Review: Inspector Lavardin (1986)

Inspector Lavardin (1986)

Directed by: Claude Chabrol | 96 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Jean Poiret, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jacques Dacqmine, Hermine Clair, Pierre-François Dumeniaud, Florent Gibassier, Guy Louret, Jean Depussé, Marc Adam, Michel Dupuy, Serge Feuillet, Michel Fontayne, Philippe Froger, Chantal Grebbet, Claire Ifrane, Hervé Lelardoux, Lisa Livane, Robert Mazet, Guy Parigot, Maurice Regnaut, Odette Simoneau

Fictional private detectives come in all shapes and sizes. Usually they are bold and witty and have an immeasurable flair. In addition, they all bring out their own qualities. Sherlock Holmes is the sensitive intellectual who knows how to solve crimes with his logical view of things. Hercule Poirot is the dandy, the eccentric who relies heavily on his style, class and humor. Directly opposite is ‘Dirty’ Harry Calahan, who always gets the dirty jobs and takes on both criminals and colleagues very hard. Phillip Marlowe is just as street-wise, but we mainly know him as the seasoned yet honest alcoholic who has a lily-white pit under his rough shell. In the mid-1980s, French filmmaker Claude Chabrol brought us Inspector Jean Lavardin, who represents a completely different kind of private eye. Lavardin was once a criminal, but decided to make amends and became a detective. However, because of his background in crime, he doesn’t always follow the law very closely.

Lavardin was introduced in the film ‘Poulet et Vinaigre’ (1984), but was re-enacted a year later in ‘Inspector Lavardin’ (1986). After that, there would even be a four-part TV series around the character. The leading role was always played by Jean Poiret, a reliable actor who had already earned his spurs in French cinema. In ‘Inspector Lavardin’ he investigates the murder of writer Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine). In order to obtain information, he decides to temporarily move in with his widow Hélène (Bernadette Lafont), whom he still knows from a gray past. He discovers that behind the facade of wealth and tranquility there are several mysteries. Hélène and Raoul have entered into a marriage of convenience after her husband and sister-in-law disappeared from their lives in a remarkable way. Hélène’s gay brother Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) lives in her house and has a close relationship with her teenage daughter Véronique (Hermine Clair), who comes across as good and docile but leads a double life at night. And what does the shadowy nightclub owner Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) have to do with this case? Lavardin slowly but surely unravels all the secrets.

In Claude Chabrol’s world, even those who seem innocent are guilty. Sometimes, however, he shows mercy and the guilty are finally free from blame. Lavardin does not solve crimes, but exposes the hypocrisy, corruption and evil of society. In contrast to his earlier work (until 1975), Chabrol appears more lenient in the second half of his oeuvre and his characters are given the chance to escape. The shady Peter Guinman from ‘Inspector Lavardin’, for example, would have been less merciful in one of Chabrol’s earlier masterpieces. But at the end of the film, the bitter nature of the filmmaker emerges: the innocence – if there was any – is gone forever. Chabrol is known for frequently switching points of view throughout his films, in order to sow confusion. In this film we see most of the images from Lavardin’s point of view and if we already have the idea that we are switching, we are skillfully misled by the director. It turns out that Lavardin partly gathers his information without being observed. The central theme is therefore observation. This theme is brilliantly designed, especially in the scene where the ‘real’ world and that of the security cameras meet in an intriguing way.

Unlike ‘Poulet et Vinaigre’, in which he is a shadowy figure who only dominates the film in the last quarter, Lavardin is the protagonist here. He is even personally involved in the case, as the victim’s wife is his ex-lover. Poiret portrays him soundly and modestly. Jean-Claude Brialy is much more flamboyant as Claude, Hélène’s elusive brother with a bizarre hobby: he makes lifelike eyes of glass. Jean-Luc Bideau and Bernadette Lafont are also strong. Humor also plays an important role in ‘Inspector Lavardin’ – often at unexpected moments – and the bourgeoisie is a familiar and beloved target for Chabrol, who manages to surprise us with a delightful final quarter in which doubts about the morale of both the inspector and the up the director. Jean Rabier is a fine cinematographer who captures the story in all its glory. Claude’s son Matthieu provides the matching score.

‘Inspector Lavardin’ has all the elements of a real Chabrol, albeit that some manifest themselves more prominently than others. The film is familiar to those familiar with the French director’s work. It takes little effort to get carried away in the story, thanks in part to the excellent acting. The knowledge that every character has a hidden side that is slowly but surely being revealed and the fact that no one is innocent in this film form the solid foundation for an entertaining detective. With ‘Inspector Lavardin’ Chabrol remains far removed from the level of the masterpieces he made at the beginning of his career, but this solid thriller never gets boring.

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