The least chic filmmaker of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol took the unconventional route of making commercial movies. This is not to say Claude was incapable of making personal cinema, too, as at least two dozen films in his darkly disturbing canon are of true art house stock. One can even argue his body of work has better stood the test of time than his Cahiers cohorts, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer and even Godard.
Chabrol, like Jean-Pierre Melville, was deeply influenced by the dynamics of the American cinema but unlike his worthy predecessor the deliciously morbid Claude transcended genre limitations to pursue the sort of tortured and twisted visions running rampant in the work of his true mentors, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. Like those two giants, Chabrol took heat for eschewing “art” by making mysteries and thrillers but, thankfully, Claude refused to blow with the wind of trend.
At the time of his death, Chabrol was still at the height of his powers and in the midst of a two decade-long artistic Renaissance. Although he received long overdue acclaim from film critics in his homeland, Chabrol remains mostly a cult figure to ivory tower academia and film buffs across the pond.
Born in Paris at the beginning of the Depression, Chabrol had a comfortable middle-class upbringing until his family was evacuated to the village of Sardent during the German occupation of France in WWII. As a teenager Claude was drawn to the cinema and he even challenged German authority by screening his favorite American movies for local audiences. After the war Chabrol matriculated at the University of Paris as a pharmaceutical student with a goal of entering into the family business. But, the pull of the movies proved too great, so Chabrol quit school and took a job at the Paris branch of 20th Century Fox’ as a publicist.
During the early 1950s Chabrol and fellow Cahiers du Cinema scribes Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette banded together to champion the exciting new genre directors in the American cinema (Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray), as well as old international masters who had fallen out of favor (Renoir, Mizoguchi, Lang), at the expense of the critically-lauded directors of the day (Clouzot, Kurosawa, Huston).
Cahiers championed the controversial auteur theory and quickly became the journal of choice for serious cineastes put off by the narrow, middle-brow tastes of mainstream French, British and American film critics. With Rohmer, Chabrol went on to write the first serious film study on Hitchcock and he became the first of his peers crew to direct a feature film.
Funded by Chabrol’s first wife, Le Beau Serge is a remarkable debut which owes more to the earnest early works of Italian neo-realists Visconti and Rossellini than anything in the American cinema.
Erstwhile writer Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns to his small home town after twelve years to find his boyhood friend and former scholar Serge (Gerard Blain) has fallen onto hard times. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Serge drinks heavily and treats his pregnant wife Yvonne (Michele Meritz) with abominable cruelly. Francois sets out to save his self-destructive friend, but the do-gooder only ends up coming face to face with his own demons. Francois gives up his artistic pursuits and takes up with Serge’s underage ex-mistress (Bernadette Lafont), alienating his old pal and the small-minded community. But, the film’s true love story is between the two complex men and Chabrol would flip-flop the personas of Brialy and Blain in his next picture.
In the unsettling Les cousins Blain plays Charles, the plodding cousin from the sticks and Brialy is the cosmopolitan Paul, for whom sexual conquests and academic success come at the snap of his fingers. Paul tries to lead his dull cousin astray with women and song, but when the virtuous Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), a local good-time girl, the jealous cousin snatches her away. Paul soon tires of Florence and turns his attentions to Charles. But, when his country cousin snubs him to study for end of term exams, Paul sets out to destroy him.
Jumping ahead a couple years, the unjustly overlooked Les godelureaux (The Wise Guys) puts a bizarre cap on the Jean-Claude Brialy “trilogy”. This time we find Brialy in familiar territory playing the rich and destructive fop Ronald out to revenge himself on Arthur (Charles Belmont), a handsome gad about town who lives with his strict uncle. After being humiliated in public by Arthur, Ronald enlists the voluptuous and perverse Ambroisine (Bernadette Lafont), to seduce and destroy the unwitting student.
Along the way, the unlikely trio takes savage delight in disrupting soirees, art shows, and even ransacking the home of Arthur’s uncle thus freeing the naïve student for a lifetime of Ambroisine’s favors. But as Ronald’s lust for payback runs deep he crushes Arthur’s spirit by diverting the free-spirited young woman to a rich American.
A vaguely similar homosexual subtext also runs through A Double Tour, in which a family patriarch strikes up an unusual bond with his daughter’s ne’er do well boyfriend. Stuck in a loveless marriage, Henri Marcoux (Jacques Dacqmine) strikes up an affair with a beautiful, young neighbor (Antonella Lualdi), but he is afraid his shrewish wife Therese (Madeleine Robinson) will bilk him out of his fortune if he asks for a divorce.
Henri takes the unusual step in asking his daughter’s feckless fiancée Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo) for advice, surely knowing the younger man will approve of such an out of character transgression. The delighted Laszlo decides to help his future father in-law by pushing Therese’s buttons, unaware her protector lay listening in the wings.
Though A Double Tour was Chabrol’s most ambitious effort to date, this dazzling Technicolor exercise (shot by Henri Decae) finally becomes too tangled in its own web-like structure, taking the sting out of the shocking finale.
While the early films of Truffaut and Godard were capturing the fancies of film-going community, Chabrol kept under the radar while making his two most personal films to date. Les bonnes femmes is a subtle and disturbing look at four Parisian shop girls who try to find happiness and self-worth through relationships with their cruel and insensitive men.
Under Chabrol’s unapologetic gaze the young women (Bernadette Lafont, Stephane Audran, Clotilde Joano & Lucille Saint-Simon) are at turns competitive, friendly, catty and sympathetic. Their disappointing boyfriends and dead-end jobs offer little hope for a better future. Curiosity and boredom leads them to make unwise choices, but the thrill of danger and breaking rules compensates for their tedious 9 to 5 existence. Les bonnes femmes paved the way for Chabrol’s newfound interest in the female of the species which would come into full flower in the masterpieces of late 1960s and early 1970s starring his radiant wife Audran.
Stephane Audran played the object of desire in L’oeil du malin (The Third Lover), a Patricia Highsmith-inspired creep-fest follows the plight of Albin Mercier (Jacques Cherrier), a young French journalist living in a small village outside of Munich. Bored by his work, his attention quickly turns to Helene (Audran), a fetching local Frenchwoman married to the pretentious but prosperous writer Andreas Hartmann (Walter Reyer).
The couple lives in a luxurious, walled-off manor but the door is always open to the charming Albin who provides company and comfort to the often-neglected Helene. Albin suspects correctly his new friends are mismatched as lovers but he becomes gravely disappointed when he learns Helene has a lover in the city. In a jealous fit Albin informs Andreas of Helene’s indiscretions but he is surprised to find the husband seems tolerant of his wife’s affair.
In reality, the petty scribe’s snitching has opened a terrible Pandora’s Box. Motivated by the desire to escape the drudgery of work and take his rightful place among the idle rich, the malignant Albin proves to be one of Chabrol’s most despicable and irredeemable characters. Taking advantage of his host’s hospitality, Albin lingers around Hartmann household trying to find ways to impress the aristocratic Helene.
To his horror Helene wants nothing more to do with intellectuals and carries on a torrid public affair with a crude lover. Hartmann surprises the interloper by confronting and killing his deceitful wife. Overcome by guilt, Albin confesses his role in the crime to police but our vain narrator is brushed aside and consigned to being a bit player on the big stage of life.
Ophelia is similarly-themed slap at the bourgeoisie in which a spoiled son sets out to expose his mother and uncle as the murderers of his beloved father. After the funeral of her husband Claudia Lesurf (Alida Valli) marries his rich brother Adrien (Claude Cervel) triggering a negative reaction in son Yvan (Andre Jocelyn).
