Friday, 13 November 2009

Claude Chabrol’s Blood Relatives (1978)

Claude Chabrol’s Blood Relatives (Les Liens de sang) is a 1978 Canadian-French co-production, really more of a murder thriller than a slasher movie or horror flick although it does perhaps some some affinity with the giallo genre. Being a neglected movie by an interesting director is I think enough to qualify it for discussion as a cult movie.

The movie starts with the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Her 15-year-old cousin is the only witness, but when she dramatically changes the story she tell to the investigating officer, Detective-Inspector Carella (Donald Sutherland) the plot, as they say, thickens. Although the plot contains some major twists I think it’s safe to say Chabrol is really more interested in psychological explorations of his characters and and in a fairly brutal dissection of apparently respectable middle-class family life than in the plot for its own sake.

The discovery of the murdered girl’s diary leads to a long and not entirely satisfactory flashback sequence. Most of the important story points are dealt with in the flashback, but unfortunately the use of this technique deflects attention away from Detective-Inspector Carella, and since he’s the most interesting character in the movie and since Donald Sutherland gives by far the best acting performance this weakens the movie considerably. The movie loses some of its momentum and interest when Sutherland is not on screen.

There really isn’t much in the way of plot. The plot is really confined to Carella’s gradually developing suspicions as to what has actually occurred. The most effective part of the movie is Carella’s response to the evidence as it unfolds and his response to the conclusions he is forced to draw. This is a movie very much centred on the detective, and the detective’s own psychology and emotions, rather than on the crime. He becomes as much a victim as the actual victim, and we feel that he will never be quite the same again. He has lost his innocence.

David Hemmings is exceptionally creepy as the murdered girl’s boss, while Donald Pleasence contributes a brief supporting role as a convicted but now released sex offender. Both give superb performances. Both characters are clearly psychologically twisted and even more morally twisted, but then this kind of sexual and moral derangement is something that permeates the whole film and to some degree has infected very character and every relationship. The other supporting players are unfortunately somewhat wooden and not terribly convincing. Donald Sutherland’s detective is the pivotal element, and while he was capable of some reasonably flamboyant acting in other roles in this movie he very successfully underplays the role. It’s a very effectively subtle performance.

Despite some serious flaws this is an involving and fascinating movie with an extraordinarily claustrophobic and unhealthy atmosphere of lust, jealousy, guilt, hypocrisy and all-round moral corruption. In some ways the low-budget nature of the film works in its favour, increasing the feeling of enclosure and entrapment. Too much gloss would have weakened this effect.

I caught it on late night TV. There’s a DVD release, but apparently it’s a very poor quality pan-and-scan print. This is a shame as it’s a movie that is most definitely worth seeing. So given the deficiencies of the DVD it’s probably one to grab if you find it in a bargain bin, otherwise keep a lookout for it on cable TV. It’s a neglected movie that certainly deserves a decent DVD release.

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