Among the French New Wave directors, Claude Chabrol was the most prolific filmmaker after Jean-Luc Godard but his work was always divided between personal projects and commercial vehicles which he felt obligated to make so he could finance the former. Unfortunately, most of his “for hire” projects like Code Name: Tiger (1964) and Who’s Got the Black Box? (1967) were not successful with the public and ended up adversely affecting his reputation among film critics after his acclaimed film debut, Le Beau Serge (1958). Although he enjoyed a major comeback in the late sixties-early seventies with such well-received efforts as Les Biches (1969), La Femme Infidele (1969) and Le Boucher (1970), the films he made between 1959 and 1967 were mostly regarded as minor or flawed works by French critics, which hurt their distribution chances outside of France. One title that fell through the cracks and is now being reassessed as one of his most important early works is The Third Lover (1962), which was released on Blu-Ray in late February of 2020.
The film’s original French title, L’oeil du malin, which translates as The Evil Eye is a reference to the film’s protagonist, Andre Mercier (Jacques Charrier), a second-rate journalist who goes by the pen name of Albin Mercier. He is sent to a rural village in West Germany to write some articles on the local culture and learns that Andreas Hartmann (Walther Reyer), a renowned writer, lives in the vicinity with his wife Helene (Stéphane Audran). Fascinated with Hartmann’s fame, Albin schemes of a way to meet this glamorous couple whom he has secretly observed through an opening in their walled estate. After a chance meeting with Helene at the local grocer, Albin is invited for tea with the couple and begins to worm his way into their inner circle. What does he want?
Mercier’s motives are never a mystery because he is the narrator of The Third Lover and Chabrol creates a fascinating dichotomy between what Mercier is thinking and what he says to his new friends, which are often not the same thing at all. At first Mercier is delighted with his good luck and enjoys Andreas and Helene’s hospitality. “I was perfectly aware that my goal was to enter this happy couple’s bubble,” he reveals. “To be part of it, to cling like ivy to a wall, to step if needed into this man’s shoes, to replace the man who shared my first name.”
There is an unsettling voyeuristic quality about The Third Lover because we are seeing everything from Mercier’s point of view and he is the epitome of someone who doesn’t live life but eavesdrops on it as an envious but almost invisible spectator. Yet, in the manner of Rear Window and other Hitchcock films (Chabrol was a great admirer) that flirt with the scopophiliac personality, the viewer becomes an implicit witness to the proceedings in Chabrol’s film while remaining powerless to stop Mercier from spinning his spider’s web of lies and deceptions. Maybe spider is the wrong analogy. Scorpion is more appropriate. Like the famous Aesop fable of the frog and the scorpion, Mercier has a deadly sting that brings doom to his victims but also himself in a more figurative way.
Andreas and Helene are also not the golden couple we first glimpse through Mercier’s eyes. Andreas, the gregarious bohemian with a unique literary talent, has a dark side. In a candid moment, he drops his mask and confesses, “The war left me a broken man. It left me empty and hard.” These are prophetic words that come back to haunt us at the film’s violent climax. As for Helene, she is a serene, calming presence but her placid beauty is a cover for deception. Chabrol has built a career on demonizing the hypocrisies and decadence of the French bourgeoise but he also makes Andreas and Helene so much more sympathetic and likable than the poisonous Mercier that you begin to fear for them both.
The Third Lover generates an almost unbearable amount of tension as it moves toward its bleak resolution; it is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Certainly, the film seems inspired by Othello with Mercier as a gallic Iago and Chabrol would reference Shakespeare again with his 1963 melodrama Ophelia, in which a supporting character in Hamlet becomes the heroine. But most of all, The Third Lover serves as a compelling template for the sort of brilliantly cynical dissections of bourgeoise society Chabrol would later depict in masterworks like La Ceremonie (1995).
The Third Lover also benefits immensely from a collaboration with three key contributors in the director’s filmography. First, of course, is Stéphane Audran as Helene, who would become his wife in 1964. She has rarely been more lovely and seductive and it is easy to see why men are drawn to her like moths to a flame. It is also the first of several Chabrol films in which Audran would play heroines named Helene. Audran had previously appeared in Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959), Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) and Les Godelureaux (aka Wise Guys, 1961) but The Third Lover is her first showcase and starring role in a Chabrol film and she is magnetic and mysterious as the film’s sacrificial victim to male pride. Audran is probably best known for her acclaimed performed in the art house hit, Babette’s Feast (1987). She won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The evocative black and white cinematography is by Jean Rabier, who would go on to work on more than twenty-five Chabrol films starting with Les Godelureaux (1961) and ending with Madame Bovary (1991). In between he also lensed some other landmarks of French cinema such as Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965) and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Set in a bucolic area in rural Germany near the French border, The Third Lover unfolds in beautiful natural surroundings – forests, lakes, pastoral landscapes, and a luxurious country villa – that provide an ironic contrast against the diabolical plot turns.
One sequence accents the voyeuristic nature of the tale when Mercier accompanies Andreas and Helene to a private back room strip club (Chabrol can be glimpsed in a cameo). Another memorable set piece takes place at a crowded Octoberfest event as Mercier tries to snap candid photos of Helene and her secret lover. The hand-held cinema verité-like flavor of this sequence is further enhanced by numerous festival attendees looking directly at the camera (Obviously Chabrol instructed Rabier to shoot everything on-the-fly without using professional actors or paid extras for the crowd).
The other major collaborator on The Third Lover is film composer Pierre Jansen, who has worked on almost as many Chabrol films as Rabier. Jansen’s use of string ensembles and percussion effects create nerve-fraying results in the manner of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock and often suggest a free-form mixture of classical, jazz and avant-garde influences. His first score for Chabrol was Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) but some of his later work for the director was his most memorable and includes the music scores for La Rupture (1970) and Violette (1978).
The failure of The Third Lover to find an audience or many admirers upon its original release is not particularly surprising when you consider the grim trajectory of the storyline and the fact that the protagonist is such a nasty piece of work. Jacques Charrier certainly deserves kudos for making Mercier such a memorable villain and it is quite a departure for the sort of debonair, dashing young men Charrier had been playing in films like Marcel Carné’s Les Tricheurs (1958) and Babette Goes to War (1959). Unfortunately, Charrier is probably better remembered today as the second husband of Brigitte Bardot (from 1959 to 1962) and not for his movie roles. As for Austrian actor Walther Reyer, most of his work was in German cinema but film buffs may recognize him from Fritz Lang’s two-part epic, Tiger of Bengal and The Indian Tomb (both released in 1959 and later re-edited into one film in 1960 for distribution in the U.S. as Journey to the Lost City).
After being unavailable for years, a beautifully restored version of The Third Lover is now available on blu-ray from Kino Lorber. It is presented in the original French language with optional English subtitles and includes a fascinating, well-researched commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. The only other extra is a collection of trailers spotlighting other Claude Chabrol films.
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