RETOUR DE MANIVELLE is a French adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel — apart from changing a few names, esteemed scenarist Michel Audiard doesn’t seem to have Europeanized it much, even leaving rich drunk Peter Van Eyck’s Cadillac unchanged. Even in French, the origins of Chase’s story are obvious enough — the James M. Cain “love rack” structure, in which a wild love affair is used as motor for an escalating suspense thriller. But Chase has come up with some ideas of his own, including an insurance scam involving the triangle of unwanted husband, scheming wife and dopey hero which DOESN’T actually include a murder. That *is* unusual.
Without getting into second act spoilers, I can say that Van Eyck devises an improbably scheme to torment his cheating wife — he blows his brains out, leaving a vast insurance policy which doesn’t come into effect until the following day, and which specifically excludes suicide, So, in order to claim, icy hotwife Michele Morgan and horny chauffeur Daniel Gelin have to conceal the death, preserve the body, and then fake the suicide to look like murder (no chance of making the bullet to the skull look like an accident). This is complicated by sweet young Michele Mercier and third-act detective inspector Bernard Blier, who is awfully good value. His smart working cop has a clever answer for every occasion, but is continually led up the garden path by all the manufactured evidence strewn in his way, with ultimately black irony. Gelin, who I mainly knew as the young lover in LA RONDE (and for being Maria Schneider’s estranged father), is very effective in tougher role.
But it’s Morgan’s film — she excels at coldbloodedness, as she always does, but what really chills the marrow is when she acts sweet — because she plays it so convincingly, despite our knowing it’s all fake. She could give Robin Wright lessons in House of Cards, which is saying a great deal. She’s accompanied by a sculpted torso, a gleaming reminder of how the men in her life have objectified her, and is able to make the character both terrifying and, in a feminist light, sympathetic or at least understandable.
Unfortunately, as far as I could tell the plot ceases to make sense in the third act. Given the improbable set-up (“We are not concerned with whether the thing WOULD be done, only if it COULD be done,” said fictional detective Dr. Gideon Fell), everything has been just about plausible until then, so it’s a shame. But it does deliver us into the right emotional place, which counts for plenty.
Directed by Denis de la Patilliere, with some low-key sexual frankness, expressive use of depopulated frames and a relish for the white, palatial and underfurnished mansion where most of the intrigue takes place. He had a long life and career and was predictably loathed by the Nouvelle Vague.