Death in the afternoon

Film - Christopher Bray explores a world of secrets and stifled passion in Claude Chabrol's claustro

It's come to this. A man (widowed) and a woman (unhappily married) have fallen for one another. The woman's husband won't let her go, so they decide to bump him off. One night they bash him on the head, put him at the wheel of his petrol-soused Citroen, and push the car over a cliff. Boom!

So ends the long middle section of Les Noces rouges (1973), one of Claude Chabrol's studies of listless marriage that manages both to groan with numbed desire and creak with the clumsiness of pre-menopausal passion. No big-screen lovers ever looked more base and Balzacian than Stephane Audran's Lucienne and Michel Piccoli's Pierre. In place of the oyster satin sheets and sunset glow to which adulterous Hollywood flesh is heir, Lucienne and Pierre crunch noses in a clammy kitchen.

Brutally summarised, Les Noces rouges sounds like a French bourgeois take on James M Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, it was based on a true story. An adulterous French couple really did bump off the woman's husband, and Chabrol's picture was for a while banned in its country of origin for fear that its grimly naturalistic take on the affair might prejudice the couple's trial. Try imagining a recent Hollywood thriller earning such a fate. The only naturalistic detail in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992) is the golfer's V-neck that Michael Douglas sweats up during a ludicrous disco grind scene.

The most thrilling insight in Chabrol's pictures is that killers are the least thrilling of people. Chabrol's victims always seem less surprised by their murder than the murderers themselves. "I want to know what happens when someone is killed," the director once said, and his films are far more interested in post-mortems than in mortems proper. Chabrol - whose mid-period is being celebrated with the release of a four-DVD collection - first made a name for himself as a writer about Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom he shared an obsession with the mechanisms of guilt. That sense of past actions burning down on present feelings explains why Les Noces rouges is inflamed by rather more than just a frazzled Citroen: why your heart beats faster after the murder rather than during it.

To watch Chabrol is to be reminded that the thriller is a form capable of saying as much as Greek tragedy or lyric verse. It need not even be action-packed. Take Juste avant la nuit (1971), which begins with Charles, another of Chabrol's faithless husbands, killing his mistress - accidentally and off-screen. From there on in, the film gets even less eventful. Michel Bouquet, in a minutely judged performance of febrile frostiness, plays the hapless Charles, a man who spends the next hour-and-a-half mooning around because neither his wife Helene (Stephane Audran) nor his best friend - Francois (Francois Perier), who just happens to have been married to Charles's lover - can bring themselves to think badly of him.

Thirty years ago, during the high tide of New Left orthodoxy, it was fashionable to criticise Chabrol for not criticising the bourgeoisie. But could there be a more damning indictment of middle-class repression than Juste avant la nuit? Here is a film about the agonies a man endures because he has feelings that his peers - wife, friend, mother - refuse to endorse. "You take pleasure," Helene at one point chillingly counsels Charles, "in torturing yourself." Only as the film draws to a close does she finally acquiesce with Charles's wish that she accept his guilt - by giving him an overdose of sleeping powders. Yet even then, Chabrol makes it plain that she does this not out of forgiveness or understanding, but out of fear that Charles might one day confess and bring an end to their tidy little existence.

Now imagine how that same story might pan out in a Hollywood remake. Paul Verhoeven, say, is back at the helm; the film has been renamed, say, Midnight Lasts Forever; and the second act is just coming to a close with the cops informing Julia Roberts that her husband - Richard Gere, who is being treated in hospital for a suicidal overdose - did not kill his lover. In fact, he didn't have a lover. The woman in question (played by Sharon Stone) had just been trying to make it look like she was his lover, the better to scam Julia and Richard out of a real-estate deal. When things went pear-shaped Sharon tried to off Richard. There is, of course, no reason why a mordant thriller could not be concocted out of such ingredients, but there are reasons why it could not be concocted in Tinseltown today. In contemporary Hollywood, redemption must always be just around the corner: the bad guys must go to jail, and the good guys must renew their marriage vows.

All of which said, the four films in this new collection are not quite the best of Chabrol. Glumly penetrating as Juste avant la nuit is, the picture cannot pre- tend to the formal perfection of the very similar Femme infidele (1969) - a Chabrol movie that was turned into a Gere picture: Adrian Lyne's absurd Unfaithful (2002). Que la bete meure (1969) never quite lets itself sink into the moral quagmire of Cecil Day Lewis's original novel. Nada (1974), which tells of revolutionaries kidnapping the American ambassador in Paris, is in-tellectually stimulating (Chabrol credits les flics with a shorter lease on the moral high ground than the revolutionaries), but there is no denying that for long stretches the picture drags. Only Les Noces rouges stands shoulder to shoulder with Chabrol's finest - Le Boucher (1970), say, or La Ceremonie (1995). And yet simply because Chabrol has always been at pains to insist that the world is not like it is in the movies, these films ought to be part of your world.

The "Claude Chabrol Collection" - Juste avant la nuit, Que la bete meure, Les Noces rouges and Nada - is out on Fremantle DVD (£15.99 per film)

Christopher Bray's critical biography of Michael Caine will be published by Faber & Faber in October