In a series of interviews with the crew of The Burned Barns (1973) that is included in the new Blu-ray release of the film the Cohen Film Collection, it is indicated that the shoot was rather difficult. This seems to have stemmed from the director Jean Chapot’s inability to control his set and especially the lead actors. It probably didn’t help that this was only his second feature film and that the actors were Alain Delon and Simone Signoret, two of the biggest film stars in France at the time. The actors, it seems, especially Delon, wanted Chapot to direct them forcefully, to really tell them what he wanted out of them. And when he didn’t, the actors ran right over the director. It is an interesting thought experiment to ponder what this film would have looked like if Chapot had been more in control or if some other director had been at the helm. But he wasn’t and this is the film we got. It’s not half bad.
A beautiful blonde woman is found murdered in a lonely, snow-covered stretch of countryside not far from a farm. Judge Pierre Larcher (Delon) suspects someone living on that farm is the culprit. Rose (Signoret), the matriarch of the family, is beloved in the community and tough as nails. Her husband Pierre (Paul Crachet) is weaker and lives in her shadow. There are also two sons, their wives, and a daughter.
The film is less interested in the actual mystery than it is in how the investigation affects the farmers. Judge Larcher questions everyone living on the farm. He comes back to visit often. Once, he even sleeps in their house. He has a woman scream at the top of her lungs at the crime scene to see if the farmers could have heard it in their house. He recreates the murder to see how it might have happened. Day after day, he is around, hovering over the family.
Both sons were out of the house at the time of the crime. At first, evidence points toward Paul (Bernard Le Coq). Rose questions him and is angry at him when she thinks he may have done it, but ultimately, she protects him. He’s married to Monique (Miou-Miou) who works at a hotel in town. She doesn’t get along with Rose, mostly because she doesn’t want to live on a farm, and Rose rules the farm but has no control anywhere else. The other son, Pierre Rousseau, has an alibi, but as we will all find out, he’s harboring secrets, too.
From the outside, the family seems picture perfect. More than one villager speaks very highly of Rose. Before the investigation, the family would probably have admitted to no problems. But the investigation reveals things hidden, exposes some cracks. Monique is unhappy. She can’t stand farm life, but working in the city keeps her away from her husband. Paul wants Rose to sell some of the farm so he can move away with his wife. Louis married only to keep his mother happy, not out of love.
The farm is large and isolated. Somewhat close by is a tiny village, but the closest town is some miles away. It is cold and snow covers the ground. The camera often pulls back revealing how secluded the family is. The Judge’s constant intrusions invade their privacy. A journalist writes a piece on how Judge Larcher is harassing them but finds no evidence of wrongdoing.
The conclusion could be considered lackluster if you are looking for a fiery showdown or a surprising reveal. Keeping with its themes, the focus is on how the killer’s identity affects the fabric of the family, especially Rose.
Signoret is the true star here. Her performance is subdued and deeply layered. She plays Rose like the queen of a tiny fiefdom, constantly trying to control all the pieces of her chessboard. It is in Delon’s performance that you feel the directionlessness we hear about in those interviews. He doesn’t seem to know exactly how to play the judge. This gives him an aloofness. He is harassing this family, and yet he seems to be aware of this and seems to be almost apologetic about it.
The direction isn’t actually bad. Chapot spent most of his career directing television and he definitely seems more suited to that medium. It is a film that definitely could have used…something. It is a fine character piece, but it’s hard not to want just a little more oomph. But it is enough to watch these two excellent actors working off each other.
The only extras included in this Blu-ray are some trailers and the interviews previously mentioned. Those are packaged like a behind-the-scenes featurette, it lasts 26 minutes and is well worth watching.