Que la bête meure | This Man Must Die
DIRECTOR: Claude Chabrol | WRITERS: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff | CAST: Michel Duchaussoy, Caroline Cellier, Jean Yanne, Anouk Ferjac, Marc Di Napoli | France
Que la bête meure is usually classified as a suspense thriller, but if that was indeed Claude Chabrol’s intent the film is an abject failure: there is no suspense, and the thrills or what passes for them are handled perfunctorily. Hitchcock’s name is usually invoked in discussions of Chabrol’s films of this period but I think that’s misleading, although it’s interesting to imagine what Hitchcock would have done with the material. (Que la bête meure most closely resembles Strangers on a Train, although the starting points are completely different.) What Chabrol has directed is instead a stylized, almost mechanical revenge story that’s been stripped to the essentials in order to…I don’t know what. Yes, I’m puzzled by this movie.
The movie opens with a hit-and-run in which an inanely smiling young boy is killed by a speeding sports car in front of a church in a small coastal town in Brittany. There were no witnesses, there’s no evidence, and the police soon hit a wall, but the shattered father is determined to find and kill the “murderer” — but it’s not just the murderer’s death he’s after. As he writes in his diary — he’s a successful writer of fairy tales for children, so I suppose it’s only natural that he’d write down his thoughts using vivid imagery — he wants to find the murderer, get to know him, and utterly destroy his life by turning his family and friends against him before killing him and disposing of his body the way you toss away the peel after you’ve consumed an orange. An improbable coincidence leads him to a popular but troubled young film star who was in the car that struck his son and he immediately sets out to woo her under the impression that she was the driver, but it soon becomes clear that it was her brother-in-law at the wheel. In a neat twist that almost frustrates the father’s plans, he actually does fall in love with the young actress and the brother-in-law turns out to be a vulgar, aggressively boorish, abusive — and extremely rich — pig who everyone but his cackling mother already would like to see dead.
Chabrol’s tone throughout is cool and detached in keeping with the two-dimensional characters and plot. (Two-dimensional? Where, for instance, is the dead boy’s mother in all this? She’s never alluded to in any way which, under the circumstances, is pretty significant.) The acting generally takes care of itself since it’s clear that the parts were essentially cast for type, but there are two standout performances. Anouk Ferjac is wonderfully jittery and fragile as the actress’s sister, a woman who distractedly flits from painting to the nouveau roman to writing (dreadful) poetry in an attempt to find something to give her life meaning and to escape her husband’s emotional brutality. And Jean Yanne goes right up to the edge as the brother-in-law: he’s a vulgarian and a pig and an asshole you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with, but as Yanne plays him he’s not at all a caricature villain. Anyway, I haven’t quite puzzled out what it is that makes the film work for me as well as it does. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part and Chabrol just made a lousy suspense thriller and I’m only imagining I see things under the surface.