[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]
For some time it was easy to regard Claude Chabrol as far and away the least of the nouvelle vague Big Three. Whereas Truffaut gifted us with bittersweet, occasionally wry affirmations of an abounding, Renoiresque life force and Godard challenged us to tag along as he sought new ways of looking at movies and at the world as well, Chabrol seemed to be playing games of a highly dubious, unrewardingly perverse nature. His early works, like Les Cousins and À Double Tour, reveled in the habitually petty and gradually escalating nastiness of very unattractive human beings; their occasional doses of broken-field camera movement and hothouse color tended less to exhilarate the viewer than to inculcate a sense of the director’s rash presumptuousness. (It was irritating to feel the nagging doubt that even though convention insisted such bravura displays had no place in depictions of such folks and their tainted milieux, Chabrol knew that, too, and had the germ of a serious purpose in flouting convention — though a failure of technique or timing usually flawed the unexpected track or crane or whatever, and hence restored one’s sense of complacent moral/aesthetic superiority before one was forced to concede Chabrol the point.) Bourgeois resentment tended to be upheld by the reviewers and the distributors: most Chabrols that managed to get to the States scarcely got beyond New York thanks to pans or lukewarm appreciations and soft grosses. Even at home Chabrol did not fare as his fellow critical confreres–turned–filmmakers, and eventually his resources (a wife’s personal fortune) ran out. The mid-Sixties found him making commissioned films, wishful James Bond imitations (Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche, Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite). The case seemed closed. Then, about the time Godard went politicking into anticinema and Truffaut threatened to get lost in Hitchcock imitations, Chabrol came back with Les Biches, and the thing was so gorgeous, so enthralling, yet so quirkily self-aware at the same time that I, for one, began to wonder whether this once trivially quirky gentleman mightn’t turn out to be the foremost classicist of the New Wave. And after La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le Boucher, I’ve stopped wondering.
La Femme infidèle looks like the director’s masterpiece to date. It’s certainly a masterpiece. From the opening, almost functional glide along the front of the Desvallées’ suburban home, the film gathers itself with delicate relentlessness and moves toward one of the most lucid and fulfilled closing shots I’ve ever experienced. A major charm and, beyond and through that, a major strength of Truffaut’s films is that they are rife with “moments.” In Baisers volés or Deux Anglaises et le Continent these moments tend to accrete toward a deep conviction of the artist’s — and sometimes his characters’ — receptivity to life’s bounty. (In the contemporary world of Baisers volés and the continuing saga of Antoine Doinel, they testify toward the ultimate shaping of a random life; in the temporally distant cinematic country of a Deux Anglaises or a Jules et Jim they reverberate with remembered heartbeats, the knowledge of missed opportunities, the tenderly comic sense of people who caught at life with such fondly absurd deliberation that they crushed it; in a La Mariée était en noir or La Sirène du Mississippi, they suggest the flutter of a sensibility (Truffaut’s) whose instincts run counter to the generic house rules. Chabrol’s films — at least, once one has sat through them and is in a position to consider the whole of the individual movie — suggest a kind of organic containment or completion. This is hardly to say that Truffaut’s films lack form. Rather, their very form encompasses a sense of spontaneity, of accident: shots and scenes may go by very rapidly, as if they were pieces of a larger spatial and temporal reality but only these snatches of perception are important to the director and to us and so they are all we see. Truffaut is capable of long-take scenes and Chabrol is capable of fragmentation; but even Chabrol’s techniques of fragmentation and disruption tend to reinforce our sense of the scene’s relation to the entire movement of the piece.