Taking on a Hamlet-like persona, the deluded young man sets out to poison the couple’s good standing in the community and contacts the mob in the hopes of fixing the situation once and for all. The local girl Lucie (Juliette Mayniel) is his Ophelia who sticks with Yvan even after his paranoia wreaks havoc on his mother’s happiness. This stylish and ambitious bookend to L’oeil du malin never really comes together due in a large part to Jocelyn’s dandified take on the malignant Yvan.
Although the New Wave films were creating a sensation across Europe and in North America, by the early 1960s the box office bloom had worn off in France leaving only Truffaut and Godard enough financial backing to soldier on. In order to survive in this environment, Chabrol accepted commercial assignments and over the next few years he turned out a series of stylish, if uninspired whodunits, action flicks and James Bond spoofs which damaged his reputation with unforgiving French film critics.
The first of these programmers Landru is a glossy, yet darkly funny, take on France’s notorious merry widow murderer who committed his grisly crimes during WWI. Here, Landru (Charles Denner) is portrayed as a conscientious family man who preys on vain, middle-aged women who’ve recently lost their husbands on the battlefields of Europe. Unlike Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, which also drew inspiration from these crimes, the victims here (Danielle Darrieux, Michelle Morgan, Hildegard Neff, etc.) are more charming than grotesque and the gawky Landru turns out to be more of a maddening enigma than the warped, philosophical bank clerk-turned killer of Charlot’s masterpiece.
The two Tiger films starring thuggish Roger Hanin as security agent Louis Rapiere are looked upon as the nadir of Chabrol’s early period, but both of these low-tech rip-offs of the hugely popular Bond series turn out to be serviceable secret agent flicks bolstered by Claude’s droll touch.
Ripe with wily midgets, nude blondes and convoluted plots Le tigre aime la chair fraiche and Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite are indefensible yet amusing products of an era less obsessed with political correctness.
Shot during an interlude between these films, Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha (Blue Panther) is a merry spoof of International spy capers like The Pink Panther and Hitchcock‘s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Pretty Marie Laforet is mostly forgettable in the lead role of a young woman who has her Alps vacation turned upside down when a foreign agent gives her a panther-shaped jewel filled with a toxic virus. She is pursued by Soviet and American spies anxious to keep the virus out of enemy hands. But her most persistent nemesis proves to be the cagey Dr. Kha (Akim Tamiroff) who operates an underworld empire in exotic Morocco. This light programmer is loads of fun for its splashy locales, the none-too-subtle homages to both Hitchcock and Welles, and a terrific cast (Serge Reggiani, Audran, Bunuel favorite Francisco Rabal and Chabrol as a soda jerk!).
Chabrol’s two films starring Jean Seberg, the WWII drama of German occupation La ligne de démarcation (Line of Demarcation) and a quirky espionage thriller La route de Corinthe, were commercial projects.
La ligne de demarcation is a well-crafted, sober film about honor, deceit and adult relationships under the most trying circumstances. The Line separates the Vichy-governed inhabitants of a Franch town from their neighbors who are occupied by a German regiment. Seberg plays Mary the English wife of Pierre, the comte de Damville, (Maurice Ronet) a wounded French officer who returns to his home on the occupied German side. Along with their friends Dr. Jacques Lafaye (Daniel Gélin) and his wife (Stéphane Audran), Mary and Pierre try to help a pair of escaped British airmen-spies sneak across the town line where they plan to board a safe train to Gibraltar.
While the locals carry on civil relations with the German officers, they are hounded by the presence of Gestapo cops who correctly suspect the spies are being sequestered in the village. Rather than comply with the Nazis, the conspirators help the men to escape then meet their doom with heads held high.
La route de Corinth (Who’s Got the Black Box?) was yet another attempt at an International spy thriller and the presence of the lovely Seberg chasing the killers of her NATO security agent husband across rugged Greek landscape makes this improbable caper worth a look. Saddled with another convoluted plot, Chabrol gave plenty of rope to his zesty villain (Saro Urzi) and shady characters (Michel Bouquet & Chabrol) to chew-up scenery and dislodge whatever was left of the narrative thread.
Although it was filmed before Corinth, Le scandale (English language version The Champagne Murders) comes close to fulfilling the promise of Chabrol’s early work. This was a stylish and most welcome return to a more murderous milieu, giving rise to the hope Claude had finally got back on track.
Anthony Perkins is Christopher, an opportunistic playboy who has lucked into marrying Christine (Yvonne Furneaux), the beautiful but scheming old money owner of a champagne company. Christine would like to sell the works to a group of Americans but she is blocked by Christopher’s friend Paul (Maurice Ronet) who owns the company’s trademark. When dealing with the dodgy and decadent Paul proves impossible, Christopher and Christine decide to frame him for murders he did not commit.
Packed with plenty of Hitchcockian flourishes, morbid psycho-baggage and a zesty performance by Stephane Audran in a dual role the sinister Le scandale turned out to be an intriguing predecessor of the dark masterpieces to come.
Even with his career stuck in neutral, Chabrol kept both his faith and production team together. So, when producer Andre Genoves finally offered him the opportunity to make a film to his liking, Chabrol began production on Les biches, his most personal work since L’oeil du malin.
While walking aimlessly around Paris the jaded and beautiful Frederique (Stephan Audran) picks-up Why (Jacqueline Sassard), a free-spirited street artist. After sleeping together, the lovers settle into Frederique’s South of France home which is already occupied by a bizarre gay couple.
At a party, local architect Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) seduces the impressionable Why and takes her virginity. He quickly tires of the unworldly girl and moves onto the more sophisticated Frederique. When the new couple announces their engagement the increasingly disturbed Why takes on Frederique’s persona in a desperate attempt to win back their love.
Harking back to the bi-sexual themes and sophisticated style of his first four films Les biches finds Chabrol in a playfully sinister mood. Long-time Chabrol cinematographer Jean Rabier and editor Jacques Gaillard create a seamless tapestry, heightening the mysterious, unresolved status within the complex lovers’ triangle. Still, the open-ended ambiguity of Les biches clouds Why’s murderous motivation leaving her as a pretty, but placid, enigma.
For his next film, La femme infidèle, Chabrol would choose a quieter setting to create a masterpiece of chilling perfection. Here, Audran is Helene, the impeccably beautiful mother of a ten year old boy and trophy wife to the middle-aged Charles (Michel Bouquet). The little family seems to lead an idyllic life in a posh Versailles neighborhood, but there is trouble on the horizon.
Charles suspects Helene of having an affair and when he hires a private detective to look into the case, his worst fears are confirmed. Tormented by jealousy, Charles shows up on his rival’s doorstep to pick the brain of the dashing Victor (Maurice Ronet), a feckless Parisian writer. Relieved to find Charles is tolerant of Helene’s dalliances, Victor lets his guard down and the cuckolded husband clubs him to death.
The mild-mannered insurance executive covers up the crime and disposes of the body in a scummy pond. After finding Helene’s address in Victor’s little black book the police make a house visit to question the adulteress. Hoping to avoid scandal, she admits nothing but when the cops make a return visit to question the couple, the stunning truth dawns on Helene. With such blatant sin and crushing guilt hovering over their heads, the couple bonds in their dark secret.
Borrowing liberally from both Hitchcock and Lang, Chabrol expertly interweaves subjective and objective points of view, drawing the aloof Helene into her husband’s private hell.
Based on a crime novel by Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day-Lewis), This Man Must Die begins as a tale of revenge before evolving into another perverse love story thick with trepidation and guilt. A young boy is run down in a village street by a hit and run driver. His grieving father, the writer Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy), vows revenge and plots his moves in a diary.
