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Cry of the Owl, The 
Written by: on May 28th, 2006

Theatrical Release Date: Canada/France, 1987
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Christophe Malavoy, Mathilda May,Jacques Penot ,Jean-Pierre Kalfon

DVD released: 19 March 2002
Approximate running time:  103 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.57:1 Non-anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: NR
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release:  Video Vault/ Image
Region Coding: Region 0 NTSC
Retail Price: $24.99

“dream images belong in dreams”

Robert Forestier has moved to Vichy to work away from his wife and his recent breakdown. Once there he sees a young woman in her house whose ostensible happiness gives him great succour. He watches her off and on for 3 months until one day she sees him. Juliette and he begin an unlikely acquaintance which leads to her fiancé, Patrick, becoming jealous and Juliette falling for the indifferent Robert. After a fight Patrick goes missing and Robert becomes the chief suspect in  murder inquiry. Convinced his ex-wife is behind Patrick’s disappearance Robert tries to find Patrick but finds the police are more interested in his being a prowler. When another body turns up as a suicide the whole community wants to blame Robert and a sniper takes potshots at him. Will Robert find Patrick and will it really matter in the court of public opinion?

Closely adapted from the fine novel by Patricia Highsmith, Cry of the Owl is one of Chabrol’s best films. Taking the source novel and transferring it to France and simplifying the timeline of events Chabrol and Odile Barski make Cry of the Owl a story of a trial by rumour and gossip. Whereas in the original novel Robert was persecuted unfairly by his ex-wife and the subject of fixation by Juliette, here he is a little more ambiguous. Robert’s voyeurism is as much about idealizing and keeping things at a distance as it is about seeking succour. Robert is a very cold fish whom people can’t get close to. When Juliette says he “represents death for me” it isn’t hard to see what she might mean.

Like a lot of Highsmith’s stories Robert gets himself in far too deep and ends up incriminated. Chabrol enjoys the central theme of an idyll being destroyed for the voyeur when he learns the truth behind it. Juliette is not the deliriously happy woman waiting a great life of marriage that Robert first believes . As he comes up close to the reality Robert finds that Juliette doesn’t love Patrick and that she is in love with death. Juliette clings to him once they meet as if to life itself and when Robert tells her he doesn’t love her then the die is cast.

Once Patrick disappears Robert finds himself unhelped by the police and labeled a “prowler” by the local community. Friends disappear, snipers take potshots and Robert’s only support comes from a widowed doctor too lonely to care whether he is a killer or a pervert. Chabrol enjoys himself in the characters of the nympho ex-wife and the sardonic detective who act much as Robert’s torturers. He is also clever enough to enjoy the novel’s playing with watching and transpose these to cinematic expression – the opening zoom out to show the voyeur and the watching through a keyhole created by a bullet hole.

A fine Herrmanesque score is provide by Matthieu Chabrol and the cast are all good particularly Christophe Malavoy as the cold and compelled Robert. The film finishes much as the novel does with Robert fighting an urge to pick up an incriminating bloody knife which would probably seem much simpler than explaining the deaths he has just witnessed. Malavoy is excellent in suggesting that Robert can’t help himself and wants to be as guilty as others already judge him. Mathilda May does well in a rare clothed role as the Gothic morbid Juliette, her poetic demise is one of the highlights of the film.

Making the source material less damning on the characters works well here and adds a depth and tragedy to the piece which gives a greater poignancy to this film. Here Chabrol makes the point that watching often obscures the truth and that sitting in judgement is easier than living the reality. This is what Robert learns and possibly the audience too. Great great stuff.

The DVD:

This is a rotten presentation. This is also the only DVD presentation I can find of it. The print is dark, washed out and extraordinarily soft. The transfer has combing and is not anamorphic. The burnt in subtitles involve regular typing errors and get lost in light scenes. The audio is dull lacking any punch and selling the score short.

A commentary from someone you’ve never heard of tops off this miserable package.

This is one of the best of Chabrol’s films ranking alongside La Ceremonie, Le Boucher and Les Bonnes Femmes but this is the only DVD available in English. My advice is buy it cheap and boost your brightness, dull your sharpness and put your glasses on. If any future releases come sell it!

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