Looking at the core French New Wave movement in broad strokes, you essentially get five Cahiers Du Cinéma critics-turned-filmmakers: Jean-Luc Godard, the all-you-need-is-a-gun-and-a-woman, pop-cinema deconstructionist turned oblique radical; François Truffaut, the humanist with an affinity for childhood; Eric Rohmer, the genial comedic moralist; opaque experimentalist Jacques Rivette; and then, over in the corner, Claude Chabrol. Considered by many to be the most mainstream of the group, with his sinister, provocative, Hitchockian impulses, the filmmaker was also appraised as a distant, sometimes aloof formalist, given his objectivist proclivity for eye-of-god morality tales that generally end in tragedy.
Differences in approach and philosophy notwithstanding, Chabrol is regarded as the founding father of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, largely because he boasts the distinction of being the first of these five filmmakers to have a feature-length effort released. 1958's self-financed “Le Beau Serge,” which would arrive one year before Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and two before Godard’s “Breathless," proved to the movement's other members that rogue filmmakers could break into the industry on their own if they possessed a product filled with conviction.
Intensely prolific, and arguably not super-picky (averaging two or three films a year at times), Chabrol seemed to simply love making movies whether he originated the idea or not -- indeed, unlike his fellow New Wave auteurs, Chabrol was happy to take on studio assignments. By the time of his death in 2010 at the age of 80, the filmmaker had made over 50 feature-length films, many of them suspense dramas often centered around the lives and fates of women.
While Chabrol is often regarded as France’s answer to Hitchcock, that title is really better suited to Henri-Georges Clouzot, as Chabrol’s contributions to the thriller and suspense genres are more moody and mannered than the association would suggest -- the filmmaker’s textured and observist works have much more on their mind than scares and thrills. Not a man with the most hopeful view of humanity, most of Chabrol’s works boil down to mordant morality plays, and often acerbic studies of hypocritical class and social mores. Also key to understanding Chabrol is his gallows humor, frequently sly and often ridiculing. “Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating that intelligence,” he once famously quipped.
While there’s simply not enough space here to do justice to all of Chabrol’s work, with the long-overdue inclusion of two of his films in the Criterion Collection this month -- "Le Beau Serge" and “Les Cousins” -- we figured this was as good a time as any to take a quick snapshot look at the departed filmmaker’s essential works.
"Le Beau Serge" (1958)
Not a murder melodrama, in any shape or form, Chabrol’s remarkable debut film, “Le Beau Serge” is, however, highly influenced by, and modeled on Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” The story focuses on sickly but successful prodigal son François (frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Brialy) who returns to his provincial French village after a decade-long absence to discover that little has changed since he left. The most dispiriting aspect of his return to the depressed town is François’ old friend Serge (Gérard Blain) who, unhappily married and an unapologetic alcoholic, only lapses deeper into bitter despair at the sight of Francois, who then takes it upon himself to rescue the man (Chabrol regular Bernadette Lafont also co-stars). But Serge doesn’t want François' pity or charity and the two old friends find themselves deeply at odds. Meanwhile, a side narrative concerns a young female and her father about whom Francois reveals the unspoken truth that the other townspeople secretly know: the man is not her true father. But with “the secret” uncorked, the drunkard goes home and sexually assaults his daughter which leads François to beat the old man within an inch of his life. Despised by the town for his savior complex, the only thing left for François, appropriately for a film with such deep religious undertones, is one more shot at redemption, in what ultimately amounts to a cutting and raw chronicle of class and friendship. [B+]
"Les Cousins" (1959)
In this arch moral tale, Charles, a sheltered young mama’s boy from the sticks (Gérard Blain) gets much more than he bargained for when he goes to Paris to study law and live with Paul, his sophisticated, lothario cousin (Jean-Claude Brialy). In some ways an acidic and wry mirror image of “Le Beau Serge,” Chabrol’s sophomore effort has the lead roles reversed with Brialy playing the corrupting effete douchebag to Blain’s innocent and naive, yet disciplined university student. While the skirt-chasing Paul is obnoxious and pretentious, even worse is his much older friend Clovis (Claude Cerval), who becomes a toxic, louche force in their already hedonistic lives. Attempting to get the serious young student to unwind, Paul convinces Charles to come take in the Paris nightlife and its bonnes femmes and soon, Charles is head over heels in love with Florence (Juliette Mayniel). But disillusioned with his decadent life even as he enjoys it, Paul soon decides he covets what Charles has, seduces Florence and convinces her that she’s a whore and only a wolf like him can love her. Distraught, Charles put his nose to the grindstone of his school work, while his boorish cousin drinks his evenings away, but the ultimate tragic irony occurs when he fails his exams and the flippant and unstudied Paul passes his. Worse, this caustic film’s tragic ending is a reminder that sometimes might is right regardless of what’s just. [A-]
"Les Bonnes Femmes" (1960)
Not properly released in North America until the early aughts, "Les Bonnes Femmes" has been called, by Chabrol himself, his best work -- despite facing negative criticism at the time. It’s a simultaneously heartbreaking and chillingly dark piece. The film follows four shop girls in Paris over a few days, all sharing a mutual goal of attaining the love of a good man -- Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Lucile Saint-Simon and Chabrol's then-soon-to-be wife Stéphane Audran, who starred in 25 of his pictures. Chabrol brings insight and thus importance into their everyday existence and their simple but potentially unattainable dreams; one girl is in love, another is busy but directionless, another secretly sings in a nightclub and the fourth is being stalked by a man on a motorcycle. Together the four lovely and hopeful girls aspire to transcend their monotonous existences, but the cruelty of life soon descends, crushing their dreams and exposing them as pure fantasy. A sympathetic Chabrol pitches up a romantic and vibrant milieu at first -- the world seems to be their oyster -- but one by one the girls are exploited, which in one case leads to a grim and devastating ending. Chabrol may be on their side, but the cruel world he depicts in “Les Bonne Femmes” is a man's world, and women are just passing time in it. Never has Paris (city of lights and romance) seemed more sad and tragic. [A]