After his initial investigations bear little fruit, Charles finally learns the identity of the passenger in the car, Parisian actress Helene Lawson (Caroline Cellier), and arranges to meet with her. Using an alias, Charles strikes up a strange romance with free-spirited Helene and in time she invites him out to the country to meet her family.
Charles correctly suspects Helene’s brother in-law Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne) to be the reckless driver and the man’s monstrous abuse of his family only fuels Charles’ hatred towards his son’s killer. After reading Charles’ diary Paul turns the tables with a clever trick of legalese meant to protect the scoundrel against his deadly rival. In a twist of fate, evil Paul is poisoned by his resentful son. Overwhelmed by his treachery towards Helene, Charles confesses to the crime he wanted to commit and rides off on a sailboat into oblivion.
Following the sublime example of La femme infidele, Chabrol’s mesmerizing film wallowed in the quiet desperation of three protagonists who can’t heal the deep wounds in their hearts. Now, approaching forty it was becoming apparent Chabrol and the suddenly prolific Rohmer were overtaking Godard and Truffaut as the torchbearers for the New Wave.
During the years of his first Renaissance Chabrol found a creative comfort zone in the small provincial towns and sleepy suburbs outside of Paris. His next project Le boucher, set in another picture-postcard town of old Europe, would be his most disturbing film, yet.
Helene (Stephane Audran) is a young elementary school principal who has retreated to a rustic village after a devastating love affair. Content with her solitary life she strikes up a curious friendship with the local butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne). Though haunted by his military experiences, Popaul remains a popular figure around town. The attractive Helene seems out of his league but he wins the comely teacher over by offering to fix things in her apartment and presenting her with choice sides of beef.
Just as Helene is feeling comfortable with Popaul, she stumbles upon a bloody corpse in the countryside. The murdered girl is the latest victim in a series of unsolved killings that have plagued the region in the past several months. It becomes evident to Helene that Popaul is the killer, but she is reluctant to give her strange beau up to the police. Realizing the gig is up, Popaul commits hari-kari to free Helene, but his gesture only cements a bond between the pair which will transcend what little time they have left together.
It was evident—even to persnickety French critics—Chabrol had hit his stride as a filmmaker and he certainly had no peers in bringing the “Roman Noir” to the screen. In these films, Chabrol plumbs new depths of intimacy between his disturbed, murderous protagonists and their loyal “Helenes”, typically played by the regal Stephane Audran. Despicable acts and subsequent confessions lure Helene into a web of self-loathing but instead of turning her loved ones over to the police, she offers them comfort and silent complicity.
Initially, Helene seems a very different woman in Chabrol’s next film La rupture, a murky and quirky drama about family deceit. After her mentally disturbed husband Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot) throws a violent fit, Helene Regnier (Audran) moves out of their house and files for divorce. When her rich and ruthless father in-law Ludovic (Michel Bouquet) finds Helene wants custody of his only grandson, he hires a sleazy investigator (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to destroy her reputation.
The P.I. finds Helene has been supporting Charles in a series of demeaning jobs over the years while he toiled unsuccessfully as a writer. The charming Cassel and the supporting cast of kooks and creeps who inhabit Helene’s boarding house end up turning La Rupture into a surprisingly giddy black comedy.
The final important film during this period of excellence found Michel Bouquet returning to play another troubled husband who trusts his wife Helene (Audran) with a deadly secret in the unjustly overlooked Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall).
Here, Bouquet is Charles Masson, a mild-mannered advertising executive who has entered into a kinky affair with his neighbor’s wife Luara (Anna Douking). After Charles accidentally asphyxiates Laura during a sex act he leaves the scene of the crime, runs into her husband Francois (Francois Perrier) at a bar then accepts a ride home from this long-time friend.
When Francois learns of his wife’s grisly fate he confesses to Charles about his less than perfect marriage and admits both he and Laura had lovers on the side. This admission is no balm to the conscience-stricken Charles who has gotten away with the crime but still longs to be punished. Lacking the courage to turn himself into the police he admits his crimes to Helene then Francois.
Neither his wife nor his friend sees the point in turning Charles in prompting the desperate man to write a confession to the police. Sensing her husband longs to be put out of his misery, Helene administers an overdose of sleeping formula to Charles sending his dark secret to the grave with him.
While this subtle, mesmerizing film is not a cinematic tour de force, it was a personal work for Chabrol who, like Hitchcock, couldn’t help but bring his Catholic baggage to the set.
Chabrol broadened his touch in a series of perverse and peculiar entertainments in the early 1970s. Ten Days’ Wonder finds Charles Van Horn (Anthony Perkins) being manipulated in a sinister fashion by his adopted father-mentor Theo (Orson Welles) in a sordid family story of incest and murder. Charles enlists his former professor Paul (Michel Piccoli) to help him sort out his weird dilemma and the psychologist inevitably discovers the family‘s dirty little secret.
Taken with a huge grain of salt Ten Days’ Wonder can be great fun, thanks in a large part to the hammy performance by Welles, but it is discomforting to watch such a fine performer as Piccoli stumbling with the English language and the clash of acting styles helps turn the finale’s shocking revelations into borderline camp.
With Docteur Popaul (aka High Heels) Chabrol creates another one of his memorable male monsters in Dr. Paul Simay (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a misogynist who beds ugly women as a means to win bets with his friends. While on a trip to Tunisia Paul seduces the buck-toothed Christine (Mia Farrow). He breaks up with the clueless woman but they reconnect in Bordeaux where her father happens to be the head of a local hospital.
The opportunistic Paul marries the homely spinster and gains favor with both his father in-law and Christine’s knock-out sister, Martine (Laura Antonelli). The libertine in Paul can’t resist Martine’s ample charms, so he eliminates her unworthy beaus and knocks her up, all the time unaware Christine is plotting to put her dirt bag hubby firmly in his place.
Over the top and mostly indefensible, Chabrol’s black comedy is a guilty pleasure. Paul Simay resembles Chabrol’s quintessential ogre Paul DeCourt (This Man Must Die), but the outsider played by Jean Yanne possesses none of the charm of Belmondo who delights equally in seducing old Tunisian hags and offing Martine’s ridiculous boyfriends. Paul’s indiscretions lend him an air of nobility before his inevitable comeuppance.
A tale of infidelity and murder, Wedding in Blood had the potential to be a return to form for Chabrol. Lucianne Delamare (Stephane Audran) is married to Paul (Claude Pieplu), the greedy and conservative mayor of a small town.
Bored with her dull husband she enters into a passionate affair with Paul’s Deputy Mayor, Pierre Maury (Michel Piccoli) who is locked into a loveless marriage with a sickly and apathetic wife. Frustrated at his lot, Pierre poisons his wife and lets the town police and gossips believe it is a suicide. Paul catches Lucianne coming back from a tryst at Pierre’s and decides to put the pair in their place by blackmailing Pierre in a business deal that will make him rich.
Lucianne is appalled by Paul’s Machiavellian tactics and his seeming indifference over her infidelity, so she conspires with Pierre to kill him. Although the police suspect Lucianne, the death is ruled accidental by Paris politicos who want the case closed. Unfortunately, a well-intentioned letter sent to the police by Lucianne’s daughter Helene (Eliana De Santis) identifies the pair as lovers and leads to their arrest.
With little pause for guilt or reflection Pierre and Lucianne turn out to be a surprisingly dull pair of lovers. As the uncaring monster Paul, Claude Pieplu pumps some much needed malice into the film before meeting his doom on a foggy highway. Lucianne and her illegitimate daughter Helene form an unspoken bond in dealing with the unspeakable Paul and the small-minded suspicions of the town.
