On the surface, The Color of Lies resembles many other murder mysteries set in a close-knit community. The 1999 film, however, is a late-career effort from Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave director who first gained acclaim alongside contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in the late 1950s. So it’s not surprising to learn The Color of Lies is really a subtle, stylish exploration of the various ways people deceive each other.
The body of a 10-year-old girl is found near the home of struggling artist Rene Sterne (Jacques Gamblin) and his wife Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire). Rene was the girl’s art teacher and quickly becomes the prime suspect in an investigation conducted by Inspector Lesage (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), the town’s new police chief. Despite the fact that Inspector Lesage has zero hard evidence connecting Rene to the crime, he becomes a pariah in his small Breton village and gradually loses the rest of his art students. And if things weren’t bad enough for Rene, he also has to contend with vain local celebrity Germain-Roland Desmot (Antoine de Caunes), who is aggressively pursuing Rene’s wife. (It doesn’t help that Vivianne isn’t exactly rebuffing Desmot’s advances.)
Why, all of it could be enough to drive a guy to murder. Then again, maybe not.
Chabrol — who died in 2010 — was often regarded as “the French Hitchcock” and there are certainly elements of this movie that recall the master of suspense’s filmography. (Chabrol and Hitchcock shared an affinity for color-coded symbolism, and Rene’s disability conjures images of the handicapped heroes played by Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo.) However, the most notable difference between the two filmmakers is evident in their approach to keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Hitchcock firmly believed in the inherent suspense of the audience knowing more than the characters. On the other hand, Chabrol constructed The Color of Lies as a true whodunit.
Eventually, there’s a second murder to solve, and the pool of potential killers grows as we get to know more of the locals. As a result, The Color of Lies plays like a mixture between English TV series Broadchurch (child killed in a small, European coastal town) and The Hunt (circumstantial evidence leads to a man being ostracized by his community). Of course, Chabrol’s film was released in 1999 and easily predates both of those stellar pieces of work.
The roster of suspects in The Color of Lies isn’t quite deep enough to make for a satisfying conclusion to the mystery(ies). Fortunately, the three lead performers are strong. Gamblin didn’t need his character’s limp to convey Rene’s pain, while de Caunes is marvelously slimy and conceited as Desmot. The fact that Desmot is so open about his dishonesty makes him seem perversely honorable in the world Chabrol has constructed.
Bonnaire is terrific as Vivianne, who vacillates between being devoted to and dissatisfied with Rene; the actress makes you believe those two feelings aren’t mutually exclusive. She also helps ground some of the more melodramatic beats between Rene and Vivianne. On the other hand, Bruni-Tedeschi is somewhat of a dud as Inspector Lesage. Part of it is the actress’s flat delivery. The bigger problem is that Inspector Lesage doesn’t seem too interested in doing a heck of a lot of detective work. Instead, her plan seems to involve simply fixating on Rene and pestering him until he confesses.
While the mystery in The Color of Lies may not be the most engaging or scintillating, Chabrol lets it unfold with impressive flair. It turns out “the color of lies” is blue, and the director inserts the hue in a variety of creative ways that invite repeat viewings. Chabrol also uses frequent dissolves to transition from one scene to the next. The dissolves are meant to convey a lapse in time, and they sometimes take on an eerily sinister effect. (The murders aren’t committed on screen; we only jump to the aftermath.)
The film’s French title is Au Cœur du Mensonge, which translates to “At the Heart of the Lie.” Both titles get at the main thrust of the film: the repercussions of the big and small lies people tell one another. The result is a thoughtful “thriller” that is somewhat light on thrills
The Color of Lies is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 37 mbps. Despite what you might expect from the film’s title, Chabrol works in a mostly overcast palette that is nicely reproduced on this Blu-ray. It’s a clean image with subtle filmic grain throughout. More importantly, the slightly dreary presentation makes the instances of color (blue and red, along with the green of the Breton countryside) seem even more prominent. Those colors, by the way, are impressively saturated. Black levels are inky and feature strong separation, which is particularly crucial during a sequence when two characters go for a late-night boat ride. I never saw The Color of Lies on DVD, but I think it’s safe to say this is the best this film has looked on home video.
The LPCM 2.0 track impresses despite its built-in limitations. The stereo track is robust, particularly in its treatment of the constantly crashing waves of the film’s seaside setting. The playfully melodramatic score by Matthieu Chabrol (Claude’s son) also feels appropriately jarring. The film is only 15 years old, but there are no age-related defects. Dialogue is in French with English subtitles. There is no English-dubbed track.
Audio Commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein: I strongly recommend you give this track a listen after you’ve sat through the film. (Emphasis on “after”; they discuss a key early moment involving the killer.) The two critics do a terrific job of pointing out Chabrol’s favored themes and techniques, including the importance of light in this film. More impressively, they do this without seeming overly reverential and without hesitating to disagree or correct one another. It’s an instructive, conversational track that will likely increase your appreciation of what Chabrol accomplished.
2014 Re-release Trailer
The Color of Lies never got a theatrical release in the United States, but is now making a pretty solid Blu-ray review courtesy of the Cohen Media Group. Although the film isn’t nearly as class-obsessed as some of Chabrol’s other offerings, it still serves as a nice introduction to his technical prowess. Make sure you go in with the proper expectations: if you’re looking for a pulse-pounding murder mystery, you’re likely to walk away underwhelmed.