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. â€”RTJ, June 24, 2009
Claude Chabrol was one of the â€œyoung Turkâ€ critics-turned-filmmakers who constituted the New Wave of French cinema at the turn of the â€™60s. At the time, he ran a distant third to the iconoclastic, theoretical Jean-Luc Godard and the warm-hearted, soaringly lyrical FranÃ§ois Truffaut. But in the late â€™60s, Chabrol emerged as a magisterially accomplished classicist, with an unbroken string of masterpieces that established him as one of the worldâ€™s finest directors. He has managed to remain commercially viableâ€”indeed, awesomely prolificâ€”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 pÃ¨re was a pharmacist, and grand-pÃ¨re 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 CinÃ©mathÃ¨que FranÃ§aise with such fellow cinÃ©astes 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 CinÃ©ma, which regularly denounced the big-studio â€œTradition of Qualityâ€ 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 AgnÃ¨s Goute (and assimilated her surname into one of his Cahiers aliases). She was an heiress, and in 1958â€”after a lamentable turn as a publicist in 20th Centuryâ€“Foxâ€™s Paris officeâ€”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 strategyâ€”countrified GÃ©rard Blain visits sophisticated urban relative Jean-Claude Brialyâ€”in Les Cousins (1959), which won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.