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Claude Chabrol
1963 || 115 mins

Whilst World War I occupies the attention of the French nation, Henri Landru (Charles Denner), an outwardly respectable antiques dealer, hits upon an ingenious solution to the problem of providing enough money for his wife and four children. Posting ads in the lonely hearts sections of newspapers under various assumed names, he meets and charms a string of wealthy middle-class women, who he then lures to a rented villa outside Paris. Once there, he persuades them to sign over their possessions, before murdering them and burning their bodies in the stove. For a time his plan goes perfectly until, one day, the sister of one of his victims recognises him, leading to his arrest. On trial for his life, an unrepentant Landru protests his innocence…

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Landru marked a departure for Claude Chabrol from his previous work to something closer to the commercial mainstream. The contemporary settings and modern characters of his first eight films replaced by a costume drama set during World War I, co-written with a popular novelist, Francoise Sagan, featuring star names Michèle Morgan and Danièle Darieux. In contrast to the black and white realism and spontaneity of Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, Landru is overtly theatrical, the colours pale pastel, and the scenery somehow flat and one-dimensional like a stage set. The style appears more influenced by silent cinema than the Italian neo-realism and Langian expressionism that inspired his earlier films.

Even more surprising, considering Chabrol’s reputation, is the film’s lack of suspense. In its place we get a narrative based on repetition and significant moments of ellipsis – we never see Landru actually committing his horrifying crimes – instead we watch with horrified fascination as he pursues his career as a serial killer: first placing his advertisement in the newspaper, meeting and charming a succession of women respondents in the park, taking them down to his villa in the country and then, off-camera, disposing of them. The brutality of the victims’ fates proceeded by a dreamy close up of each smiling, followed by a shot of smoke pouring out of the villa chimney. As our imaginations are left to contemplate what has just occurred, Chabrol makes us laugh by showing the elderly, upper-class British couple next door complaining about the awful smell. The repetition keeps us at a distance, discouraging either identification or elucidation. Intercut with this core narrative are further recurring scenes – newsreel footage of the war, domestic scenes with the family, nights at the opera – offering counterpoints to the main story.

As portrayed so vividly by Charles Denner, Landru is a contradictory figure – part dandy, part bourgeois, coldly calculating, yet charming. He is a consummate lady-killer, yet an unlikely murderer. As to why he does what he does, Chabrol deliberately keeps us guessing. The inscrutability of human motivation has always been a key theme for the director (he once joked that one of his greatest pleasures is “to reveal opacity”) and Landru is no exception. While money is at first suggested as the primary incentive for his actions, later on he murders a maidservant played by Catherine Rouvel, who couldn’t possibly have much to her name. The scene that takes place between her and Landru in his garden where he caresses a flower and speaks intensely about the ephemeral nature of beauty hints at urges other than simply financial gain. As for Landru himself, he appears to harbour no contradictory feelings about himself. He seems extremely secure in his own sense of identity. Even when facing the guillotine, his arrogance remains invincible, as he shows no remorse or guilt for what he has done.

Some critics have drawn parallels between the personality of Landru as portrayed in the film and that of Claude Chabrol himself. At the time when the film was made, the director had suffered a succession of failures at the box office for his challenging New Wave films such as L’Oeil du malin and Les Bonnes femmes, and, like Landru in the film, was living in an apartment with Stephane Audran, having recently divorced his wife. Just as Landru throws himself into mass murder as a solution to his financial woes, so Chabrol was forced into a period of directing purely commercial films. During these ‘wilderness years’ he was heavily criticised by Cahiers du cinema and considered a disgrace to the New Wave. It wasn’t until 1968 and the series of psychological thrillers, beginning with Les Biches, that he restored his critical standing. Viewed now, in the context of the director’s long career, nestled between his iconic New Wave films and the generic spy films that followed, Landru seems a curiosity. An ornate, highly-crafted but eccentric, objet d’art, as enigmatic and strange as Landru himself.

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