THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS: Blu-ray (Universal, 1967) Kino Lorber
Skating on the edge of ‘art house’ without ever fully committed to its experimental precepts, Claude Chabrol’s The Champagne Murders (a.k.a Le scandale, 1967) is a movie anxious to establish mood over menace, and virtually imploding on its commitment to style over substance. To discover Chabrol as one of purveyors of the French New Wave, prior to making this Hollywood-ized thriller, sans thrills, and unraveling, as though from one knotted mess of plot entanglements into the next, tells us all we need to know about the director’s interests in crafting the piece. But The Champagne Murders fails to achieve its primary objective – to entertain us. Chabrol obviously wants to make another ‘nouvelle vague’ masterpiece. Universal, the studio cutting the checks, is more interested in a Hitchcockian-styled suspense yarn. Neither gets what they want from The Champagne Murders, perhaps because the screenplay cobbled together by William Benjamin, Claude Brulé, Derek Prouse and Paul Gégauff is too rehearsed to appear improvisational, and yet, too off-the-cuff to establish essentials - like motive - to clear away any doubt about a series of call girl killings. The murders are loosely attributed to Paul Wagner (Maurice Ronet); heir apparent to a wine-making dynasty. The other half belongs to Christine Belling (Yvonne Furneaux), wed loveless to Paul’s best friend and n’er-do-well, Christopher (Anthony Perkins). None of these leads establish themselves beyond a certain pedestrian ennui. Christine, impatient with Paul’s wayward lifestyle – and even more certain her husband’s enabling of it is mere smoke screen to carte blanche his own indulgences and escape from their claustrophobic marriage, is determined to have Paul sign away his controlling interests in the family biz. Christopher, who does not work, wants to buy a yacht and sail around the world aimlessly – with his wife’s money, of course. So, this triumvirate of schemers spin their dirty little webs of deceit and conspiracy, the whole nasty affair taken in full view by the company’s dowdy little secretary, Jacqueline (Stéphane Audran).
The Champagne Murders ought to have been a better movie; Chabrol’s award-winning entrée into American picture-making, cribbing from his superior skill set, honed on French thrillers like, Le Beau Serge (1958). After The Champagne Murders, Chabrol would return to form – and France – with Les Biches (1968), La Femme infidèle (1969), and Le Boucher (1970) – all featuring Audran; then, Chabrol’s wife. Alas, the trick of balancing ‘mainstream commercialism’ with ‘new wave’ isn’t licked this time around. The picture screams for a strong female lead or, at least, a male protagonist who is not as self-involved as to alienate us from sharing in his interests and/or evoke a modicum of empathy for both his plight and the outcome of his circumstances. It is a genuine pity Ronet’s Paul is a preening prig in playboy’s clothing. He aspires to the part of the stud with an unquenchable thirst for steamy sexcapades, but cannot even assume the role of a real man when the chips are down; just a dandy, brutalized by a group of ruffians as he attempts to take advantage of a prostitute, earlier picked off the street. This ‘incident’, which opens The Champagne Murders on a compelling note, quickly devolves into one impossibly dull scene after the next. We get vacuous departures, revolving around Christine’s ambitions to launch a new distribution contract with American backers, Mr. Clarke (Henry Jones) and Mr. Pfeiffer (George Skaff). The deal is dependent on Christine gaining control over Paul’s shares so she can do as she pleases without his permission. Alas, Paul, while mildly disturbed and still suffering from headaches and blackouts after his aforementioned assault, is more belligerent and devil-may-care than ever.
