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‘The Cry of the Owl’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 12, 1992

Claude Chabrol's "The Cry of the Owl" bathes in private technique. It's awash with impressive images, montage and other cinematic values. But amid the aesthetics, something vital is missing.

In a sense, that omission is precisely what French director Chabrol is after. Only he'd call it restraint. The maker of understated psychological dramas, he is known for dramas about softspoken characters whose still waters run deep and frequently murderous. His 1987 adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, which changes the book's American setting to a French one, is no exception.

Parisian draftsman Christophe Malavoy, separated from a psychologically abusive wife, has left Paris to work in the Vichy countryside. He becomes infatuated with beautiful Mathilda May, whom he spies on for months. May becomes aware of his eerie attentions and confronts him one day. Her lifelong fascination with death figures attracts her to the gentle, handsome -- but depressive -- stranger.

Engaged to jealous, unappealing Jacques Penot, May realizes she's not in love with her fiance. She becomes obsessed with Malavoy, who rejects her newfound passion. Their indefinable relationship is attacked by everyone, from her fiance to Malavoy's wife, who decides to exploit the triangular situation for her own Machiavellian amusement.

For much of the time, "Owl" is absorbing material, with dark character mysteries to plumb -- and a gripping final image to remember. Jean Rabier's rich, almost gaudy cinematography sometimes recalls the tone of the old Hitchcock movies, starring Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and others. In fact, Malavoy's dapper suit and silky smooth

demeanor (covering psychological demons within) often seems a Francophone version of Grant.

"Owl" has an appealing, old-fashioned storytelling quality. Chabrol, a co-founder of the French "New Wave" film movement in the 1950s, seems never to have left that era. A Hollywood version of this novel would have hyped up Malavoy's psychotic side, cooked up throat-catching scenes between him and May. Chabrol avoids cheap demonization and finds a sympathy in the genial but tortured Malavoy.

Unfortunately, the movie becomes stylistically effete -- particularly in this age of aliens and Magnum-toting, hard-drinking action heroes. Actors here are picturesque pawns in chesslike compositions. They never feel alive. Chabrol's physical skirmishes are poorly staged, and some dialogue seems oblivious to present-day credibility. "As a child, I knew a guy who represented death," says May, as if she's a literature graduate student.

When Malavoy comes to a dinner appointment with May, almost blase about his profusely bleeding face, the effect is unintentionally laughable. One can almost see Lt. Frank Drebin of the "Naked Gun" series pooh-poohing the injury, as he tucks in his napkin: "Sorry I'm late, sweetheart. Someone hacks your face, you hack 'em back, that's the way of the world. What's for chow today? I could eat a horse."

THE CRY OF THE OWL (Unrated) -- In French with subtitles.

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