Criterion Prediction #259: Masks, by Alexander Miller
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Philippe Noirot, Anne Brochet, Robin Renucci
Synopsis: Author Roland Wolf (Renucci) is hired by famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Noiret) to pen his biography. However, Wolfe is using the gig as a means to track down and locate his estranged sister. Is Christian an affable TV personality, or is there something far more sinister at his remote, country estate?
Critique: Chabrol is synonymous with provincial thrillers and is one of the most original directors to have thrown himself so willfully in the master’s shadow as a disciple of the great Alfred Hitchcock. Masks is very much in the tradition of Chabrol’s low-key thrillers; people in a remote location (preferably a lavish mansion) adhering to genre conventions while subverting them, all the while lampooning the affectations of bourgeois mores with gleeful maturity and humor. All of the director’s hallmarks are in motion; he’s no stranger to this terrain, and in lesser hands, Masques would be another retread in familiar territory, yet Chabrol gives us a little something more. Just as La Ceremonie wound us up with a neck-breaking impactful finale, Masks has that same woozy anticipation. But the film has more of an Agatha Christie vibe, there’s a collection of people in a big house, something is awry, we know there’s some foul play, but what and who? Naturally, it’s not that simple, and in realizing the story, Chabrol plays and underplays stakes while winnowing out a persuasive account exploring captivity, toxic masculinity, ego, and just enough depravity to keep us satiated. It’s a curious film with its own momentum; Chabrol’s handsome production flatters the mysterious and gives us a supplement of his wry stylistic flair through color coding and witty symbolism. In the director’s casting tradition, the film is led by a terrific turn from Phillipe Noirot, a physical performer who is attuned to his vision of understated malice with near perfection. He plays it big, and it thoroughly paints what a deviant chauvinist Christian Legagneur is; he truly lends the film a portion of flavor. Alongside is Robin Renucci, he’s fine, but it’s the burden of playing a character who spends much of his time playing a tape recorder, listening, and peeping through doors. The third spoke in this wheel is Anne Brochet as the mysterious and sickly Catherine; she’s like an emaciated Nathalie Portman with a portion of Evan Green. Subtly bewitching and enigmatic, her performance as Catherine gives the tale a layer of density.
Don’t be fooled; Masks might look like more of the same from Chabrol but, as the title suggests, looks can be deceitful.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the past few years, going as far back as Criterion’s Hulu days, Masks, along with Chabrol’s La Ceremonie, have been streaming with the spinning “C” logo, which is one key sign that a movie is headed for the Criterion Collection.
Furthermore, the transfer of Masks looks terrific. It would be a shame to see this film sit in streaming limbo any longer; Criterion gave us Chabrol’s first two features (Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins) but the director’s herculean pace never ceased to be amazing and his 80s movies are just as vital.