Claude Chabrol – The Classicist

This piece was written about fifteen years ago for a cinema biographies project that never came to fruition. None of it appears to need changing, but by way of updating I’ve appended a comment on a recent Chabrol picture seen in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. —RTJ, June 24, 2009

 

Claude Chabrol
Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol was one of the “young Turk” critics-turned-filmmakers who constituted the New Wave of French cinema at the turn of the ’60s. At the time, he ran a distant third to the iconoclastic, theoretical Jean-Luc Godard and the warm-hearted, soaringly lyrical François Truffaut. But in the late ’60s, Chabrol emerged as a magisterially accomplished classicist, with an unbroken string of masterpieces that established him as one of the world’s finest directors. He has managed to remain commercially viable—indeed, awesomely prolific—over the ensuing decades, while pursuing his own distinctive, coolly detached vision of life and cinema.

He was born in Paris but raised in the provincial village of Creuse; just as Godard eventually returned to his native Switzerland, so Chabrol has often set his films far from the capital of the nouvelle vague, and frequently made the very specific climate and landscape of his narratives key to their spirit and meaning. Chabrol père was a pharmacist, and grand-père before him; Claude initially studied to follow in the family tradition, but switched to literature and then political science and the law. Arguably, all these disciplines left their mark (did the lapsed pharmacologist take ironic relish in doing a film of Madame Bovary?), but in truth he had been claimed early by the cinema. At the age of 12 he started a film club (they showed their movies in a barn), and as a student in Paris he hung out at the Cinémathèque Française with such fellow cinéastes as Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, with whom he would collaborate on the first serious book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock in 1954. This was a natural outgrowth of his writing, from 1950, for the revisionist film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, which regularly denounced the big-studio “Tradition of Quality” in French filmmaking and looked to such Hollywood masters (then largely unheralded) as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray as exemplars of personal authorship through figures of style.

In 1952, Chabrol married a woman named Agnès Goute (and assimilated her surname into one of his Cahiers aliases). She was an heiress, and in 1958—after a lamentable turn as a publicist in 20th Century–Fox’s Paris office—Chabrol drew on her fortune to finance his writing-directing debut, Le Beau Serge. This provincial drama, focused on the tensions that grow out of a visit by a friend from the city, was well received critically, and Chabrol went on to reverse the strategy—countrified Gérard Blain visits sophisticated urban relative Jean-Claude Brialy—in Les Cousins (1959), which won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

Collegiality ran high at this seminal moment in the New Wave, and Chabrol lent his newly won cachet to the debut efforts of Godard (some prints of Breathless, 1959, list Chabrol as producer), Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), and Philippe de Broca (assistant director on the early Chabrols). However, though he went on making two or three films of his own per year, box-office success and critical esteem began to elude him. Many of his films from this period never crossed the Atlantic (though 1960’s Les Bonnes Femmes, which eventually did, is regarded by some as the director’s first masterpiece). By 1964 he was reduced to making James Bond ripoffs like Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche (1964) and Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha (1965).

Jacqueline Sassard and Stéphane Audran in Les Biches
Jacqueline Sassard and Stéphane Audran in Les Biches

The picture changed dramatically in 1968, with Les Biches. Four years earlier, Chabrol had married Stéphane Audran, an admirable actress blessed with the largest eyes and most glorious cheekbones in French cinema. He now cast her as a predatory yet curiously tender-hearted lesbian in a haunting romantic triangle whose other principals were an enigmatic street waif named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and a rather male-chauvinist-piggy architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant—Audran’s own former husband). Set principally in wintertime Nice and exquisitely photographed in iridescent color, Les Biches was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films ever made. It was also a riveting psychological suspense film, boasting a supremely enigmatic narrative in which motive, gender roles, and identity itself were ever in flux—an on-screen addendum, as it were, to the director’s study of Hitchcock. After nearly a decade’s floundering in stylistically adventurous but wildly uneven filmmaking, Chabrol had emerged as a master of cinema, in matters of both technique and the medium’s inherent disposition to ambiguity.

There followed six further entries in what might be called “the genteel-bourgeois-murder cycle”: La Femme infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1969), La Rupture (1970), Que la bête meure/This Man Must Die (1970), Juste avant la nuit (1971), and Les Noces rouges/Wedding in Blood (1973), with the English-language Ten Days Wonder/La Decade prodigieuse (1972) a lesser offshoot. La Femme infidèle and Le Boucher were especially fine—probably the very greatest films Chabrol has made. All were realized with the same team of gifted collaborators who had worked on Les Biches: cinematographer Jean Rabier, composer Pierre Jansen, art director Guy Littaye, editor Jacques Gaillard, and sound editor Guy Chichignoud. Almost all starred Audran, with actors Michel Bouquet (to whom Les Biches had been dedicated) and Jean Yanne coming to assume crucial symbolic value in the Chabrol universe. The director’s critical standing was now so august that throughout the ’70s, as the films made their way into U.S. release, American auteurist film critic Andrew Sarris almost always reserved the top spot on his Ten Best list for that year’s Chabrol movie.

