[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.
Le beau Serge and Les cousins, the first two films from Claude Chabrol, mark the official birth of the French nouvelle vague. The two confident, mature dramas don’t have the stylistic flash or narrative invention of the more famous works by Godard and Truffaut that followed, but that was always the way with Chabrol, the classicist of the “Cahiers du Cinema ” crowd.
Where Truffaut added autobiography, enthusiasm and a palpable love of the act of filmmaking to his films, and Godard deconstructed filmmaking, storytelling and narrative expectations in his films, Chabrol used his camera like a microscope to study the psychology under the surface of human behavior in the Petri dish of social definitions and relationships. Alfred Hitchcock was his idol (he wrote, with fellow critic and nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer, an early study of Hitchcock’s films) but it wasn’t the mechanics of suspense the interested him, it was the human equation: guilt, jealousy, obsession, the impulse to violence and crime and vengeance, the deflation of regret and loss. It all begins with these two features, which predated Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by mere months. True to form, they quietly established the arrival of a new talent, while Truffaut and Godard (with Breathless) caused a seismic shift.
The two films are like a match set of city mouse/country mouse tales, the first set in the dying community of a rural village (Sardent, Chabrol’s own hometown), the second in the decadent bohemian student society of Paris, with Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as the provincial and the sophisticate (respectively) in both films.
Claude Chabrol, the most doggedly prolific of the New Wave directors all the the through the to the final months of his life, died less than a year ago. To this day it’s as if we take him for granted.
Where we have deluxe, lovingly-restored and mastered editions of the films Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle from Criterion, few of Chabrol’s classics have received even nominally respectable treatment on DVD (mostly from Kino and the defunct Home Vision label), many of his greatest films have been relegated to inferior DVD editions (See my survey of Chabrol on DVD, circa 2009, in this feature on Parallax View) and not a single title has been given the Criterion treatment. That is finally going to change, I’m happy to report, but that comes later. First comes a brief report on the stateside DVD debuts of two seventies Chabrol films from Pathfinder.
Pathfinder’s release of Juste Avant la Nuit (aka Just Before Nightfall, 1971), misspelled on the cover as “Avante,” and The Twist (aka Folies Bourgeoises, 1976) are among the worst-looking DVDs I’ve seen in the past few years. It looks like someone burned their old VHS tapes onto a DVD-R and tossed it out onto the marketplace. Juste Avant la Nuit, a thriller of infidelity and sexual games starring Stephane Audran and Michel Bouquet, looks like a TV print in the old Academy ratio (1.37:1), blurry and hazy and as low-fidelity as I’ve seen on DVD in recent years. The Twist, an English-language satire with Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret joining French actors Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel, is even worse, a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation of one of Chabrol’s weakest movies. Zooming the film to fill a widescreen TV only magnifies the limitations in the already weak image quality and the optional French-language soundtrack offers no English subtitles.
Even Chabrol completists will want to think twice about adding these disc to their collection, but apart from importing foreign DVDs with only marginally better presentations, these are the only versions available at this time.
The final film by Claude Chabrol, the savvy nouvelle vague director who earned himself the sobriquet “the Gallic Hitchcock” for the psychologically compelling, emotionally jagged mysteries and thrillers that highlight his long (and sometimes rocky) career, may not be one of his great works, but there are major pleasure to be had in the minor production from an old master.
Hard to believe that in a career of some eighty features, shorts pieces and television films, this is the first time Chabrol worked with Gerard Depardieu, who stars as the titular Bellamy, a veteran police detective and minor celebrity thanks to his memoir. He’s ostensibly on vacation with his wife Francoise (Marie Bunel), but as she observes, “Vacation is not in his vocabulary.” He adores her and she understands him and merely makes wry remarks as he drifts into a curious mystery involving an overtly enigmatic man (Jacques Gamblin) in hiding and the wreckage (physical and emotional) of what appears to be a botched attempt at faking his death. As Bellamy drifts through the orbit of a missing embezzler, pulling at strands that the local police seem unable to grab to understand the real story behind a seemingly simple case of homicide, his ne’er-do-well brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) blows into town with a new investment scheme and the same old shenanigans and jealousies that start them going around and around like scrapping boys.
Parallax View contributed a few pieces for the Blogathon, which we spotlight in remembrance of Chabrol. By way of introduction, I quote Richard T. Jameson’s essay:
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.
And leave you with a short piece by Chabrol not on any compilation we know of: a commercial for Winston cigarettes directed as an American detective noir, in English, with a Bogie drawl and French subtitles. Salut, M. Chabrol!