Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha (Claude Chabrol / France-Italy-Spain, 1965):

Claude Chabrol’s attitude to the commercial assignment is humorously stated by the Soviet envoy (Serge Reggiani) who tips big at the Swiss hotel: "When in capitalist society, do as capitalist." ("Don’t overdo it," snaps his son, who’s attired like a pint-sized version of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer.) The MacGuffin is a blue, panther-shaped bauble with ruby eyes concealing a deadly virus, according to the opening quotation the very jewel from Shakespeare’s Timon (or Blake Edwards’ Inspector Clouseau, at least) yet to the eponymous heroine it's "a shabby thing, really, I could never wear it." A convent gamine with a hidden judo chop, Marie Chantal (Marie Laforet) glides through a maelstrom of spy imbecility in which secret agents take turns going through identities and Cold War clowns hold each other at gunpoint with lighter-pistols. Dr. Kha (Akim Tamiroff) is a Mabuse, of course, a corrupted genius equipped with an electronic rasp and enough taste to insist on "nothing but the most refined terrorizing job." Skis spit out darts, every drink is spiked with poison, palaces give way to catacombs. "We do not dwell in a normal universe," the hunky emissary (Francisco Rabal) warns Marie, who nevertheless makes a point of interrupting the archvillain’s monologue about taking over the world with her own ode to the absurdity of innocence. On the surface, hack work elevated by luxuriant style and unflagging ebullience -- the action leapfrogs from alpine slopes to Moroccan bazaars and Jean Rabier’s camera takes everything in opulently, priceless cartoons like Charles Denner’s Yankee attaché and Stéphane Audran’s phony widow are like cantos from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. In scenes like Laforet’s drowsy hotel pirouette with the fedora-clad Audran, however, it becomes clear that Chabrol’s ultimate jest is that this is a rough draft for Les Biches, held close to the vest and played with a grin and a wink. With Roger Hanin, Pierre-François Moro, Gilles Chusseau, Antonio Passalia, and Robert Burnier.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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