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The Essentials: The Films Of Claude Chabrol

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist September 22, 2011 at 5:04AM

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.
5

"Les Biches" (1968)
Another take on the class struggle, this time with some lust, deception and creepy identity-theft under/overtones thrown in for good measure, Chabrol’s “Les Biches” focuses on a disturbing and sexually ambiguous relationship between two women in Paris. The older, beautiful and wealthy Frederique (Stéphane Audran once again) picks up the younger, street artist Why (Jacqueline Sassard), takes her under her wing and provides her a home. While some call it a tortured lesbian relationship -- a bathtub scene early on features copious discomfort and smooth wet skin -- it’s the equivocacy of the females' bond that gives the film its potency and sexual electricity. Soon the duo takes a trip to the older woman’s villa in Saint Tropez and there they meet three men, the most important of the trio being the charming and sophisticated Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant). While Frederique tries to show the belle artiste how to navigate the choppy waters of affluent society, both women set their amorous sights on the debonair older man. But of course only one woman can win and thus when Why is rejected, her affection for both Paul and Frederique begins to curdle, and takes a turn toward the calmly deranged. Audran won Best Actress at the 18th Berlin International Film Festival for her turn as the nurturing and yet icy Frederique. [B+]

"The Unfaithful Wife" (1969)
Chabrol’s love of Hitchcock is more than evident in "The Unfaithful Wife" which was also his second film to star his then wife, Stéphane Audran in the lead. The tale of an adulterious love triangle, lauded at the time of its release for turning a revealing lens on the French bourgeoisie, the film follows an unhappy marriage made happy again when the husband murders his wife’s lover, which rekindles her respect for her husband's power; hardly a typical love story. Though overall the film is emotionally minimalistic, that provides greater contrast for the show of passion displayed in the murder, contributing to the off-kilter approach. Indeed, if truth is really stranger than fiction, then Chabrol’s take on marriage feels so very strange, it simply must hold some truth. It also features one of Chabrol's best parting shots in -- “Je t’aime comme un fou (I love you like a fool/crazy person).” Like all strong material these days, the film was remade in 2002 as the English-language "Unfaithful" starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. [A-]

"Le Boucher" (1970)
Neither a typical thriller nor a typical love story, but unnerving, creepy and strangely romantic in equal measure, “Le Boucher” focuses on two emotionally damaged people thrown together by circumstance. Set in a small village, Helene Daville (played by Stéphane Audran) plays a sad schoolmistress, left cruelly by her lover 10 years earlier who has romantically shut down. Popaul (Jean Yanne) is a butcher, just out of the army -- who also carves up bodies. Both yearning for connection, the lonely souls become strange companions, spending their free moments together. However Helene is unable to reciprocate Popaul’s feelings; when he asks what she would do if he kissed her, she replies, “Nothing, but I wish you wouldnt.” Chabrol's elegantly painted portrait of romantic realism takes the foreground, against the slowly building suspense of a series of murders taking place in and around town -- blood is used sparingly but to great effect. Though hardly a whodunnit (the identity of the killer is evident to all, most of all Helene) the more interesting game at play is why Helene doesn’t turn him in and if his unrequited love will lead him to kill her -- and whether maybe, after all, they could still save each other. Also featuring a disturbing score by Pierre Jansen, “Le Boucher” is arguably Chabrol’s masterpiece, an elegant construction of mood, tone and atmosphere that is disarmingly effective and acutely disquieting. [A+]

“La Rupture” (1970)
Featuring Chabrol's patented sense of dread and unease, the director’s 7th feature is another skewed take on Hitchcock -- a social drama/horror with fluctuating tenors of mystery and intrigue that will leave you indignant. Opening with a brutal domestic dispute that results in a six-year-old being hospitalized with a head injury, this flick from the Cahiers du Cinema genre prince follows its very foregrounded violence with less literal scumbaggery and backstabbing, eventually climaxing with nearly every character devolving into insanity. After the disastrous scene during breakfast, Helene (Stéphane Audran) moves into a creepy boarding house and struggles for sole custody of her injured son. However, her husband's wealthy parents care neither for her plan nor for her, so they hire Paul Thomas (Vincent Cassel's poppa Jean-Pierre) to dig up/fabricate dirt so that they can gain care of the boy. Paul pretends to be an old acquaintance that Helene must've forgotten and clandestinely inserts himself into her life by pretending to be sympathetic to her plight, even though he is quietly pulling strings to paint her as an unfit mother. As the filmmaker has already lassoed audiences in with a blunt beginning, for the rest of the movie he employs more dialogue-heavy sequences involving morally complex characters than shock tactics. But knowing that chattiness can get tiresome, he puts extra effort into exhibiting the supporting cast and locations, from the strange boarding house tenants (who provide just the right amount of unsettling flair) to the curious park balloon-seller (maybe the only rational, kind human being in the entire picture). By the end, most of the players meet destructive fates, all except for the oily rich father pulling the strings -- though his plan didn't quite work out, he's certain to gain the care of his grandson considering the state of everyone else. It's a poignant punctuation by Chabrol; a scathing attack on the haves who make the have-nots do their bidding, and reap the benefits in the end. [B+]

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Claude Chabrol, Features, Retrospective


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