With THE CRY OF THE OWL, adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Gallic director Claude Chabrol has fashioned yet another of his biting black comedies of murderously ill manners.
Robert (Christophe Malavoy, who also starred in Chabrol's recent adaptation of Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY) is a mechanical artist who also illustrates nature books, drawing birds of prey with huge, mad eyes. Recovering from a bout of depression and a divorce from his shrewish wife Veronique
(Virginie Thevenet) in Paris, he has moved to the quiet town of Vichy and taken a job with a local firm. For relaxation, he spies on his neighbor, pretty Juliette (Mathilda May, yes, the naked space vampire from Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE). There's nothing salacious about it. In fact, Robert soon
comes out in the open to introduce himself to Juliette and to explain that he merely admired her happy, orderly and satisfied life and enjoyed watching her live it.
Robert's description of her causes Juliette to question whether she really is that happy or satisfied and whether her life may be too ordered. She impulsively breaks off her engagement to her swinish fiance Patrick (Jacques Penot) and begins romantically pursuing Robert. Enraged, Patrick seeks
revenge. With the help of a spiteful Veronique, he goes into hiding after fighting with Robert to make it appear as though Robert has murdered him. Ironically, Robert has no interest in Juliette beyond friendship. Realizing this, Juliette commits suicide--after knitting him a nice sweater.
After Juliette's death, Patrick's rage turns hotter, causing him to take potshots at Robert's house at night. However, instead of killing Robert, he injures a kindly doctor and is indicted on attempted-murder charges. Goaded by Veronique and feeling he has nothing to lose, Patrick goes to Robert's
house to "take care of him once and for all." Instead, Patrick and Veronique kill each other with the knife intended for Robert. Feeling himself responsible, Robert is left frozen with indecision over whether he should put his own fingerprints on the knife.
In all of Claude Chabrol's films, scratch the bourgeoisie and you'll find raging monsters underneath. But if that were all there were to Chabrol, he would probably be George Romero. By his own admission, however, Chabrol is at heart middle class himself. And that is what makes his films so
compelling and complex. It is impossible to pinpoint Chabrol's own ethos in his films because there is a little bit of him in everybody on the screen.
On one level, THE CRY OF THE OWL is a gruesome tale of middle-class horror in which an innocent young man is drawn into the twisted lives of a group of people who feed off of the innocence of others. And Veronique and Patrick are both the type of cold-blooded, predatory abusers who are recurring
villain figures in Chabrol films. But Robert, interestingly enough, doesn't triumph over these antagonists through resourcefulness. He does so through utter passivity, accentuated by Chabrol's casting of the blandly handsome Malavoy in the role of Robert. And there's something a little gruesome
about that as well. Robert keeps his distance from Juliette, telling her, "A dream image should remain in dreams." With Patrick and Veronique, he simply waits for them to come to him, as if knowing that within their rage and stupidity lie the seeds of their own destruction. In fact, virtually all
of the bloodshed in THE CRY OF THE OWL would have been averted had Robert, like the other characters, remained closeted within his own obsessions.
Juliette was ready to marry and probably would have had a tolerable life with Patrick, had Robert not stepped from behind her trash fire like the angel of death about whom Juliette tells Robert she frequently dreams. Inspired by Robert's independence from Veronique, she breaks off with Patrick,
but rather than standing on her own, she merely replaces him as an object of masochistic adoration with Robert. And Veronique was on the verge of granting Robert an uncontested divorce before Robert drove Patrick to her, breaking up her pending engagement to a rich suitor. There is a sense
throughout that Robert, rather than being the victim is in fact the instigator, upsetting the realities of the other characters to control their fates in a way in which he feels he is unable to control his own.
Beneath the social concerns central to Chabrol's films is their poignant sense of the extreme fragility of our images of ourselves and our worlds and how just the slightest nudge at the right time and in the right place can cascade us into nightmarish chaos. In respect to Highsmith, whose novel
Strangers on a Train was turned into an electrifying thriller by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, it's clear that what appealed to both directors is her brilliantly rigorous worst-case scenarios of what can happen when a voyeur steps out of his role to confront his victim or when a man has a conversation
with a stranger on a train.
THE CRY OF THE OWL is no STRANGERS ON A TRAIN; Chabrol seems just plain too jovially bourgeois to whip himself up to the state of moral implacability that characterizes Hitchcock's utter control of the medium. But, in its own way, THE CRY OF THE OWL is just as unforgettable. (Violence, adultsituations.)
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- Released: 1987
- Rating: NR
- Review: With THE CRY OF THE OWL, adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Gallic director Claude Chabrol has fashioned yet another of his biting black comedies of murderously ill manners. Robert (Christophe Malavoy, who also starred in Chabrol's recent adaptat… (more)