Chabrol deliberately strove to open new filmic territory after Les Noces rouges. For television he shot a Henry James adaptation, The Bench of Desolation (1974). He then undertook to make an explicitly political film, Nada (1974), about terrorists. Une Partie de plaisir (1974) was a brave venture into the sexual revolution, written by and starring Chabrol’s frequent writing collaborator Paul Gégauff and his wife Daniele. His next few efforts—in the suspense-thriller vein, but without the sardonic bourgeois overtones of his great early-’70s films—were undistinguished, and one, the Canadian-based Blood Relations (1978), was notably flat: working in English takes all the juice out of Chabrol’s narratives, no matter how outré the subject matter (cf. Dirty Hands, 1976, and the made-for-HBO Resistance movie The Blood of Others, 1984). But toward the end of the decade he collaborated for the first time with the extraordinary actress Isabelle Huppert, and Violette Nozière (1978), based on a notorious real-life case of familial murder, was a triumph. Chabrol immediately scored another, in an entirely new genre: the pastoral period story The Horse of Pride (1979).

From an American perspective (few of his later films have been acquired for U.S. distribution), Chabrol has never regained the critical momentum he enjoyed in the early ’70s. But he has continued to work regularly, turning out crisp detective films such as Cop au vin/Poulet au vinaigre (1984), literary adaptations (Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, 1990), and even a World War II documentary, The Eye of Vichy (1993). His one U.S. breakthrough release in the ’80s, Une Affaire des femmes/The Story of Women, was another truth-based psychological study with Isabelle Huppert as a woman led into murder during the Occupation years. It was another triumph, but their extremely faithful adaptation Madame Bovary (1991) was generally held to be rather academic. The 1985 Cry of the Owl, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, was a thrilling return to the style and thematic interests of Les Biches et al. It was belatedly released in the States in 1992, about the same time as the similarly accomplished Betty (1992), costarring Audran and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s daughter Marie. (Audran and Chabrol were divorced in the late ’80s.) Chabrol’s adaptation of a never-filmed screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot, L’Enfer (1994), was a perverse psychological suspense film that showed him still at the height of his powers, and La Cérémonie (1995), a chilling black comedy about a pair of sociopaths (Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire) infiltrating a haut-bourgeois home with murder on their minds was voted best foreign-language film of its year by the National Society of Film Critics.

Chabrol has occasionally appeared before the cameras as well—grotesquely and hilariously in his own segment of Paris vu par… (1965), “La Muette,” but also in others’ films. As a final note, Chabrol is not only the most classical filmmaker to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century—he is also the cinema’s premier gourmand, as meticulous about the cuisine available during his extended lunch and dinner breaks as he is about his filmmaking technique. From the first, dining scenes have been prominent in virtually all his films—the dinner table being one of the most intimate and psychological nuanced arenas for human interaction, as well as a constant reminder that his flawed, coolly observed characters are creatures of appetite.

[from TIFF 2007]

Benoît Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier in La Fille coupée en deux
Benoît Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier in La Fille coupée en deux

…We end with Claude Chabrol’s La Fille coupée en deux. Although the title suggests a Gallic variant on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, and although there is a murder before the story reaches its end, the evisceration that matters most here is metaphorical.

The girl in question is Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), the fetching blonde who stands in front of the weather map for a Lyons TV station. She happens to be in the vicinity when the reigning local celeb, novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berleand), drops by to be interviewed, and before long the two are conducting a discreet affair. For Charles, it’s merely another agreeable dimension to an encyclopedic sex life (relations with his wife, Valeria Cavalli, and editor and helpmate Mathilda May are deftly sketched in); for Gabrielle, it begins to evolve into something more. Add, about this point, Paul (Benoît Magimel), the spoiled and visibly nutball scion of a noble clan who has always had an irrational hatred of Charles and now determines to take Gabrielle away from him.

This is, what, the fifty-someth movie the 77-year-old Chabrol has made? That is both evident and difficult to believe. Evident in the complete assurance and efficiency with which Chabrol shuffles and deals and plays his cards. Difficult to believe because there’s nary a hint of staleness or going-through-the-motions about this latest chapter in his sardonic, ongoing dissection of his fascinatingly fallen species. As always, there’s a wonderful particularity to setting; the inveterate small-town-ness of Lyons and its surrounding countryside perfectly fit the nature and trajectory of the story. The performances are impeccable—including, by all means, Caroline Sihol as Paul’s mother, patrician sangfroid made flesh. All right, maybe it is an autumnal masterpiece. Autumn is brisk.

Published in conjunction with Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, hosted by Flickhead.

Stéphane Audran in Le Boucher
Stéphane Audran in Le Boucher