On a stormy night bloodied, hysterical fourteen year old Patricia Lowery (Aude Landry) rushes into a police station to report a horrific crime. Shortly thereafter, police discover the eviscerated body of her cousin, Muriel Stark (Lisa Langlois). Inspector Steve Carella (Donald Sutherland) gently coaxes the facts from Patricia and discovers she witnessed the brutal sexual assault and knife murder of seventeen year old Muriel. However, the case hits a snag when the traumatised Patricia struggles to recall the precise details of what happened that night. Suspicion shifts from one likely culprit to another but eventually settles on Patricia’s own brother, Andrew (Laurent Malet). Delving deeper into the victim’s past, Carella unearths a torrid tale of incestuous passion and Catholic guilt before he eventually uncovers the shocking truth.
French suspense maestro Claude Chabrol tackles mystery writer Ed McBain with this Canadian adaptation of one of the pseudonymous author’s many 87th Precinct novels. Les liens du sang or Blood Relatives was one of Chabrol’s sporadic attempts to crack the English language market and as with the likes of The Champagne Murders (1966), Ten Days’ Wonder (1972) and the later Dr. M (1990) bears a similarly off-kilter, disorientating, dreamy tone. This is in part due to some of the supporting cast being dubbed, including Chabrol’s regular muse and then-spouse Stéphane Audran, somewhat miscast as Patricia’s dowdy alcoholic mother.
It is grittier and more visceral than Chabrol’s usual refined psychological studies, including graphic details about the sexual assault and a disturbing sub-plot about the activities of a predatory paedophile played by Donald Pleasence. Later on, David Hemmings shows up as Muriel’s sleazy boss who seemingly inveigles his way into the naive teenager’s life by posing as a confidante. Chabrol weaves these disparate strands into the central theme which muses how parents, in their reluctance to treat teenagers as anything other than children, often drive them to keep secrets. This is highlighted in an exceptionally well-played scene between Sutherland and a young girl furnishing Pleasence’s alibi, played by Tammy Tucker in surprisingly her only acting role.
Chabrol’s masterful touch is apparent from the brooding, sinewy photography and the mood shifts from harrowing to lyrical abetted by regular collaborators cinematographer Jean Rabier and composer Pierre Jansen, but this remains among his slightest films. Donald Sutherland gives a compelling, subdued yet sensitive performance as a detective numbed by the grisly nature of his job yet clinging onto his humanity. Yet Carella is a passive sleuth, rather than one whose actions advance the plot. In fact the third act reduces him to the role of observer, or more accurately reader, as much of the meat of the plot unfolds via flashback. The tragic teen romance that forms the spine of this sad story unfolds in a soft-focus, somewhat sentimental style that coupled with some stilted supporting performances, comes across rather twee but still proves quite moving. By contrast, Carella’s paternal relationship with young Patricia is nicely detailed and paralleled with his affectionate attitude toward his own daughter (Nina Balogh). Decades of episodic cop shows may have rendered the twist ending somewhat guessable yet it proves no less tragic and unsettling.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.