I have twenty-nine Chabrol movies in my collection, and the earliest one is Á Double Tour (1959), also released as Leda and Web of Passion. I find Chabrol’s films worth re-watching more than those of most directors. Á Double Tour seems to have mixed reviews, as some critics seeing it as an immature work with the director still feeling his way toward his mature method. This is perhaps because of a certain doubleness in the film, which I will explain later.
Being from 1959 the world of the film is a little hard to get into. The French propertied class targeted here dress up in suit and tie even to stay home and see no one. Other than the maid, the gardener and the milkman, no one does any work and the wine making estate magically runs itself. On the film’s excursions into the local town, we find a lingering third world feel, with the population divided into boulevard types who come out to be seen at church or in cafés, and a working class who hawk their wares in the market or crowd the sidewalks in provincial idiocy. Adapted from the novel The Key to Nicholas Street set in a New York small town, the film has lost its thriller origins and becomes a social and psychological commentary on a purely French type.
The characters are Henri Marcoux the “head” of the family, but really a passive wimp who berates his wife Thérèse with a long list of pejoratives: she is “old” (about his age) ugly (but better looking than him), stupid, etc. He has a son Richard, who lounges around the house in a suit and tie listening to classical music recordings which he has enough brains to appreciate but not enough appreciation to play on anything better than a cheap portable turntable. He also has enough libido to follow the maid Julie around the house, being a pest, but she has no use for this loser. There is also a daughter Elizabeth who is in the film to show the motivation and character of other players.
An artist, Léda, has moved into the house next door bringing a Hungarian friend, and probably former lover, named Laszlo Kovacs, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo as a typical Belmondo character (so he is probably just being himself). Laszlo, a drunk, a leach and a manipulator of women seems to like to set up situations among his acquaintances leading to conflict which he can enjoy watching play out, stepping in to stir things up when the action is lagging. He has introduced Léda to Henri with a view breaking up the Marcoux household. He also goes after Elizabeth and gets more or less engaged to her, as an opportunity to invade the Marxoux house and act as provocatively has possible, simultaneously outraging Thérèse and exposing Henri’s weakness and unwillingness to take any sort of stand, even to protect his daughter.
Henri’s real attraction seems to be for Laszlo, whom he will forgive anything, but he trails after Léda professing his love but not willing to leave his wife and her property. He does not care about the children. Léda talks about “our love” but hates calling it adultery as she knows other people would. She is less attractive than Julie or Elizabeth and not convincing as a siren, but is a sort of ideal for Henri. Chabrol treats their scenes in a peculiar manner which is a big part of the reason for some critics’ doubts about the film. Chabrol has them roll around in fields of flowers with cut-aways to closeups of blossoms. When they walk in the woods his camera pans the lush foliage and the upper branches of the trees, as though celebrating this wonderful romance, but the romantic treatment becomes self-parody, as theatrical and superficial as Henri’s attachment to Léda by which he conceals from himself his true nature. If Henri had any red blood he would have been after Julie, the hottest woman around, but who only attracts the attention of Richard and her shallow milkman boyfriend. Even Laszlo his not interested as Julie lacks the social standing to make her satisfying prey.
Laszlo, in spite of constant prodding for Heni to “pack has bag and leave”, cannot bring about the breakup of the Marcoux household, but the tension becomes too much for Richard. He heads over to Léda’s house and after viewing her knickknacks and meeting her decides that she possess a talent and beauty that make him and his mother ugly losers by comparison who cannot compete with her for his father. After a “mad” scene with ranting and making faces (shot with mirrors and admired by critics as a Hitchcockian moment) he strangles her. We only see this in a confession flashback, so the action but not the scene launches the who-done-it phase of the movie. It is Julie who finds the body as her boyfriend somehow can’t bring himself to ask for his empty milk bottles back (adding to the list of wimpy characters) and persuades her to do it for him. Laszlo has meanwhile brought a Hungarian pal into the house who is also a drunk and a moocher if not the aggressive jerk Laszlo is, and the pal witnesses enough of Richard’s return from Léda’s house to figure out what had happened. Laszlo then goes into an even more aggressive and bullying phase until he extracts a confession from Richard.
Laszlo has failed to break up the Marcoux household; Henri no longer has someone to leave his wife for but instead a romantic memory to delude himself with. Richard has been turned into a murderer and his life, if he had one, ruined. Tragedy has been brought into the family, Léda is dead, and Laszlo is left with some self-righteous posturing as the one whose concern for justice exposed the murderer. So where is Chabrol in all this? Was he groping along making an inconsistent mess, or is there a deeper reading where the professed goals of all the major characters are different than what they were really working for and ended up with? Á Double Tour is Chabol’s third film, following Les Cousins which is considered one of his better ones. If Chabrol was in 1959 the same cynical, even atavistic, personality he was subsequently, he could have made the second type of film naturally by following his own inclinations about the material.