With Claude Chabrol's Masques we have mystery in the country manor with, perhaps, murder in the country manner. But was there a murder and, if so, who did the murdering? Chabrol leads us to the easy conclusion, reassures us, then lets us consider the thought that there might be other possibilities.
It's far better for a director's reputation that he or she turn out turgid dramas than well-crafted entertainments. Claude Chabrol is a case in point. Although his more serious films are scarcely turgid, it is his many films over the last 35 years or so, most of which can easily be called entertainments, at least by me, that sometimes cause a condescending sniff. It's nearly impossible to read comments about a Chabrol film without seeing yet another reference to his "French New Wave" credentials -- of over 40 years ago -- or to that tired old cliché of Chabrol being France's answer to Hitchcock.
I admire Chabrol for one simple reason. In a long career he continued to make movie after movie, year after year, and good ones. Chabrol made all kinds of movies, mysteries, murders, comedies, satires, dramas. He could be serious about serious things, if it suited him, but more often he could be amusing about serious things. His movies are literate and nearly always depend upon the mood Chabrol created around the plot. It's clear that authority or the conventions of society didn’t impress him. He wasn’t above gruesome shock. Occasionally, he was unsettling, even sad. Occasionally he produced a dud or a half dud. Through it all, he kept making movies. It seems to me that if one accepts that motion pictures are, above all, popular entertainment, then having one's films praised as entertainment -- literate entertainment -- should be seen as high praise.
Chabrol was one of the great craftsmen of movie making, one with a point of view, and one with whom some fine actors wanted to work. And that brings us back to Masques, another of Claude Chabrol's literate entertainments, this one with that great actor, Philippe Noiret.
Christian Lagagneur (Noiret) is the ebullient host of a popular television game show. On a pink set with a ricky-tick band playing ricky-tick music, Lagagneur hosts elderly couples who must perform a song or a dance, and then they're voted upon to see which couple wins the trip of a lifetime. He agrees to have Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) write his biography. He invites Wolf to a weekend at his country manor where they'll work together. At the manor are Lagagneur's secretary, Colette, a smiling, watchful woman, along with his live-in masseuse and her husband, who looks after the wine. The cook is also the chauffeur, a man who is mute. "Max had tongue cancer which metastasized into his ears," explains Lagagneur to Wolf. There also is Catherine, a pale, thin young woman who wears dark glasses in the house. Catherine is Lagagneur's ward and godchild. She is a minor but just barely.
We know something's up when Wolf, unpacking in his room, removes a revolver from his valise. He hides it in a closet and discovers a lipstick. He looks at it carefully, and then writes a large M on the mirror. He murmurs "Madeleine" and then wipes it off. It's not long before we discover Madeline was a houseguest, too, who left suddenly in the night.
We witness Lagagneur's solicitude for Catherine, his insistence that doctors not see her because of the damage they caused earlier, his concern that she take the pills Colette crushes and mixes in her tea. We also witness Catherine's instability, her mood swings and her unexpected passions. Wolf interviews Lagagneur, records everything, and at night discovers secrets. Whatever is going to happen in this manor house over the weekend, we can be sure death will be involved.
Philippe Noiret dominates the movie just as his character, Christian Lagagneur, dominates the manor house and the game show. Lagagneur is relentlessly full of bon homme. His overwhelming small talk gives nothing away. His charm can seem genuine. Noiret, whether prancing about the television stage embracing an old woman dressed in her best, glancing at his cue cards and mouthing aggressive patter about the delights of old age, or playing chess in a dark room while measuring with drooping eye lids the possible motives of Wolf, is sheer pleasure. Noiret played so many indelible characters it's impossible to say which are best. Among my favorites are Lucien Cordier in Coup de Torchon, Major Delaplane in Life and Nothing But, Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso and D'Artagnan in the amusing Revenge of the Musketeers. If you like stick-it-in-your-nose detectives who must have paprika on their eggs, try Claude Chabrol's Inspector Lavardin in Cop au Vin and Inspecteur Lavardin.
Masques is a clever, misleading mystery with sharp edges.
Claude Chabrol died in 2010 at 81; Philippe Noiret in 2006 at 76.