Posted in: Essays

La Femme infidèle

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]

La Femme infidele
La Femme infidele

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.

Stéphane Audran and Stéphane di Napoli
Stéphane Audran and Maurice Ronet: lovers at ease

For instance, in La Femme infidèle when he strews jump cuts through Charles Desvallées’s Psycho-inspired cleanup after the murder, he does not interrupt the process but rather makes us feel the terrible efficiency of Charles’s actions — appropriate to his customarily pedestrian deportment, suited to routine, and processes, yet unsettling too in that an assassin of the moment becomes so accomplished at the followup procedures. And besides that, he takes us into Charles’s sensibility, which surely phases out of immediate physical consciousness at irregular intervals during his grisly, unfamiliar task, just as we have previously leapt from, say, Charles smoking in bed to Charles smoking in his office, or from Charles studying his sleeping, unfaithful wife’s features in the night to Charles contemplating in his office and in his mind’s eye those same features and the truth they mask or contain. Whatever Charles looked at, thought about, did between these moments is irrelevant. Chabrol only shows us what is relevant to Charles’s psychic and emotional experience, just as he does not show us what is too abstract a possibility for Charles’s sustained mental contemplation — Hélène at her lover’s apartment — until he and we know for sure that she indeed has a lover. Yet on another level we have always known: the name of the movie is La Femme infidèle, and the opening gliding camera movement is not merely functional but also the first stylistic manifestation of a tragic process.

Tragedy is a fair designation to apply to this film. If contemporary critics protest that tragedy is impossible in an age incapable of producing tragic heroes, Chabrol seeks to achieve the theoretically impossible by denying the critics’ premise, sometimes by invoking (Léda, Ophélia), sometimes by having his characters reenact, the forms of a more heroically auspicious tradition. The protagonist of Que le Bête meure sets off at film’s end on an Odyssey that, we realize with a shock, has grown logically out of the entire picture and has every right to its capital O. The hapless and eponymous Popaul in Le Boucher is a modern-day avatar of Cro-Magnon man who aspires toward Beauty and must settle for blood. Charles Desvallées lacks for classical archetypes, although someone in the nightclub scene jokes about the hermit having become the devil — to which Charles replies that his wife inspired him; but in his own actions he describes a more explicit scenario of a man who discovers in himself a fatal flaw — which to his wife becomes a transcendent virtue.

Chabrol’s style has evolved to express and to sustain such otherwise intolerable paradoxes of self-realization. In the first of two definitive dinner-table sequences Charles asks Hélène whether she loves him, she hesitantly offers an amused “Mais oui!”, and their son observes the interchange. Chabrol keeps the three characters in separate frames and hence implies, according to classical principles of visual selection, separation on other levels. However, the effect of the scene runs almost (though not quite) directly contrary: so equally distanced, so harmoniously paced, phrased, and intercut, so rhymed are the shots that they imply a complex solidarity, as much as more conventionally integral, one-shot mise-en-scène would. Charles has his doubts about Hélène, Hélène isn’t sure what has brought his question on, and Michel is at once puzzled and rather delighted with the odd sorts of things Papa and Maman say and do; yet their behavior jells, touchingly. They are a family. And of course Hélène does love Charles. She loves her son, she loves her security, she loves her home (the community of souls, though not necessarily the house or Neuilly, as her lover later reveals to Charles). She seeks abroad what she cannot get at home, but both she and Victor have the deepest veneration of family ties (significantly, it is Victor’s former wife who, missing him at their monthly appointment, sets the police in motion long before anything else occurs to provoke their interest). Even before we have these last facts confirmed by Victor’s testimony, Chabrol’s exquisitely judged treatment of the most mundane event has prepared us to understand and to respond comprehensively to these people.

The Chabrol who once seemed to gloat over the bestiality of professional boors has matured into another Chabrol who holds man and the beast in man in something like reverence and — though the murder in La Femme infidèle is shocking and brutal — only fleetingly in awe. This film is redolent of tolerance, vulnerability, susceptibility to hurt. Would that Truffaut’s Blady Detective Agency might open its doors and its arms to poor stuffy Bignon, the operative who has worked for insurance man Desvallées before and now must serve him on a case that will bring Bignon himself a measure of the grief the husband will feel. On the bank of a grey river, the city stilled by the spirit of afternoon, the scene edged with lucent green leaves, this nondescript man delivers the evidence he feared he would find, submits his bill, and hovers long enough to express his sorrow: “I know we shall never meet again.” And his loss, we feel, is more than the loss of a client merely. But there is no reprieve, not for Bignon and not for Charles. The next time we see Charles’s wife, the first time he sees her knowing her to be unfaithful, the scene is at once fraught with tension (ours more that theirs) and disturbingly unremarkable: Hélène appears in a doorway at the end of a hall in their home, a family joke having been interrupted in progress; the son, ever the barometer of the relationship, runs between them, connecting them even now; Charles slips into the habitual joke and turns, as on any other evening, to switch on the TV.

Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran
Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran: no intimacy here

Early in the film Charles and Hélène sit down before the telly and watch an interlude, one of those dreadful film-school things that uses a piece of classical music as an excuse to manipulate a movie camera inarticulately about a helpless still-life. Charles loves it: “The worse it gets, the more I like it.” The scene is suggestive in terms of both his psychology and the director’s art. Charles has in some measure, wittingly or not, abdicated his obligations as a husband and lover and permitted someone like Victor Pégala to come into his wife’s life. To Victor she has given the body her husband so indirectly refuses at the beginning of the film (and many other times as well, we feel sure from the couple’s vocabulary of movement, posture, and selective eye contact) and, of course, the silly third-anniversary present Charles gave her. Confronted with Victor, talking with him about sexual freedom and the irritations of commuting, he expresses an interest in touring the flat where his wife has betrayed him; that way he’ll be able to visualize more clearly…. Before he entered the apartment building, we saw him first as a reflection in the glass door (a fact not immediately apparent); then, as he entered through it and passed into our vision proper, the door swung to, causing the images of the foliage outside to ripple eerily over our view of him, as though some metamorphosis in the very texture of his being were taking place. Now we see him in a mirror again. “You look awful,” Victor tells him. “Yes, I know,” Charles replies, and the camera tilts swiftly to his hands as they seize a classical bust whose features strikingly resemble those of his wife; a sudden whip-pan and he has bloodied Victor’s head with that image — just as a closeup of Victor has replaced the (reflected) closeup of Charles. “The worse it gets, the more I like it” could serve Charles as a life principle only so far; yet his means of autocriticism — to destroy this secret sharer of his role and to become more wholly, madly himself than he or Hélène ever dreamed — will also lead to the sundering of the couple.

As to Chabrol, the TV interlude offers an inverse reflection of the film as a whole, or rather of Chabrol’s realization thereof. The music that scores the picture (by Pierre Jansen, along with cameraman Jean Rabier — and of course Mme. Chabrol — the director’s most invaluable collaborator) did not precede its existence but exists to support it; and Chabrol’s images and their movements, far from being inarticulate, are musical in their precision. A moment before he surprises Victor and himself by becoming a murderer, Charles says he feels dizzy. The feeling is understandable: he’s been encircled, tracked, panned, visually encompassed at every turn. When Charles descends the circular stairs of a café to call his wife, the next shot pans along a short stretch of colored tiles to discover him just entering a phone booth. The gesture is neither gratuitous nor decorative; it carries over Charles’s own motion on the circular stair in the preceding shot and, more importantly, it contributes to an almost subliminal sense of the film’s organic completeness, its tragic quality: this phone call, to the beauty parlor where Hélène said she’d be, is the first piece of disturbing evidence Charles encounters in the film. When he next sees his wife, he and we are intensely curious about her: the secretary announces her arrival; the camera focuses on the door and then, as if it too could not wait, moves so as to catch the earliest possible glimpse. Hélène’s every movement becomes, of narrative necessity, a study in ambiguous sensuality (a study Stéphane Audran is devastatingly well-equipped to sustain).

Such movements follow and link both parties to the marriage. Once Chabrol shifts the point of view decisively to Hélène (Charles having passed through his own crisis by then), he recapitulates a situation previously hinged on Charles. Both scenes are masterly. In the first, Charles, having just returned from disposing of Victor’s corpse, leaves his wife on the lawn and goes inside the house. Each succeeding lawn scene in the film is more diffused, more evanescent than the one before. The husband stands at the window and watches outside, the camera observing from the other side of the room and holding the man and the view in equally sharp focus. Hélène starts back toward the house after bidding her guests goodbye — back toward the house and back, of course, toward Charles. The camera begins to move up on Charles, the focus staying with him. And a terrible, beautiful thing happens: as the lens is adjusted to render an ever-nearer subject clearly, its capacity to hold distant objects diminishes; and Hélène, drawing closer and closer, nevertheless resolves into an ethereal blue-grey cloud. After the detectives bring word of Pégala’s disappearance, Chabrol employs the window for another coup. The previous scene, a closeup of Hélène thinking about the possibilities this news suggests, is superseded by another by means of that archaic but still potentially effective device, the wipe, whereby one image seems to move into the frame from the side and obliterate what was there. The wiping blade in this case is a bar in the window, and it moves across the scene because the camera is turning — curving, actually — to follow the rectilinear movement of Charles’s car as he pulls up outside. We recall the camera rushing to meet Hélène in its and our and Charles’s anxiety to see her, to examine her. This time Hélène is in Charles’s place, something Chabrol acknowledges by permitting the camera to continue its turn, all the way from the view outside the window to Hélène’s intent profile inside.

