthetics. The PCM 2.0 French soundtracks come through clearly enough, highlighted by Matthieu Chabrol's scoring.
Now, the good: E1 (via the Cohen Film Collection) have nearly outdone themselves with extras. First and foremost, the two features are joined by a pair of Chabrol directed Lavardin telefilms: The Black Snail (1988), and Danger Lies In The Words (1989). Shot in 1:33:1 and presumably on a smaller budget, these TV adventures otherwise keep up the high standards of the director's feature work.
But wait, there's more. O.K., there are 2014 re-release trailers for each feature, but more importantly, there's a handsome, picture-laden booklet with a fine essay by Peter Tonguette, and most importantly, both features come equipped with audio commentary tracks by film critics Andy Klein and Wade Major, who've obviously done their homework, and pass on their information in a lively and entertaining manner.
Okay, so The Inspector Lavardin Collection may not be top-tier Chabrol—and these domestic transfers are apparently weak imitations of their European cousins—but on balance, this more than reasonably priced set should be a no-brainer for discriminating collectors. You know who you are.
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