From his and Paul Gégauff’s cunning script, Claude Chabrol directed this semi-delirious adaptation of Stanley Ellin’s mystery novel The Key to Nicholas Street. It opens with a bravura pan of artist Leda Mortoni’s cottage in Aix-en-Provence; highlighted by Leda’s absence, the passage projects the stillness of death. Seemingly confounding this, the film plunges into sexy and satirical comedy targeting the bourgeois family of married vintner Henri Marcoux, who is having an affair with Leda, the love of his life. However, with her murder, the film loses its comic veneer and gives in to cold, embittered currents that we realize have been circulating from the start. Chabrol’s film has arrived at the personality it was born for.
Although the police suspect the milkman boyfriend of the Marcouxes’ live-in maid, there is an assortment of candidates for Leda’s murder by strangulation. For one, Henri’s wife, Thérèse (Madeleine Robinson, best actress, Venice—although I’m not sure why), despises his mistress, with whom, he has announced to her, he is leaving her for good. It is true that Thérèse, named for a saint, is a control freak; but might blind rage have momentarily overtaken her fastidious aversion to mess and scandal? She and Henri have two grown children, Richard and Elizabeth, living with them, both privy to parental noise, suffering, quarrels. (One drowns these out by closeting himself in his bedroom listening to recordings of Berlioz; the other has her romance with Laszlo Kovacs, an Hungarian immigrant who is locked into open mutual contempt with Elizabeth’s mother.) An anonymous outsider, a passer-by: Might not he have destroyed Leda’s sumptuous beauty for being shut out from it?
This is a film about “outsiders”: those who are outsiders in their own household, their own family; those—Laszlo and Leda—who met in Japan and entered France together; those whose lower class renders bourgeoism an inviting though impossible dream.
Twice, the film isn’t “straight.” Twice, its narrative bends and curves around, diverted from chronology to swerve into the very recent past. The first time this occurs the event is subtle, hardly noticeable; during a downtown parade, a national festivity, while the narrative’s forward momentum is deceptively maintained, we enter a replay of incidents we have already seen, but from a fresh, wider perspective. We find ourselves, we will realize only later, investigating the murder of Leda before it has even occurred. The second “flashback” provides the chilling solution to the murder. The murder has already occurred, and yet we see it as it’s happening. “Why have you come here?” Leda, already dead, asks. “Why have you come here?”
In A double tour, also known as Leda, a film visually compounded by mirror-images, we watch a mimicry of life.
On the verge of stardom, vulgar, virile Jean-Paul Belmondo gives a sensational, brilliant performance as Laszlo. It is Laszlo, not the police detective officially investigating the crime, who digs into the matter, excavates it, and uncovers the relatively simple (because utterly logical) solution. And why not? He is driven by love.
Whatever you do, do not miss this film. It is riveting. It is essential. It is why I love the cinema of Claude Chabrol.
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