Unlike his partners in the New Wave Chabrol managed to keep politics out of his art until the aptly-titled Nada presented itself. In this relentlessly cynical film, a group of a multi-national group of radicals and terrorists join forces to kidnap the U.S. Ambassador for ideological purposes. The inevitable clash of personalities within the group leads to political friction and self-righteous anger. Surrounded by the police at their rural hideout NADA and the Ambassador are mowed down in a ruthless shootout.
Though Nada is nihilistic to the point of being unwatchable, Chabrol, unlike Godard, was willing to criticize the lunatic fringe of radicalism while remaining true to his leftist beliefs. Nada ends with a strangely upbeat coda in which the uncompromising Diaz (Fabio Testi) manages to escape from the bloody compound to live for another, hopefully better, day.
The deceptively titled Une partie de plaisir (Pleasure Party) is the ultimate Chabrol male monster film. Paul Gegauff plays Philippe, a middle-aged bon vivant who terrorizes his younger wife Esther (played by real life wife Daniele Gegauff) into adopting his Dionysian philosophy.
Early on, Philippe admits he’s been carrying on with other women on the side and encourages Esther to take a lover for herself. She enters into an affair with Habib (Giancarlo Sisti), a young Arab whose free and easy take on life offends Philippe. Inspired by her new-found independence Esther convinces Philippe to move from their country estate and take a flat in Paris where she will be closer to Habib and her friends.
Sensing he is losing influence over Esther Paul sets out to make her life miserable by breaking her spirit. Ultimately, they divorce and Paul marries Sylvia (Paula Moore) a young woman more in tune with his perverse ways but over time he finds he still desires Esther and begs for her to return to him. When she rejects Philippe once and for all, he kills her in a vicious fury. Philippe seems to find peace in prison even if it means an indefinite separation from his beloved young daughter Elise (Clemence Gegauff).
Perhaps Chabrol’s closest collaborator Gegauff had already worked on over a dozen of the director’s films as a scenarist or writer of dialogue. A right-wing firebrand who had helped shape the early critical thinking of Cahiers scribes Rohmer, Truffaut and, especially, Chabrol. Gegauff is long thought to have been the inspiration for any numbers of dandies, fops and creeps who take great pleasure in steering Chabrol’s protagonists from the straight and narrow but the character of Philippe takes sociopathic behavior to the extreme. Gegauff is repulsive as the film’s “host” and his relentless belittling of his meek wife is so demeaning it makes the film difficult to watch.
Taken in the context of their artistic collaboration one feels there is a poetic license and great closure taking place when Chabrol and Gegauff finally put their monster behind bars for good. Gegauff would be murdered on Christmas Eve 1982 by a new wife who could no longer put up with such a complex and impossible beast.
Rod Steiger playing an older husband to Romy Schneider looked on paper to be yet another example of a Chabrol monster preying on a vulnerable woman, but in Les innocents aux mains sales (Innocents with Dirty Hands) the bombastic method actor is rendered impotent and unable to make love to his hot-to-trot wife.
After having relocated to St. Tropez for his health Louis Wormser (Steiger) and wife Julie (Schneider) strike up a curious friendship with their dashing young neighbor Jeff (Paolo Giusti). Julie takes a fancy to the aspiring writer and takes him to bed. Weary of the miserable Louis, Julie enlists Jeff to help murder her alcoholic husband and make it look like an accident. The plan seems to go off without a hitch until Julie learns Louis’ body is missing and Jeff has taken a powder to Italy. Left alone, she falls under police suspicion until Louis shows up at the chateau, very much alive and aiming to take carnal revenge.
Based on a novel by American noir writer Richard Neely, Les innocents aux mains sales turned out to be the least flawed and most seamless Chabrol thriller since Juste avant la nuit. Even in the sunshine of the South of France, Chabrol warns his audience to take nothing at face value. The smoldering Steiger turns passive and there lies something sinister behind Schneider’s glacial beauty and inexpressive acting style. Just when it looks like Julie will be cleared of her crimes Chabrol tosses in another Hitchcockian twist, plunging her sordid story into the abyss.
Chabrol’s films from late 1970s to the mid-1980s are wildly uneven in quality. Between some overlooked gems sits the inexplicable clunker born out of what one can only assume was sloppiness, misplaced ambition, or ennui. During this prolific period Chabrol took directing jobs in North America and began to work on French television, but it was becoming apparent he was stretching himself thin. Still, even as his most loyal critics came to question his choices several of these films find Chabrol not willing to rest on his laurels and open to exploring new vistas.
Set in a holiday resort in Tunisia Death Rite is a minor, yet darkly funny film about a bombastic clairvoyant Vestar (Gert Frobe) who envisions his own murder and the amoral playboy Edouard (Jean Rochefort) who sets the wheels in motion. Edouard introduces a vacationing architect Sadry (Franco Nero) to the mad magician and after an inevitable clash of ideologies the man of science finds his fortunes spiraling downward leading to the grisly finale.
Alice ou la dernière fugue (Alice or the Last Escapade) opens promisingly with dissatisfied Alice Carol (Sylvia Kristel) deciding to leave her handsome husband on a whim. She drives into the rainy night before crashing her car outside an old mansion inhabited by a crew of ghostly personages. When her efforts to escape from the labyrinthine grounds are thwarted Alice comes to the realization she is dead and stuck in a weird sort of purgatory. The nod to Lewis Carrroll notwithstanding, this exotic attempt at speculative storytelling doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
Based on an Ed McBain novel, the Canadian production of Blood Relatives found Chabrol on more familiar ground in a police procedural about incest and murder set on the seedier streets of Montreal. Steve Carella (Donald Sutherland) is assigned to investigate the savage killing a young woman, Muriel Stark (Lisa Langlois), whose fifteen-year old cousin Patricia Lowery (Aude Landry) was the only witness to the murder. Patricia’s murky testimony helps the police to crack down on local perverts but when Steve notices inconsistencies in her memory of the crime, he studies Muriel’s revealing diary to crack the case.
The film’s first half, which finds Carella busting a creepy pedophile (Donald Pleasance) while consoling both his pubescent daughter and the shattered Patricia, is riveting stuff but that early momentum (and Chabrol’s interest) grinds to a halt during the forbidden romance between Muriel and her cousin Andrew (Laurent Malet). Despite an eerie cameo by David Hemmings as a potential middle-aged suitor to Muriel, Blood Relatives is led astray by awkward performances from the inexperienced trio of teen actors.
Leaping ahead a couple years, Chabrol returned to a rural setting to make The Horse of Pride, a bitter yet rather lovely take on a poor Brittany family around the time of WWI. Seen mostly through the eyes of a peasant Breton boy, Pierre is privy to the partisan politics and peculiar prejudices that run amok in his little community. His even-headed parents (Bernadette Le Sache & Francois Cluzet) are rocks of stability in world ruled by superstition and the rumors of war. The Horse of Pride finds Chabrol in a wistful, humorous mood and it may well be his most successful attempt at bridging politics with art. It is the rare film that strikes no false chords.
Hoping to tap into the market which made The Conformist, The Godfather films and The Sting International box office successes American and European producers flooded theatres with stylish crime sagas during the fashionable era of bootleggers and molls. Chabrol had already made a foray into historical crime with Landru, a wry but decidedly un-sexy character study. Still, the thought of tapping into the sordid past must have appealed to Chabrol as evidenced by quantity of ambitious historical films he would shoot within a decade.
Based on a notorious 1933 murder case Violette follows the plight of Violette Noziere (Isabelle Huppert), a slutty teenage girl who has little use for her parents’ small-minded aspirations to become part of the bourgeoisie. Violette leads a double life as a student and prostitute until a doctor informs her parents she has contracted syphilis. After bamboozling her folks into believing the disease is genetic, Violette takes up with a lowlife boyfriend who milks her for all her earnings.
