THE COLOR OF LIES (Au coeur du mensonge) A
France (113 mi) 1999 d: Claude Chabrol
This is the kind of deeply complex character study that is nearly absent from films today, though superficially it might recall those Sunday night television episodes of Columbo or Murder She Wrote, as this is ostensively a small town murder mystery. But Chabrol’s artistry turns this into a chilling atmospheric descent into dark interiors, idyllically set by the sea in a small Breton fishing village of St. Malo on the north coast of France where there’s little sunlight, as every scene is bathed in the cool dampness of a frigid Atlantic air, where waves can be heard crashing overnight, literally explosions confronting a collective mindset of the town’s guilty consciences. A superb sociological mystery that is as much an exposé of the sleepy local community, a place where everyone knows everybody else, where the film examines the quiet reverberations of a young 10-year old schoolgirl’s raped and murdered body discovered in the nearby woods. The prime suspect, due to the fact he was likely the last person to see her alive, is her emotionally fragile art teacher, René Sterne (Jacques Gamblin), himself a failed and frustrated artist following an accident that has left him with a limp. His devoted wife Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire) refuses to believe he had anything to do with a grotesque murder, but many of the locals withdraw their kids from René’s art classes. The film recalls Chabrol’s earlier films COP AU VIN (1985) and INSPECTEUR LAVARDIN (1986), as both feature an irrepressible detective sniffing around small town homicides, though here Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, with her high pitched voice and constant cigarette in her hand, plays the recently hired chief inspector Frédérique Lesage, much to the regret of veteran inspector Loudun (Bernard Verley), who was next in line for the position until they turned to an outsider, claiming the town leaders didn't want to pay him a higher pension since he plans to retire in a year.
The film is replete with this kind of local charm, adding humor and color to the otherwise somber interior reflections of the anxiously insecure René, who remains interesting largely because of his artistic temperament, as he’s always intensely passionate about his painting, but his continual frustration with his work and his own troubled life leaves him in a perpetual gloomy state, seemingly a broken man who remains overly dour and morose. Vivianne, on the other hand, remains vivaciously alive and couldn’t be more cheerful and upbeat, but she has a restless spirit as well, becoming increasingly introspective as the film progresses. Enter Desmot (Antoine de Caunes), something of a local media celebrity, a charming but overly pretentious cad, a man with an inflated view of himself, but a successful writer and TV commentator. Vivianne is challenged by thoughts of an affair with Desmot, as he continually flatters her with an easy going charm, exactly the opposite of her self-loathing husband, where getting information out of him is like pulling teeth. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is Chabrol’s choice to turn this into a psychological study camouflaged as a murder mystery, where the police investigation takes a back seat to René’s self absorbed trauma, focusing instead on his reactions to the murder, his public ostracism, and his artistic failures. His deteriorating state of mind is matched by the police frustrations with their own inability to identify a suspect. Perhaps most interesting is the changing relationship between René and his wife, which on the surface remains supportive, but her subconscious yearnings lead her to Desmot, who makes an impulsive suggestion that Vivianne wear the color blue, a color that quickly pervades the entire film, as the town is suddenly immersed in a dark bluish tinge, especially the natural seaside landscape whose special vibrancy continually eludes René.
Neither Vivianne nor the audience know if René is actually guilty, but Chabrol delights in laying a minefield of clues, every one of which alerts the audience to the mysterious realm between suggestion and reality, often indistinguishable, begging the question of what we ever really know about anyone, including those we love and think we know the best, as our perceptions are riddled with superficial implications, such as someone appears to be acting a certain way, or they seem to be telling the truth. What do we ever really know? And in René’s case, what happens when our self confidence and faith in reality is literally shattered? This shifting psychological pattern where everyone is suspect, where guilt inhabits all the principal characters through rumors, accusations, and malicious gossip spread throughout the town (mostly by Bulle Ogier), only adds to the mounting tension, where uncertainty pervades the landscape, like the impenetrable fog that eventually engulfs the community and figures into so much of what eventually happens. While René is choking and literally suffocating on his own uncleansed soul, continually wracking his brain with a kind of self-induced guilt, yet he’s also the only one who seems to care about telling the truth, a fact that should not be overlooked. Nonetheless, in a carefully constructed dinner scene where Desmot is invited to the seaside cottage of René and Vivianne, René plies him with wine, a man he detests, getting him good and drunk, but rather than making a fool of himself, as he hoped, Desmot continues to spout his obnoxiously vain and unflappable sense of superiority, ego and self-importance, usually centered around making callous and belittling judgments of others, including René, who is always perceived as weak, something that infuriorates him. What happens that night in the fog, as René takes him home in a midnight boat trip, adds to the enveloping mystery, as the presence of inspector Lesage the next morning informs us that another murder has been committed, finally becoming the police procedural that we always thought it would be. As a host of characters are paraded before the inspector, each one defending themselves by casting guilt on others, we soon realize that everyone’s lives have been defined by a constant state of dishonesty, creating an inner tension that can only be relieved by a truth that may never come. Ultimately, the fog breaks and people have to live with themselves, but it’s Bonnaire’s strength and undying love for her husband that stands out, becoming novelesque in scope and unique in unraveling the multiple layers of protective lies, perhaps in the long run, a necessary social evil. The film goes out on a poetic grace note, a recognition of how much ambiguity plays a part in our lives, where perhaps the overriding power of love is faith in its existence.