Film critic, John Russell Taylor has suggested that “there are few directors whose films are more difficult to explain or evoke on paper, if only because so much of the overall effect turns on Chabrol's sheer hedonistic relish for the medium” adding that Chabrol’s modus operandi is more a private joke, staged merely to amuse himself. If only to judge by The Champagne Murders, this critique offers marginal, if uneasy insight into how and why the picture was made. Whole scenes appear to come out of nowhere; basically, serving no purpose, except to momentarily steer the audience down yet another dead end, far away from the overly-contrived and much too convenient finale. For long stretches, Chabrol delights in laying his misdirection like paving stones, scattered with a bulldozer - Christopher, the instigator of Paul’s proposed madness – perhaps, even conspiring with Christine to give her what she really wants because, inadvertently, he too will be able to get what he wants with Paul out of the way. All too knowing of Tony Perkins’ career-defining fame as serial killer extraordinaire, Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) adds haste to this runaway conclusion. Chabrol has only to cast Perkins in The Champagne Murders, and right away we suspect him as the baddie with a twist. It works as deflection because we are still expecting the mummified corpse to tumble out of Perkin’s closet. So, when two working girls and finally, Christine wind up with a twisted nylon stocking about their slender necks, we naturally assume Perkins has reverted to his old and sinister ways. Chabrol is relying on our ignorance to distract us from the truth. But just remember what mama used to say, “It’s always the quiet ones you have to worry about.” So, Perkin’s Christopher, who loves life entirely too much, or rather, living it on his own depraved terms, is an unlikely candidate to throw it all away on sexual kinks.
It would be too easy – and wrong – to dismiss The Champagne Murders as an out-and-out misfire, because the picture has a lot going for it: Jean Rabier’s plush cinematography, lit in lurid hues to emphasize the picture’s Douglas Sirk-sized melodrama and achieve an uber-sumptuousness; Pierre Jansen’s haunting main titles and ominous underscore; Rino Mondellini’s extraordinary art direction, and Maurice Albray’s costume design, all add up to an elegant travelogue, unusually attractive on the surface; though, alas, without a single salient performance to compliment all the glitz and plywood backing. So, what we are left with is Chabrol’s massaging of the frivolities; the dead end corporate ‘take over’, never to materialize, as Christopher’s passion to sail around the world. The picture certainly has style, and Chabrol mesmerizes us with his sensational Sirkian palette. But as we venture beyond the main titles, it becomes increasingly transparent Chabrol has little to zero interest in solving the ‘murders’ in the title, and only the faintest urge to borrow from the giallo genre: the degenerate and indolent rich, chronically scheming against one another, transformed into soulless mannequins during a bizarre party sequence, where disparate chords are struck, not merely by the inharmonious modern opera music heard in the background, but clusters of two or three individuals, unable to carry a conversation beyond proforma existentialist quips. Herein, the effect is not so much psychedelic as it remains stifling. I suspect something has been lost in translation from script to screen, because what endures never really takes shape, while repeat viewings fail to crystalize the plot any further. So, we are left with gorgeous imagery, but no backing – no cohesion or suspense, no fun either, and decidedly, no sale beyond these transparent assets.
The Champagne Murders begins with Paul and Christopher’s night out; two sports on a lark, trolling for hookers, and finding their mark along a lonely dim-lit street. From here, the pair take their latest find to an isolated spot in the woods. Already half-bombed on bourbon, Christopher bows out of Paul’s seduction to take a stroll among the trees. In short order, he is ambushed and assaulted by a trio of thugs, who then arrive at Paul’s car, strangling the tart. Paul narrowly avoids a similar fate; his head instead bashed against the windshield, knocking him unconscious, and thereafter leaving him shell-shocked by the incident. Interestingly, Chabrol offers us no explanation; for the assault, how both men survived it, or what became of the inquest that must have followed, concerning the dead girl, and, finally, what residual effects – if any – afflicted Christopher’s recovery. Instead, immediately following the main titles, depicting Paul’s shock therapy sessions, we find Paul newly restored to his former life. We meet Christine Belling, entertaining American investors with a Triptik through the storied past of the family’s vineyard, as her assistant, Jacqueline, takes dictation. Neither Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Pfeiffer are particularly interested in this history; the former, ogling Jacqueline’s slender crossed legs; the latter, merely determined to negotiate a price for this prime real estate. Alas, Paul will not sell. Nor will he allow Christine to manage things in his absence without being consulted every step of the way.
