Landru (Claude Chabrol / France, 1963):

L’affaire Barbe-bleue, envisioned by Claude Chabrol as a Balzacian puppet show to distinguish it from Monsieur Verdoux’s Swiftian severities. Landru (Charles Denner) is introduced dome first from the back, his pointy beard the kind Groucho Marx once said might go off like a rifle. Newsreel glimpses of the Great War regularly disrupt the Béraud colors of the Parisian Belle Époque, "it’s a life of blood and terror" for the courtly bourgeois murderer who scans the newspapers for marriage offers. Danielle Darrieux is the first doomed Miss Lonelyheart, whose final view (a freeze-frame close-up that fades to black) is a particularly aching bit of paralysis for an actress so associated with Ophulsian movement. The remaining Special Guest Victims pop up like an inventory of the European screen’s old and new beauties: Michèle Morgan and Juliette Mayniel, Mary Marquet and Catherine Rouvel, dowager and nymph alike go into the stove and up the chimney. ("These French are so unhygienic," grouse the old British couple next door.) The German widow (Hildegard Knef) is barely saved by news of the Armistice, though the real Final Girl is the chic mistress (Stéphane Audran) who enters like Joan Fontaine in Suspicion and is presented with Citizen Kane’s opera lesson. "I love everything healthy and beautiful," proclaims Landru, no scabrous radical rebelling against a harsh world but instead a comfortably conformist outgrowth of it. ("Equilibrium" is the favored word of the monstrous aesthete, a dutiful husband and father.) Chabrol’s study is a jaundiced waltz, a poisoned heart under a perfumed surface, a rich Ealing vein mined Gallically. Faced with pile upon pile of evidence of his crimes, Landru leans back in the courtroom and scratchily yet serenely protests his innocence. For the killer and for the filmmaker scrutinizing him, human nature is finally "just a little secret" between you and the guillotine. Cinematography by Jean Rabier. With Françoise Lugagne, Claude Mansard, Robert Burnier, Mario David, Jean-Louis Maury, and Jean-Pierre Melville.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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