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Claude Chabrol's homage to Hitchcock better than most

Tearsheets: Musuem of Fine Arts

Suggested headline: Chabrol's homage to Hitchcock is better than most



Directed by Claude Chabrol.

Screenplay by Claude Chabrol

and Odile Barski.

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.

Starring Christophe Malavoy

and Mathilda May.

Plays Thursday and Friday, at 5:30

and 7:30pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts.


ONE HALLMARK OF French New Wave filmmakers is that almost all of them looked to American films for inspiration. Alfred Hitchcock, an immigrant from his native Britain, was a favorite director of the New Wave filmmakers. Claude Chabrol is somewhat lesser-known than his New Wave contemporaries, but his films have been influenced by Hitchcock's work to the point that some critics view Chabrol's body of work as one extended homage to Hitchcock. The line between paying homage and stealing ideas is at times indistinguishable, but Chabrol successfully demonstrates in his 1987 film Le Cri du hibou ("The Cry of the Owl") that he has more imagination than the small-minded Hitchcock imitators like Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma.

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the film tells the story of a man named Robert (Christophe Malavoy) who has moved from Paris to Vichy during his divorce proceedings. While drawing owl illustrations for scientific textbooks, Robert spies on a young woman named Juliette (Mathilda May). Juliette senses that someone is watching her, but she conquers her fears when she confronts Robert. She soon begins to push aside her fianc'e Patrick to pursue Robert, who retreats from her advances after Patrick angrily threatens him. The resulting conflict among the three lovers eventually leads to mysterious gunshots fired in the dark, an apparent murder, a definite suicide, and a furious climax.

The plot summary shows that the film could easily have degenerated into a slasher film, an absurd romantic-triangle comedy, or perhaps a violent melodrama. Fortunately, Chabrol does not permit this to happen; rather, he creates a fascinating if unrevealing subtext that keeps casting an ever so slight doubt on the sanity of the characters, and Robert in particular.

Like Hitchcock, Chabrol understands that creating suspense is more effective than shocking viewers, and so Robert reveals early on that he once had a nervous breakdown and pointed a loaded shotgun at his sleeping wife. This creates an eerie tension because Robert currently acts the way most rational people would: he goes to the police after Patrick physically attacks him and cooperates fully when the police subsequently investigate Patrick's supposed death. Christophe Malavoy's restrained, almost detached, acting is particularly instrumental in convincing the audience that Robert has recovered from his breakdown.

At the same time, Chabrol infuses his film with a visual motif consisting of three components, all of which are based on owl iconography. The basic goal of all three components is to create a gnawing sense that Robert's mental balance is an unstable one. The first way Chabrol does this is to show Robert working in rooms with large pictures of beady-eyed and sharp-beaked owls on the wall -- a rather unusual, if not particularly informative, choice.

Secondly, Chabrol adds the hooting of an unseen owl onto the soundtrack in the opening and closing sequences of the film. In both sequences, characters (Juliette in the first, Robert in the last) make an important, dangerous, and irrevocable choice. The owl hoots highlight a key difference between Juliette's decision and Robert's. The effect during the opening scenes is more or less casual and routine. The owl hoots at the film's end, however, help make the climax much more dramatic: Robert makes his choice, the film pauses on a shattering freeze-frame, four or five owl hoots are heard, and the film fades to black.

The third component of Chabrol's visual motif consists of mise en scene based on the perspective of an owl. Owls have to move their entire head (which can rotate a full 360 degrees) if they want to look in a different direction, and they tend to stare without blinking for large periods of time. Chabrol translates these facts into unusual shot compositions and camera movements. For example, Chabrol shows characters engaged in conversation with typical over-the-shoulder shots. However, he tends to hold to a single perspective without switching back and forth between speakers, thereby evoking an owl's stern and penetrating gaze. On at least one occasion, Chabrol includes a tracking shot that duplicates the likely flight trajectory of an owl: the camera flies into the air from a tree and comes to rest beside a dead body lying in a field of grass.

Clearly, Chabrol's owl imagery / mental stability metaphor is elaborately constructed, and it is by far the single most interesting element of the film -- which is, paradoxically, its fundamental problem. As a whole, the film is not very satisfying precisely because the motif has been thoroughly relegated to the background. The motif is effective enough to raise the film above the usual psychological thriller, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to raise the film's impact to that of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) or Psycho (1960).

What's worse is that Chabrol ends the film just as the motif finally begins to break into the foreground. Certainly, Chabrol's ending does avoid the silly and pat restoration of the moral order that concludes so many Hitchcock films. However, Chabrol offers nothing better instead; the film simply ends. Consequently, the film would work well as a prequel to a future thriller, but the film is more problematic on its own.

Chabrol is more successful in emulating a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, since his film is definitely more noteworthy than junk thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Body Double. Having made Le Cri du hibou, Chabrol can rest easy knowing that he has built on the strengths of Hitchcock's work while avoiding Hitchcock's worst excesses. Of all the filmmakers who have followed in Hitchcock's footsteps, Chabrol is the one who has come closest to improving the original.