Michel Bouquet turns to his wife and child...
Charles (Michel Bouquet) turns to his wife and child...

The scene is different, though. When Hélène came to Charles’s office, we wanted our curiosity satisfied. What do want here? We know what Charles has done; we saw it. Chabrol, who once wrote (with Eric Rohmer) a book on Hitchcock, has been playing Hitchcockian games with our loyalty as viewers. In addition to our natural sympathy for Charles (a tribute to Michel Bouquet even more than to Chabrol, who had dedicated his previous film, Les Biches, to this remarkable actor), the director has encouraged our identification with him through our fascination with the processes of cleaning up after the killing and then by threatening him with public exposure through the offices of a highway vulgarian (and also, in a further direct lift from / hommage to Psycho, enlisting our assistance in urging a recalcitrant corpse to sink from view). Yet we sympathize equally with Hélène, and her bewilderment (and, unbeknownst, bereavement) is as moving as was Charles’s perplexed affirmation of his own identity by striking out at Victor. We want Hélène to find out and we are afraid for her to find out. Chabrol’s suspense is of the highest order: moral suspense. And it persists through subsequent visits of the detectives; through a second dinner-table scene in which, this time, the classical mise-en-scène of an integral setup quivers with a nameless, intuitive, mutual fear; through a housewifely mosey about the house and the discovery of Victor Pégala’s photo where it should not be and where it means the answers to two questions never asked aloud. With her new knowledge Hélène descends the stairs, the camera tracking her; and it loses her, and then comes upon her, a motionless figure, burning the evidence that would convict her husband.

... and they drift into the distance.
... and they drift into the distance.

But there is other evidence. We never know what it is. Here Chabrol, like Truffaut, forsakes the rules of the genre. La Femme infidèle has grown beyond clues end perfect crimes. We do not know why the police come back. We do not know, precisely, what will happen now. But the love the Desvallées pledge is more than renewed love: it has become the only imperative. Hélène and Michel stand on a hillock among flowers while Charles stands far away, serene under the fixed gaze of the detectives. The camera, like Charles, seems to be backing away from the wife and son, losing them forever. But as the camera withdraws, the lens optically reverses the effect of negating and overwhelming the contrary movement of the camera. It is an effect borrowed, again, from Hitchcock — Vertigo, to be precise: another film about a man who found his love and lost her, found her again and destroyed her. Chabrol joins a third movement to Hitchcock’s two: the camera also moves laterally, bringing a leafy branch between us/Charles and the family. The exigencies of the law — and of the plot — would draw Charles away; the spatial compression of the long lens and the emotional cohesion of Charles, Hélène, Michel hold them ever together; the leaves, interceding, at the same time obscure and exalt the figures on that hill. It is a great shot and a great ending. It is where the whole film has been aiming, what it’s all been about. Life should be so exquisite, should hurt so meaningfully. Maybe it is. Maybe it does.

© 2009 Richard T. Jameson

LA FEMME INFIDÈLE (The Unfaithful Wife).  Directed by Claude Chabrol.  Les Films la Boétie (Paris) / Cinegai (Rome), 1968.  Screenplay: Chabrol.  Cinematography (Eastmancolor): Jean Rabier.  Art direction: Guy Littaye.  Music: Pierre Jansen.  Production: André Génovès.

The Players:

Charles Desvallées: Michel Bouquet;  Hélène Desvallées: Stéphane Audran (Mme. Chabrol);  Michel Desvallées: Stéphane di Napoli;  Victor Pégala: Maurice Ronet;  Bignon, a private detective: Serge Bento;  Duval, a police detective: Michel Duchaussoy;  Gobet, his colleague: Guy Marly;  Brigitte: Donatella Tutti;  Paul: Henri Marteau;  Charles’s mother: Louise Rioton.

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