This vintage Chabrol whodunit is set under the gray, misty skies of the coast of Brittany, and that chilling dampness seems to seep into the heart of every character. A nine year old boy (Stephane di Napoli) decides to go for a walk early one morning. As he crosses the deserted village square, he is suddenly struck by a speeding automobile. The unseen driver races off from the accident, leaving the child to die alone in the street.
Unsatisfied with the police’s plodding and fruitless inquiry, Charles (Michel Duchassoy), the boy’s widowed father, begins his own investigation, scouring every junk yard and auto repair shop in the vicinity for clues. Charles begins a diary to document his travels and observations, but also uses the tiny book as a platform for venting his profound grief and his bitter plans for revenge on the mysterious perpetrator.
Eventually, the methodical sleuthing of Charles leads him to Helene (Caroline Cellier), a Parisian TV actress, whose family resides near the accident scene. As Charles secretly attempts to uncover the extent of Helene’s involvement, he begins to toy with her emotions and passions, and before long, romantic notions threaten to derail his disciplined plans for vengeance.
Hitchcock’s influence, always a lynchpin of Chabrol’s style, was particularly strong in the 1960s, and the French director’s films of this period generally struggled under the strain. Chabrol’s work often didn’t compare favorably with Sir Alfred’s, even though the imitative nature of Chabrol’s films invited such comparisons. In The Beast Must Die, Chabrol begins to chart a divergent path, relying less on over plotting and more on capturing subtle moods and dramatic shadings. Duchassoy and Cellier create a dynamic and believable romantic chemistry, yet their characters remain just slightly in the shadows – and we are never allowed to forget Duchassoy’s dark agenda.
The film’s second act, where Charles meets Caroline’s Breton family, introduces a number of new characters quickly, and the film threatens to lose its suspenseful momentum. The scene is shot in an odd manner, with the camera wandering all over the living room, and represents Chabrol’s only blocking misstep in the entire production. The director’s insistence on presenting this important scene in an uncomfortably long take has a certain logic - like looking at a police line-up – but the camera’s freewheeling nature is more distraction than revelation. Another distraction, a mildly amusing one for today’s audience, is Miss Cellier’s uncanny resemblance to Brittany Spears, although her character’s gentle nature is the antithesis of the pop singer’s headline-grabbing public antics.
As Duchassoy’s clever trap is baited and sprung, the audience is in for a few surprises and some heart rending moments of discovery. But no mere moral victory can ever make Charles whole again. Just as his son sneaked away one fateful morning, Charles quietly departs to meet his destiny and complete his mission of revenge; insuring his sense of loss will live on for generations. With this film, Claude Chabrol reminds us that the metrics of loss can be incalculable, and its pain as relentless as the pounding surf.