Judge Dan Mancini wrote this review in the kitchen with the candlestick.
He always wins.
French New Wave innovator and Alfred Hitchcock disciple Claude Chabrol tosses us neck-deep in mystery in the French countryside in Masques, newly released on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In the film, Chabrol riffs on the manor mystery sub-genre by presenting the tale of a novelist named Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci, The Dreamers), working on the biography of affable game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret, Cinema Paradiso), renowned for giving away dream vacations to his sweet elderly contestants. When Wolf spends a few days at Legagneur's country estate in order to interview his subject and gather notes for his book, he meets the celebrity's goddaughter and ward Catherine (Anne Brochet, Cyrano de Bergerac), a young woman suffering from a mysterious and debilitating illness. Wolf begins to suspect the motivations for Legagneur's charity toward the girl may not be pure even as his own obsession with a young woman named Madeleine and her disappearance after visiting the game show host's estate cause us to question the writer's true purpose in pursuing his subject.
The traditional manor mystery formula is organized like a game of Clue: There's a dead body and a sleuth (or sleuths) piecing together evidence to expose the culprit. In Masques, we first assume Wolf, a writer digging into Legagneur's life and history, is our sleuth, if only by accident. There is no dead body, but the game show host exudes a vague menace—he's creepily affable—and we know from the outset Wolf's investigations will reveal something unseemly. Our introduction to Catherine, her frail beauty and desperately clingy sexual come-ons to Wolf, only intensifies our sense that something's desperately wrong at the chateau. Then Chabrol throws us for a loop when Wolf begins poking around and asking questions about a woman named Madeleine, a woman with whom we're entirely unfamiliar. Suddenly, our sleuth is a mystery, too. Who is he and what are his motives regarding Legagneur? Can we trust him? Should we be identifying with him? In a striking narrative turn, Chabrol makes us the manor sleuth, struggling to discover each character's true nature and identity. The meaning of the film's title snaps into sharp relief: no one at the Legagneur estate is what he or she seems; everyone is projecting a carefully designed persona; everyone has something to hide.
Masques wouldn't be a Claude Chabrol film if its intrigue wasn't laced with not-so-subtle political subtext. It's as much an exposé of the power of the bourgeoisie to shape society's rules—stacking the deck in their own favor—as it is a mystery-thriller. Le gagneur means "the winner," and that's what Philippe Noiret's character is. He's smooth, debonair, confident, and unflappable because he knows (or believes) his position, wealth, and fame free him from the civil and moral laws that confine Wolf and Catherine, endowing him with the power to control outcomes. For the French, bourgeois isn't just a designation for the middle class; it evokes the more specific Marxist meaning of land-owner. It's no accident that Chabrol, who scripted the film as well as directing, was attracted to the manor mystery format as a vessel for exploring and expressing his political sensibilities: It is Legagneur's land—the isolated provincial estate—that enables him to so thoroughly control the film's characters and events. How can Wolf defeat an opponent who owns the very earth on which their struggle is being conducted? That Legagneur is charming and seductive throughout the film, instead of coming off as a sinister melodrama villain, is a tribute to the delicate and precise construction of character that distinguishes all of Chabrol's best work, as well as Noiret's incredible skill and talent as an actor. Like Wolf, we know the game show host is a louse, but part of us just wants to flop into a wingback chair in his library, smoke a cigar, drink a brandy, and enjoy a lively conversation with him. And how can we avoid being engrossed by a film in which we like all the characters, though they all may be villains?
You'll have to discover for yourself whether or not Wolf can resist the allure of Legagneur's comfortable charm, and if Wolf is a louse just like his nemesis. Luckily, Home Vision Entertainment has made it possible to do so in style. Their DVD release offers the film in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen presentation in its original theatrical ratio of 1.66:1. Colors are smooth and natural; the image is reasonably sharp with a beautiful layer of fine, film-like grain. There's little in the way of source damage or dirt. The Dolby stereo surround offers clean and clear dialogue and surprisingly punchy music.
In terms of extras, the DVD is just this side of barebones. The only supplement on the disc is a theatrical trailer. The insert leaflet contains a brief essay by Guy Austin (Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction), as well as a Chabrol filmography. But Masques doesn't rise to the level of Chabrol masterpieces like Story of Women or La Cérémonie. Though it's an engrossing piece of entertainment, film school-style supplements may have been overkill.
Like M. Legagneur, Masques is a winner, manipulating the rules of its genre to its own benefit.
The court finds this DVD release of Masques not guilty. As for the guilt or innocence of Christian Legagneur and Roland Wolf, well, you'll have to watch the movie to find that out.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.