The great thing about Inspecteur Lavardin is that he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is, as an old friend remarks, 'an ex-thug, now a cop'. He has none of the wit, eccentricity or flair we expect from our fictional detectives, none of the artistic mathematics of Holmes, the dandy comedy of Poirot, the dogged integrity of Marlowe, or even the warped moral fervour of Harry Callahan. He is a grim authoritarian, illiberal, homophobic, who counters wit with a threat, menaces the vulnerable and weak; utterly humorless, any wit merely self-satisfaction at someone else's discomfort.
He is the perfect vehicle for Chabrol's art, a moral force whose godlike powers of detection and final rewarding of spoils subvert his social, rational role. In Chabrol's world, the innocent are always guilty, but sometimes he sounds a grace note, and the guilty can be truly innocent. Lavardin doesn't solve a crime, he exposes hypocrisy, corruption, evil. Chabrol's later (post-1975) films are less vice-like than his mid-period masterpieces, and in some there is hope for trapped characters to escape, as does the shadowy Peter Manguin, who in a previous Chabrol film would have been driven to inexorable, elaborate murder.
it's not all that rosy though - the final image of the 'restored' bourgeois household, mother and daughter staring out zombie-like at the departing detective, has some of the ironic force of 'La Femme Infidele''s ending, a bitter image of withdrawn, probably mad maternity, and an innocence that has seen too much.
As with the first Lavardin film, 'Poulet et Vinaigre', surveillance is the main theme. In Chabrol's earlier films, spying was a form of control by one person on another; here his net casts longer. Chabrol is famous for his switches in point of view, in spending much of the film with one character, before abruptly turning to another, complicating, even casting doubt, on the preceding narrative.
Although most of of this film is seen from Lavardin's commanding point of view, there are moments when the film seems to escape it (e.g. Francis' first appearance, or Veronique's final blackmailing pay-off), but Lavardin is soon revealed to be gathering knowledge unobserved, a virtual panopticon from which no-one is free (not even the paparazzi who seem to catch him with Helene unobserved on the beach).
much is made of new media of surveillance - the case is solved by a hidden camera, a point of view significantly taken up by Chabrol's camera before it is revealed - but these are simply extensions of Lavardin's gaze: in one brilliant scene, the 'real' world of the film and that at a remove through CCTV cameras meet, when the inspector talks to a man in the same room we see on screen. To reinforce the point, a key figure in the plot has as a hobby the exquisite sculpting of marble eyeballs, in a scene which virtually gives away the plot early on.
the big difference between this film and its predecessor is the figure of Lavardin. In 'Poulet', he is a shadowy figure who only dominates in the last quarter. Here, he is on screen from nearly the beginning, and has profound personal links with the case, the murdered man's wife having been a lover who abandoned him. He claims his amateur searching for her led him to the force. The closing, bitter joke, however, involving the photo of his family, casts doubt even on this intriguing psychologising.
As ever with Chabrol, there is a strong comic element in the film, strangely disrupting the film's earnestness - the murder scene, with its threat of rape, is made ridiculous by the victim's porcine squealing. The bourgeois-baiting comedy is so entrenched in Chabrol as to have lost most of its sting, although the rigid framing of the family dinners, despite all the criminal goings on, is priceless.
The characteristic Chabrolian 'metaphysical' implications are at first rendered absurd with the blasphemous play, but when Lavardin replaces the crucifix after he's solved the case, and his general sense of a haunted house (this is one film where the present is fractured by the past in a startling way, not least in its references to Chabrol's previous oeuvre) that you're not quite sure. It's a shock to see Bernadette Lafont, that sexually voracious force of early Chabrol so prim, distant and bourgeois, although there's the odd glint in that huge come-hither mouth that suggests otherwise.