Hoping to win him over once and for all Violette decides to kill her father (Jean Carmet) to gain a small inheritance. The sloppy murder raises the suspicions of the police and Violette soon admits her guilt. She hopes to elicit the sympathy of the public by claiming she was molested by her father as a child. But, Violette is little aware of the rival she has in mother Germaine Noiziere (Stephane Audran), who gives state’s evidence at her murder trial.
Filmed with Langian objectivity, Violette tackles such taboo topics as incest, venereal disease and patricide in a detached manner as befit Huppert, the hard-to-peg muse of Chabrol’s final period.
It’s no surprise Chabrol was intrigued by the diabolical character of Fantomas, the fictional villain of nearly three dozen crime novels written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Having a ball with this most amoral of protagonists, Chabrol ended up shooting two first rate feature-length films (L’echafaud magique & Le tramway fantome) in a four part series for French television in 1980. Changing the narrative’s time and place to the decadent Roaring Twenties made the mise-en-scene stylishly horrific and gave its villain more opportunity to carry out his diabolical plans without much chance of being detected.
Although Helmut Berger as Fantomas would get star billing in the production, Jacques Dufilho has the juicier role as police Inspector Juve, the resourceful but frustrated cop who is always one step behind his elusive arch-nemeses. As gruesome and heartless as Fantomas may seem the legendary criminal is too suave and sophisticated to have much resemblance to Chabrol’s self-loathing monsters. Juve tries valiantly to keep up with this master of disguise whose most brilliant coup takes place when he arranges for an actor to take his place on the scaffold in L’echafaud magique.
Here, the drugged thespian waits in a holding cell as the executioners arrive to put together a portable guillotine in the presence of curious locals and Juve. While the real Fantomas lounges in the arms of his mistress, the drowsy actor is beheaded. Suspecting something awry, Juve rushes the scaffold where he wipes greasepaint from the dead actor’s face and proclaims they have executed the wrong man. While the Fantomas films can’t be counted among Chabrol’s most personal work they remain an accessible entry point for the uninitiated.
Les fantomes du chapelier (The Hatter’s Ghost) puts the cap on this loose trilogy of historical murder and mayhem, albeit in a more subtle manner. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon the story centers around the peculiar relationship between a village shop owner Leon Labbe (Michel Serrault) and Kachoudas (Charles Aznavour), an Armenian tailor who correctly suspects the hatter is responsible for a series of unsolved murders. Labbe has been methodically tracking down and murdering friends who could implicate him in the accidental killing of his wife.
Labbe’s crimes have driven him insane as evidenced by the mannequin he keeps in his apartment to play the role of his invalid wife. Rather than turn this pillar of the community into the police, the sensitive Kachoudas shadows Labbe around the streets of town to put a halt to the madness but the Armenian tailor’s efforts only exacerbates his own death.
Awash in Catholic guilt and denial Les fantomes du chapelier turned out to be Chabrol’s best film since the similarly-themed Juste avant le nuit. Aznavour shines as the sympathetic, working-class immigrant who forms an unspoken bond with a well-respected man soon to be outcast to the scrapheap of infamy. The film also marked the first feature film score written by Matthieu Chabrol, a versatile composer whose pointillist pieces provided colorful counterpoint to his father’s moody, provincial noirs.
While much of the French film industry enjoyed an artistic Renaissance during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chabrol was struggling to find solid ground. The popularity of his meditative noirs had been usurped by a recent flux of cop flicks starring such charismatic stars as Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin and Jean Trintignant. Fortunately for Chabrol this trend played itself out and his own unique brand of provincial thriller suddenly came back into vogue.
Chabrol’s two films featuring the provincial Inspecteur Lavardin were championed by critics as a return to form for the director but, in hindsight, it makes more sense to peg them as minor, enjoyable entertainments.
Poulet au Vinaigre (Chicken with Vinegar) is the bizarre story of young mailman Louis Cuno (Lucas Belvaux) and his delusional, paraplegic mother (Stephane Audran), who scheme to keep their house from falling into the clutches of three greedy businessmen. When one of the men die in a suspicious traffic accident and another’s wife also dies in a car crash inspector Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) is called in to get to the heart of the manner in his own ruthless way. While the feeble-minded Cunos makes for a dull protagonist, the quirky and sinister town fathers offer a glorious glimpse into the rotten underbelly of civilized perversity.
The dour Poiret would return in Inspector Lavardin to investigate the murder of a respected author. When the dead body of Raoul Mons is found defaced on the rocks of a seaside town, Lavardin surmises any number of people might have killed this universally disliked man who was leading a double life. Lavardin’s investigation focuses on two men, Mons’ gay brother in-law Claude Alvarez (Jean-Claude Briarly) and a sleazy nightclub owner Max Charnet (Jean-Luc Bideau). Lavardin briefly mistakes Claude’s laissez-faire attitude for a guilt complex but sickened by the amoral Charnet’s ability to throw his weight around town, the detective zeroes in on his suspect only to be surprised in the end.
Here, as in much of his best work, Chabrol relishes in exposing the dirty secrets of a smug provincial town. The cold and efficient Lavardin isn’t remotely sympathetic, but his dogged quest for the truth seems to help heal a jaded community sullied by loose morals and fast-living. Poiret would reprise the fastidious detective in Les dossiers secrets de l’inspecteur Lavardin, a pair of provincial whodunits Chabrol made for French television in 1988-89.
Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, the riveting The Cry of the Owl finds the narrow-minded inhabitants of a Vichy town set to tar and feather a shy, big city stranger suspected of murder. While cooking supper one evening, Juliette (Mathilde May), suspects a prowler is lurking outside. Later that night the fetching young woman goes out into her yard and confronts Robert (Christophe Malavoy), a handsome commercial artist who has just moved to town. Robert admits he has been watching Juliette with no malicious intent; her quiet confidence gives him peace.
Juliette is touched by the unhappy man who has just broken up with his vindictive artist wife, Veronique (Virginie Thevenet). But the impressionable Juliette has read too much into Robert’s benign interest and she dumps her hot-tempered fiance Patrick (Jacques Thenot). The spurned lover then picks a fight with Robert and gets his clock cleaned. Patrick suddenly disappears without a trace, leading the community to suspect foul play and murder.
All the while Patrick has been in Paris, plotting with Veronique to get back at Robert, but their plans are sidetracked by the surprising news of Juliette’s suicide. We learn Juliette believed Robert killed Patrick and, in turn, this stranger has become her angel of death. When an unknown assailant begins to take pot shots at Robert neither the police nor the natives believe his wild claim that Patrick has returned to get his revenge.
After the quirkiness of the Lavardin films it was refreshing to find Chabrol treading deeper and darker waters in The Cry of the Owl where he has the chutzpah to kill off his innocent heroine, further implicating the Wrong Man. Seventeen years removed from the gothic horrors of Le Boucher we find ourselves in a very different France. Modern times have homogenized the Provinces and the natives now live isolated from one another in bland neighborhoods and cookie-cutter homes. Lured by the comfort of Juliette’s beauty and her ivy-covered home, Robert makes the mistake of stepping into a fantasy bound with fatal repercussions.
Masques, the final film of Chabrol’s provincial quartet, is a slighter work that benefits greatly from a delightful, over the top performance from Philippe Noiret as a popular game show host with a decided dark side. Looking to enhance his legend, Christian Legagneur (Noiret) accepts a ghost writer’s offer to transcribe his pompous dictation into a fawning biography for his adoring fans. Christian is unaware Wolf (Robin Renucci) is the brother of the missing young woman who was looking after his mentally-ill god daughter, Catherine (Anne Brochet). Well aware Christian is trying to shake Catherine down for her substantial inheritance, Wolf fears the celebrity has run amok so he tries to evacuate the young woman before she meets a grisly fate.
