Claude Chabrol passed away this September. Considered the French Hitchcock – but the same was said of Henri-Georges Clouzot – this director made countless mysteries and thrillers and worked with many fine actors during his prolific career. One of his most famous movies is The Beast Must Die, which I’ve watched in his honour.
The movie opens with a panoramic shot of a beautiful beach in Brittany, where a lonely boy catches mussels by the sea. Then it cuts to a mustang driving at a reckless speed. After a few scenes cutting back and forth between the boy and the mustang, they finally meet in a hit-and-run accident that leaves the boy dead. Chabrol’ talent for creating atmosphere is evident from the start, giving the scenes with the boy a deadly calm, whereas the speeding mustang is accompanied by tragic music. He also demonstrates subtlety in showing violence. A lingering shot of the boy’s chalk outline with a stain of blood says everything about the monstrous crime.
The boy’s father, Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy), vows revenge. In a little black notebook he writes down, in dramatic red ink, of the failures of the police investigation to track down the driver, and of his own investigation, which through intuition, persistence and chance, leads him to an actress who was in the mustang. Pretending to be a screenwriter, he gets close to Helen Lanson (Caroline Cellier) and after ascertaining her innocence – he was ready to kill her if she had been at the wheel – he pretends to fall in love with her in order to get close to the driver.
Paul Decourt, the driver (Jean Yanne), is a rich man and completely loathsome, hated by his entire family except by his mother, who’s as nasty as him. He insults his son and wife, flirts with women in front of her, and reads her embarrassingly bad poetry at dinner in front of guests. This “caricature of an evil man”, as Charles lovely puts it in his notebook, is so nasty even his son wants to kill him and he and Charles even talk about it.
The story moves in a languorous pace towards its thrice-shattering conclusion. The last fifteen minutes must have more twists than the runtime that precedes them. They spring naturally from the story, however, and don’t exist just to wow the viewer, like is commonly done in contemporary thrillers. It all begins when Charles takes Decourt for a boat ride, to drown him in an accident, and the first of many surprises is waiting for our protagonist and us viewers.
For a revenge movie, The Beast Must Die is surprisingly calm, if we judge it by the frantic pace of movies like Oldboy and Kill Bill. Charles writes in his notebook that revenge is something that must be slowly savoured. Charles takes his time insinuating himself in Decourt’s family, building friendships and developing his relationship with Helen. Duchaussoy does a great job portraying his character without ostentatious displays of emotions. He’s reserved, patient and precise.
Jean Yanne, who plays a very one-dimensional evil character, does the best he can with him. But whether Yanne contributes anything of himself to make Decourt so despicable, or whether it’s all in the screenplay already, is a difficult question to answer. If I can point out a flaw in this enjoyable movie, is that it has a very black-and-white vision of revenge. There are villains we love and villains we hate to love, and then there are those we just hate from the first scene they’re in.
Nevertheless, even if its moral simplicity might offend our modern cynical attitude, The Beast Must Die remains a brilliant exercise in tension and cold-blooded revenge.
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Nicholas Blake (novel The Beast Must Die), Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff
Cast: Michel Duchaussoy, Caroline Cellier, Jean Yanne
Runtime: 110 min