After making a complete ass of himself at the party Christine is giving in Clarke and Pfeiffer’s honor, soaking the potential buyers in alcohol, Paul elects to follow Christopher on a routine ‘business’ trip to Hamburg. Christopher is the unambitious sort, content to spend his afternoons playing tennis; his nights, nursing a bottle in the arms of women more interested in the facts of life than figures on a balance sheet. The boys have their moment in Hamburg; each, picking up a ‘date’ for the evening. Alas, by dawn’s early light, only Christopher’s paramour is well enough to get dressed and go home. Paul’s is found strangled to death in a skiff, moored near the shoreline where he and the deceased spent the evening. Hurrying to Christopher’s hotel suite, Paul finds the other woman from the night before, as yet, still undressed and lying in his bed. Unable to qualify his whereabouts with any degree of accuracy, Paul indulges yet again in a night of drunken revelry, this time at the home of promiscuous artist, Paula (Christa Lang) who – big surprise – is also discovered with a nylon stocking tied around her neck the next morning. Haunted by guilt and self-doubt, Paul seeks Christine’s counsel while Christopher is out. Instead, she uses Paul’s confession as leverage to get him to sign away all his rights in the company. Despondent, Paul retreats. Again, in the morning, Christine is discovered strangled. Christopher, who now owns the business, arrives home with a striking blonde. Her appearance jogs Paul’s memory. The blonde was also in Hamburg at Paula’s soiree. Revealing herself to be none other than Jacqueline, sans dark wig and pale make-up she wore to work, Paul realizes she and Christopher have been conspiring against him all along. Jacqueline, the real murderer, draws a gun on Paul, who begins wrestling for control of it with Christopher getting into the act as Chabrol’s camera pulls higher and higher away from the struggle with nothing resolved.
The Champagne Murders’ dénouement is too convenient to satisfy. After all the quirkiness and misdirection Chabrol has wrought up to this point, Jacqueline’s big reveal as the murderer, without any genuine explanation – other than perhaps, jealousy – is weak. And denying us the satisfaction of either her arrest, assassination, or some other grave ‘shock’ finale’ appears to emphasize Chabrol’s contempt for what he undoubtedly considered the high point of a very low period in his career, making ‘commercially’ viable movies to satisfy his investors, rather than his own creative tastes. It should be noted The Champagne Murders was photographed twice; once in English; then again, under its original title, ‘Le Scandale’, released in France in French, with dubbing for Tony Perkins. In this latter incarnation, the picture runs some ten minutes longer, even though it omits the opening moments when a presumably ‘cured’ Paul is released from the sanitarium where he has endured his shock therapy. The French version is not included for consideration herein, but I have seen it before, and there is, expectedly, a marked improvement in Maurice Ronet, Yvonne Furneaux, and, Stéphane Audran’s performances; speaking in their native tongue, although something is decidedly lost in Perkins’ overdub. Chabrol takes his time with the French cut. The scenes are basically the same, but play longer; Jean Rabier’s cinematography even more stately and plush because Chabrol resists the urge to provide unnecessary cuts, simply to economize for time restraints. Nevertheless, the end result is basically the same – a movie, that has some elegant moments, but a grave absence of stealth and suspense. In the final analysis, this proves to be everything, and without it, we are left in a vacuous state of bewilderment for all that has just been played. Why? Why, indeed.
The Champagne Murders arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s association with Universal Home Video. Given Uni’s general lack of proficiency in providing up-to-date video transfers to their third-party distributors, I did not hold out much hope for The Champagne Murders in 1080p. Surprisingly, the results herein are quite good. Colors are robust and fully saturated, showing off Jean Rabier’s cinematography to its very best effect. Contrast is excellent, with deep, velvety blacks sans crush, and a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. There is some extremely minor edge enhancement, sporadic and not too distracting, and a light scatter of age-related artifacts – very light speckling – that, again, does not detour from our viewing pleasure, but are present nonetheless. The 2.0 DTS audio is adequate, if unremarkable. We get an audio commentary from film historians, Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, as well as Trailers from Hell with Tim Hunter, and, other trailers for product Kino hopes you will want to buy. Bottom line: The Champagne Murders is a curious thing, and not terribly prepossessing either. It looks fabulous but has very little to hold the interest otherwise. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)