As the game show host torn between sincerity and cynicism, Christian is the most interesting and charismatic male monster in a Chabrol film since Rod Steiger (Les innocents aux mains sales). Given Christian’s peculiar compassion for his geriatric TV contestants it’s difficult to root against him when he locks horns with the vindictive and aptly-named Wolf. It was clear Chabrol was rejuvenated, but it would take a searing re-connection with one of his favorite muses to finally make him a true darling of the critics.
Before we move on to the rewarding works of Chabrol’s Renaissance it is necessary to stop and briefly gawk at the flies in the ointment; the International films from this period.
Based on a novel by Simone de Beauvoir and set at the outbreak of WWII The Blood of Others is the story of Helene (Jodie Foster) a young Parisian fashion designer who falls in love with the Jean (Michael Ontkean), a fighter for the Resistance. When she learns Jean has been captured by the Germans she enters into an affair with Nazi bureaucrat Bergmann (Sam Neill) in the hopes he will be able to pull the necessary strings to win her lover’s release. The Blood of Others is probably Chabrol’s most perfunctory film, largely due to the uninspired casting of the bland Ontkean as the ideologue and the unappealing Foster as the passionate (?!) mistress who captured the hearts of two strong men.
A resurgent interest in the writings of Henry Miller helped spawn two films made in 1990 about the American author’s seminal years in Paris, Henry and June by Philip Kaufman and Chabrol’s Jours tranquilles a Clichy (Quiet Days In Clichy). Where the Kaufman film is a downbeat slog about Miller’s dangerous liaison between the American author, his wife June and his French muse Anais Nin, Clichy turned out to be a lusty, if uneven, reminiscence of the author’s sexcapades in Paris’ dens of vice.
At the heart of this film is another menage-a-trois, this time between Miller’s alter ego “Joey” (Andrew McCarthy), his pal and sentimental educator Karl (Nigel Havers) and their underage mistress Colette Ducarouge (Stephanie Cotta). In the lead role McCarthy is a pleasant departure from Fred Ward’s posturing take on Miller in Henry & June, but it’s hard to determine just what the sophisticated Joey could see in a perky teenage moppet.
Chabrol’s updating of Fritz Lang’s Mabuse legend Dr. M had plenty of promise but it, too, became sidetracked by some curious casting and the director’s inability to create a Utopian world gone mad. Shot in and around Berlin around the time the wall was falling, the film opens with a bang with several of the city’s inhabitants committing suicide in sync. These shocking, unexplained deaths cause Berliners to flock in droves to a Mediterranean resort where police investigator Claus Hartman (Jan Niklas) learns they are being reprogrammed by followers of Dr. Marsfeldt (Alan Bates). Hartman enlists the resort’s pitchwoman Sonja Vogler (Jennifer Beals) to help get the goods on Marsfeldt but the evil doctor pressures his frightened employee to keep her lips zipped.
In Dr. M the clash of screen personalities and acting styles leads one to believe Chabrol didn’t really know his players and what any of them could bring to the table. Given the film’s flimsy sets and the half-assed execution of the resort sequences it’s probably safe to surmise Science Fiction just wasn’t Claude’s bag.
Based on the true story of Marie-Louise Girard, an abortionist guillotined by the Vichy government in 1943, Story of Women thrust Chabrol back into the limelight in a large part due to the performance by Isabelle Huppert as the chilling heroine.
Weary of her sickly husband Paul (Francois Cluzet) and his inability to keep a job, Marie (Huppert) begins an underground career as an abortionist and Madame to her prostitute friends to generate some much needed cash to support her two children. As the new breadwinner of the family, Marie refuses to sleep with Paul and begins an affair with her own object of desire, Lucien (Nils Tavernier), a dashing young collaborator. Paul’s wife’s newfound independence and contempt for him sparks a hateful letter to authorities exposing Marie’s amoral crimes.
Marie is arrested and taken to Paris where she faces a state tribunal. While her lawyer rightly suspects the intolerant judges will try to make an example of Marie, she believes she will only get a slap on the wrist sentence then get out of jail to resume her singing career. After receiving the death penalty, a bitter Marie rejects God before being led to the scaffold.
Huppert turned out to be marvelous as the hardened yet delusional small-town woman ground into dust by political machinery. While Marie’s neglectful treatment of her “ugly duckling” son Pierrot could paint her as the director’s first female monster, the compelling subtext reveals Marie’s emotional need for the company of other women in ways Chabrol only superficially explored in Les Biches.
Huppert was an intriguing choice to play Emma in Madame Bovary, a surprisingly flat take on Flaubert’s groundbreaking work of realist and feminist literature. Rather than bring out the fire in the frustrated wife of a mediocre provincial doctor, Chabrol and Huppert chose to internalize Emma’s real and imagined sufferings, a bow to the psychological intentions of the novel which, sad to say, doesn’t always make for great cinema.
Indeed, the halting think-speak employed by Emma and lover Rudolph and the craggy narration of Francois Perier are awkward crutches to move the narrative along. These ill-advised storytelling choices and Emma’s prolonged decline induce her to wander around the streets of Tonville and Rouen looking like a dazed peacock.
Chabrol’s next story of women, Betty fared much better. Based on another roman noir by Georges Simenon, Betty (Marie Trintignant) is a mysterious young wife who takes advantage of a benefactor’s kindness to steal the older woman’s lover. The quiet, disheveled Betty shows up one night at a popular Versailles watering hole drunk on the arm of a local junkie. Fearing for her safety the club’s owner, Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud), takes Betty aside and places her in the care of his girlfriend Laure (Stephane Audran).
As the sympathetic Laure nurses Betty back to health the young woman opens up and spins a bizarre autobiography of a trophy wife trapped in a conservative family. In her quiet but destructive way Betty revenges herself upon a neglectful husband and patronizing in-laws by getting caught with her lover on a cherished piece of furniture. As part of a divorce agreement the family bars Betty from seeing her two children, thus beginning her tailspin into drink and debauchery.
Betty’s draining friendship with Laure zaps the sense of purpose out of the older woman who soon drifts away from Mario, back to a lonely existence in Lyons. Meanwhile, Betty has undergone an empowering transformation and assumes her mentor’s place as the mistress of “The Hole”.
Somewhat out of step with the director’s newfound feminism, L’Enfer (Hell) offered the most harrowing take on the Chabrol male monster since Paul Gegauff’s control freak in Une partie de plaisir. Set at a seemingly benign lakeside resort, this rather excruciating film chronicles the downward spiraling marriage of Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) and Paul Prieur (Francois Cluzet). Pressured by trying to keep a small business afloat, melancholic hotel owner Paul finds little comfort from his free-spirited wife who seems more interested in their infant son than him.
Paul’s unhappiness descends into full-fledged paranoia when Nelly strikes up a friendship with a local playboy and sneaks away to water ski with him on her break from work. Paul confronts his sexy wife with accusations of infidelity but Nelly maintains her innocence, prompting the disturbed entrepreneur to become psychotically violent.
A veteran of three Chabrol films, Prieur is quite convincing as a jealous husband who walks an ever so fine line between lucidity and madness. While Chabrol offers some fascinating insight on malignant, dysfunctional relationships, the self-pitying, male subjectivity which casts its gloom over L’enfer seems of a less enlightened time and place.
