For some reason, even for a confused liberal like me, it’s often extremely satisfying to see a policeman protagonist smacking suspects around and GETTING ANSWERS. It’s something that seems to just work in drama, and it can even be amusing, which speaks to something dark and stupid in human nature. Also, maybe it’s pleasing because it acknowledges something we believe goes on, but which isn’t always admitted in reassuring fictions. Still, after the recent massacre in Paris, there was something satisfying about watching both of Claude Chabrol’s Inspector Lavardin films (POULET AU VINAIGRE and INSPECTEUR LAVARDIN), in which glinty, flinty Jean Poiret plays Dominique Roulet’s quirky copper (likes his eggs just so), beating up witnesses, letting killers off on a whim, stitching up those who may not be precisely guilty as charged.
“Life is absurd,” is Lavardin’s philosophy, and the films are charming and entertaining because of not despite their ethical shock factor — it’s liberating to see a character who cares nothing for the accepted rules of his profession and operates entirely according to his own sensibility. The disturbing undercurrent is the certainty that these methods ARE used, and are not so whimsically funny in real life.
Lavardin is like Kurosawa’s Sanjuro character from YOJIMBO and SANJURO, upsetting the accepted codes of his genre and being so popular doing it that an immediate sequel becomes necessary. While Kurosawa boldly cast the same actor, Tetsuya Nakadai, as Toshiro Mifune’s opponents in both films, killing him off each time, and Sergio Leone repeated this trope with Gian Maria Volonte in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (even though FAFDM has nothing in common with SANJURO except that it’s a sequel to a version of YOJIMBO), Chabrol was not quite so shameless: he waited until Lavardin got his own TV show (Les Dossiers Secret de l’Inspecteur Lavardin) to recast ex-wife Stephane Audran.
The first film enjoys a slow, convoluted set-up, one of those things where one worries that the various dastardly characters, their dysfunctional relationships and covert schemes will never fully become clear, or that one won’t be clever or French enough to understand them. Lavardin enters quite late in the action, because the deaths don’t start until midway. It’s a familiar structure from movies like GREEN FOR DANGER or FARGO or the TV show Columbo or its antecedent, QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Whereas FARGO and Columbo show the elaborate set-up to a crime, concealing nothing, and QUAI DES ORFEVRES pretends to but keeps something up its sleeve, Lavardin’s first case echoes Inspector Cockrill’s (Launder & Gilliat wanted to star Alastair Sim in a whole series of Cockrill adventures after GREEN FOR DANGER, based on Christianna Brand’s delightful whodunnits, but the star refused to repeat himself) — we see and hear plenty, but not enough to fully understand the key elements. Then Lavardin comes along and not only catches up with us in record time despite everyone lying their heads off, he supercedes our understanding and cracks the case (and a few heads).
Enjoyable as this is (with a surprising number of plot elements from PSYCHO — crazy mother in cellar, car winched from ravine), the sequel is even better, starting as it does with a corpse on a beach (the word “PORC” etched on his chubby back). This means Lavardin is on the scene in an instant, and we discover the intricacies of the case through his beady, skeptical, humorous but reptilian eyes.
I’ve heard it suggested that Chabrol came to despise mankind or at least his characters, but this does not quite seem to me to be true. There’s a bit of Clouzot’s wry affection (seeing mankind at its worst but rather liking it anyway) and there’s also the Coen defense, that these are genre exercises and the people AREN’T REAL. The filmmakers want their rats to not only run a maze, but an obstacle course. It’s all in fun, except when it’s not.
I’ve not quite decided if Chabrol’s latter-day authorial cynicism amounts to full-scale misanthropy. He seems too jocular for that. But if you want to see traditional detective stories reinvigorated by a change of attitude in the central character, Lavardin’s your man.
To get both films you have to buy two box sets, it seems. But hey, that means more Chabrol.
In desperation, the pun “Poulet au Vinaigre” which means Chicken with Vinegar but also “vinegary policeman” has been substituted with the title COP AU VIN, which is easier for Brits to understand except it doesn’t really mean anything.