Plunging deep into the feminine heart of darkness, the masterpiece La Cérémonie is a devastating parable of the French social classes. Desperate to hire a new housemaid art gallery owner Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) offers the job to out of work Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) without a trial period. Catherine’s husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is initially suspicious of the sullen young woman, but when Sophie proves to be an excellent cook and efficient housekeeper, he tacitly accepts her existence.
Meanwhile, Sophie spends most of her evenings in her room living in fear the family will discover her dark secret. She strikes up a strange friendship with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a nutty postal clerk who is openly hostile to the town’s bourgeoisie and especially Georges Lelievre. When Georges suspects Jeanne of reading his mail he confronts her at work and humiliates her in front of several customers. On the home front the impatient Georges rips into Sophie for not delivering an important business document to a messenger from the office.
When Georges’ daughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) discovers Sophie is dyslexic, the rattled housemaid threatens to inform the Lelievres of Melinda’s pregnancy. Undaunted, Melinda spills the beans to her parents and Georges fires Sophie, but the upstanding citizen lets her stay on at the house another week. That evening Sophie invites Jeanne over to watch TV but when the postal clerk finds the Lelievres have dismissed her friend, she begins to ransack the house leading to a bloody revenge.
Based on Ruth Rendell’s unsparing psychological crime novel A Judgement in Stone, La Ceremonie took Chabrol’s recent fascination with female bonding to the extreme. Sophie and Jeanne are dormant sociopaths with serious axes to grind and the real and imagined slights perpetrated by the smug Lelievres are the kindling to set the women off on an evening of terror.
The chilly, stylized film is a demented portrait of a people increasingly isolated by social class. Unlike the bourgeois in Le Boucher, the well-to-do in La Ceremonie don’t intermingle with shop owners or delivery boys. Their hired help enters through the back door and lives in the attic; out of sight and out of mind.
The Swindle, a tale of two grifters who get in over their heads, recalls Chabrol’s caper flicks of the 1960s. Here, Huppert plays Betty an attractive redhead who teams with the seasoned Victor (Michel Serrault) in shaking down unsuspecting Johns looking for action at conventions across Europe. While Victor’s methods assure a tidy profit, the ambitious Betty is on the lookout for more cash. But, when she hooks up with her klutzy boyfriend Maurice (Francois Cluzet) to rip-off the mob, it’s up to Victor to save his friend from a grisly death then make-off with the fortune. Armed with a big budget and charismatic stars Chabrol delivered a film that’s often fun to watch but gets too caught up in cuteness, rendering the pair’s final confrontation with an angry Mafia boss moot.
Chabrol managed to avoid the laziness and senility that compromised so many major filmmakers in their twilight years. If anything, dour, old Claude was truly hitting his stride. After taking a detour in high concept filmmaking with The Swindle, Chabrol was back on more familiar terrain with the aptly named Au Coeur de Mensonge (Color of Lies), a tale of many deceptions.
When a little girl is raped and murdered outside of her seaside village, everyone in town presumes her reclusive art tutor Rene Sterne (Jacques Gamblin) did the foul deed. The town’s young chief Inspector Lesage (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) also suspects Rene and her line of accusatory questioning makes life uncomfortable for the neurotic artist and his loyal wife Vivian (Sandrine Bonnaire).
Weary of Rene’s moodiness and self-loathing, Vivian strikes up a flirtation with the dashing Desmot (Antonie de Caunes), a pompous Parisian journalist who vacations nearby. While Desmot’s national popularity has made him into a local hero, he shamefully neglects a young daughter and thinks nothing of buying stolen art from a small-time hood Marchal (Pierre Martot).
Rene suspects his wife is attracted to the posturing philosopher, so he gets Desmot drunk at a dinner party with every intention of bumping him off. But, when Desmot is found dead of a heart attack the next day and new clues are found to identify the real child killer, Rene finally looks to be in the clear, or is he? Set in the gray, windy climes of springtime Breton, Au Coeur de Mensonge is a claustrophobic, psychological thriller that points the finger of guilt and exposes some very real fallacies in its imperfect players.
Based on a novel by American mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong Merci Pour le Chocolat (Nightcap) is a tightly constructed intrigue about Swiss Chocolate baroness Mika Muller (Isabelle Huppert) who, eight years earlier, may or may not have poisoned Lisabeth, the wife of her current husband, concert pianist Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc).
When comely young musician Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis) shows up on their doorstep with a wild but not implausible tale about her being Andre’s daughter, he takes her in as a protégé. Rattled at losing her hold on her husband, Mika slips a mickey into Jeanne’s coffee and sends her out on an errand which could lead to her death. When Andre’s hapless son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) volunteers to join Jeanne on her fatal drive, meddling Mika finds herself at the brink of complete happiness.
Huppert turns in a finely-tuned performance as the controlling heiress to a corporate conglomerate, who finally self-destructs when the strong-willed subjects of this passion play manage to elude her web.
Keeping in the vein of dysfunctional families, La Fleur de Mal (The Flower of Evil)is a complex mystery about a comfortably bourgeois Bordeaux clan with a secretive past they’d just as soon conceal. Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Natalie Baye) is seeking re-election to town counsel, much to the chagrin of her philandering husband Gerard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq). When Anne’s running mate (Thomas Chabrol) comes forth with a damaging flier being circulated which accuses their Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) of murdering her collaborator father during WWII, Anne assumes it is a right-wing hatchet job.
Meanwhile, Gerard’s son Francois (Benoit Magimel) has returned home after three years abroad in America and immediately hooks-up with his gorgeous step-sister Michele (Melanie Doutey). They shack up at the beach home of Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) and after some deliberation the threesome determines the jealous Gerard distributed the mean-spirited flier.
On election night, when it looks like Anne has scored an easy victory, Gerard returns home to drown his sorrows and sins then makes a pass at Michele who clubs him down with a lamp. Michele admits killing her stepfather to Aunt Line but the guilt-ridden older woman surprises her when she begs to be allowed to take the blame for the fresh crime.
Perhaps Chabrol’s most autumnal work, La fleur du mal is navigated by the hazy memories and dark dreams of Aunt Line. But the film is also blessed with some subtly shaded satire, particularly in the performances of Baye as the chilly, but well-intentioned liberal candidate and Le Coq as her unconscionable, philandering mate.
By turn of the millennium Chabrol was finally being treated like a national treasure in his homeland but the intellectually vigorous, stylistically impeccable films of these golden years were getting less play outside of France. Yet, the good-natured filmmaker soldiered on and, as we shall see, still had quite a few surprises up his sleeve.
Based on another Ruth Rendall novel, The Bridesmaid is a mesmerizing story of a couple entwined in crime and murder. Philippe Tardieu (Benoit Magimel) is a hard-working, stressed-out young man who lives with two sisters and his doting, widowed mother Christine (Aurore Clement). Weary of having so much responsibility placed upon his shoulders, Philippe hooks up with Senta (Laura Smet) a sullen, sexy bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding party.
The aspiring actress takes Philippe back to her haunted home where she seduces him with high ideas and hot sex. Philippe is initially repelled by Senta’s selfishness, yet when she asks him to kill a random person to prove his love for her the smitten suitor plays along. Philippe falsely admits to committing an unsolved murder, thrilling Senta and inspiring the disturbed girl to return the grisly favor.
The most clearly “mad” protagonist in the Chabrol canon, Senta bears more than a little resemblance to Bruno Anthony in Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, another sociopathic drifter looking for a playmate in sin. But whereas Bruno has to set a trap to force the upright and respectable Guy Haines into doing dirty deeds, the p-whipped Philippe is Senta’s willing accomplice until he learns the lengths she is willing to go to make him her twisted soul mate.
After a two year hiatus from filmmaking Chabrol returned with one of his most chilling efforts to date L’ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power), a showdown between the legal and private sectors which pushed his feminist cinema to the point of near no return. Based on France’s headline grabbing ELF scandal Chabrol crafts a merciless tale of a judge’s battle to take down a good old boy network of corporate executives and politicians.
The film opens with the cold as ice magistrate Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert) interrogating shady businessman Michel Humeau (Francois Berleand), the weakest link in a network of grafters which include many of the country’s leading businessmen and lawmakers. Jeanne and her younger partner Erika (Marilyne Canto) send Humeau and other schemers packing one by one to jail until the long hand of the government steps in to shut Jeanne down just as she is getting close to cracking the network.
A savage attack on the culture of money and the rise of corporate Machiavellianism, Comedy of Power is Chabrol’s most political film since Nada. It also completes Chabrol’s evolution of the modern woman begun with Violette, Story of Women and Madame Bovary. Where women were once thwarted by the duties of motherhood and the prejudices of religious and secular entities, true equality finally seems a possibility even if—as the suicide attempt of Jeanne’s neglected husband suggests—all the bugs haven’t been worked out.
A tale of dangerous games and murder La fille coupee en deux (A Girl Cut in Two) appears to be something of a throwback to the director’s unabashedly amoral films of early to mid-1970s, in particular Docteur Popaul, Une partie de plaisir and Les innocents aux mains sales.
Here, the object of desire is Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a pretty Lyon television personality who lands a sugar daddy in Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), a 50something author of popular and critical renown. Charles introduces the willing Gabrielle to his swinging lifestyle to the horror of Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), a disturbed young aristocrat who is also smitten with her. Unwilling to leave his saint-like wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli) Charles abandons the devastated Gabrielle who hooks up with Paul on the rebound.
The mismatched young couple marries but when Paul grows alarmed at his bride’s sexual prowess he vows revenge on her former lover. After Paul shoots down the esteemed author in public, the family’s lawyer and the young man’s chilly mother, Marie (Marie Bunel), persuade Gabrielle to shed light on her debauched relationship with Charles in court testimony. Paul gets off with a light sentence and the family washes their hands of the publicly humiliated Gabrielle who begins anew by joining her uncle’s magic act.
While his recent, black-hearted films helped regenerate overdue critical interest in Chabol, La fille coupee en deux came as a delight to longtime fans who felt Claude had lost his sense of humor along the way. No apologies are made for the unlikely May-December romance between Charles and Gabrielle, especially with their arch-nemesis, The Gaudens, being portrayed as such upstanding members of a twisted bourgeoisie. It’s not a stretch to peg La fille coupee en deux as Chabrol’s most elegantly perverse film, a worthy rival of Bunuel’s many takes on kinky, mad love.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Chabrol went to work for French TV to direct a quartet of mellow and engaging adaptations adapted from the ironic pen of Maupassant. The muted, melancholic style of these projects carried over into the film which would prove his swansong.
In Bellamy Gerard Depardieu plays a complicated Parisian police detective spending a holiday at his wife’s childhood home. Francoise (Marie Bunel) hopes Paul will get some long overdue rest but that idea is rendered moot by the appearance of his ne’er do well stepbrother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) and a lurking stranger with a dark secret to tell.
Noel Gentil (Jacques Gamblin) summons Bellamy to a hotel room where he makes a sketchy confession to a murder he may have committed. Bellamy’s investigation uncovers an insurance scam, plastic surgery, a wronged young woman, and an abandoned wife, among many other unsavory aspects of the dodgy man’s double existence. Meanwhile Jacques, one of Chabrol’s more pathetic male monsters, is proving to be more than a handful for both Paul and Francoise. Jacques’ thirst for liquor and a penchant for self-destruction prompt the Detective—a recovering alcoholic—to address his own demons.
Throwing the spotlight on three troublesome males gave rise to the notion the old lion had one last masterpiece about a tortured serial killer up his sleeve, but we will have to settle for this unnerving take on siblings and sociopaths as a most worthy finale to a long and fascinating career.
Books on Chabrol:
Claude Chabrol – Guy Austin **** Austin’s slender but incisive film study was much-welcomed by English language readers champing at the bit for any worthwhile analysis on dear, dark Claude. Concentrating primarily on the Helene films, the family chronicles and stories about women Austin offers plenty of intriguing speculations and leaves few stones unturned in this provocative book.
Claude Chabrol – Robin Wood, Michael Walker **** Published in 1970, the great critic Wood mostly succeeds in getting to the dark roots of Chabrol. Surprisingly, Wood and Walker never got around to doing a much-needed update. Nevertheless, the authors provide us with a narrative thread of Chabrol’s lost years. Out of print.
Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films– Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol **** This enthusiastic and seminal appraisal of the master dates a little, but is essential for the precious insights on the filmmaker who influenced Chabrol the most.
Films by Chabrol:
1958 Le beau Serge ****
1958 Les cousins ****
1959 A Double Tour ***1/2
1960 Les bonnes femmes ****
1961 Les godelureaux ***1/2
1961 L’oeil du matin ****
1962 Ophelia ***1/2
1963 Landru ***1/2
1964 Les plus belles escroqueries du monde ***1/2 (episode L’homme qui vendit la tour Eiffel)
1964 Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche ***1/2
1965 Six in Paris ***1/2 (episode La muette)
1965 Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha (Blue Panther) ***1/2
1965 Le Tigre se perfume a la dynamite ***½
1966 La ligne de demarcation (Line of Demarcation) ****
1967 Le scandale (English language version The Champagne Murders) ****
1967 La route de Corinthe ***1/2
1968 Les biches ****
1969 La femme infidele *****
1969 This Man Must Die *****
1970 Le boucher ****1/2
1970 La rupture ****
1971 Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall) ****1/2
1972 Ten Days Wonder ***1/2
1972 Docteur Popaul (aka High Heels) ***1/2
1973 Wedding in Blood ****
1974 Nada ***1/2
1975 Une partie de plaisir (Pleasure Party) ****
1975 Les innocents aux mains sales (Dirty Hands) ****
1976 Death Rite ***1/2
1977 Alice ou la dernière fugue ***1/2
1978 Blood Relatives ***1/2
1978 Deux plus deux egale quatre ***1/2
1978 Violette ****
1979 Cyprien Katsaris *** (music short)
1980 The Horse of Pride ****1/2
1980 Fantomas (episodes L‘echafaud magique & Le tramway fantome) ****
1982 Les fantomes du chapelier (aka The Hatter’s Ghost) ****1/2
1984 The Blood of Others ***
1984 Poulet au vinaigre ***1/2
1986 Inspecteur Lavardin ***1/2
1987 The Cry of the Owl ****1/2
1987 Masques ***1/2
1988 Story of Women ****
1988 Les dossiers secrets de l’inspecteur Lavardin (L’escargot noir) ***1/2
1990 Jours tranquilles a Clichy (Quiet Days in Clichy) ***1/2
1990 Dr. M ***
1990 Madame Bovary ***1/2
1991 Betty ****1/2
1993 L’oeil de Vichy ***1/2
1993 L’enfer ****
1995 La ceremonie *****
1997 The Swindle ***1/2
1999 Au coeur du mensonge (The Color of Lies) ****1/2
2000 Merci pour la chocolat (Nightcap) ****
2001 Les redoutables (Coup de vice) ***
2003 La fleur du mal (The Flower of Evil) ****
2004 La demoiselle d’honneur (The Bridesmaid) ****
2006 L’ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power) ****
2007 La fille coupee en deux (The Girl Cut in Two) ****1/2
2007 Chez Maupassant (La parure) ***1/2
2009 Bellamy ****
2009 Le petit vieux des Batignolles (Au siecle de Maupassant) ***1/2