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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.
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"Violette Noziere" (1978)
Chabrol’s first movie with muse-to-be Isabelle Huppert, "Violette Noziere" is the film that rocketed the actress to stardom in France after she won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. A historical drama about a young girl who attempts to murder her parents after they discover her dalliances with older men, it is often met with comparisons to his future (and much better) attempt at the genre in “The Story of Women.” There’s no denying that Huppert electrifies the screen, although it’s difficult to see how such a hard, icy actress grew from this vivacious girl. Their working relationship is just starting out here, and you can tell they’re not quite comfortable as some of the acting feels stiff, though not from Stéphane Audrane, Chabrol’s soon-to-be divorced spouse, who plays Violette’s hysterical mother Germaine in a performance that won her a Cesar award. The story itself is told through a series of confusing flashbacks, and Chabrol’s New Wave influences, complete with dream sequences and hallucinations, hinder the emotion of the movie, turning Violette into a psychopath, rather than a human being with whom we can identify. Chabrol hasn’t quite accessed the humanity of a repressed female the way he will in future films, but it’s a turning point as he moves into his next phase of features. [B-]

"A Story of Women" (1988)
Isabelle Huppert and Chabrol had quite a working relationship, and this film is really the apex of their collaboration. Huppert plays Marie, a mother of two during World War II, who turns to performing abortions in order to earn money and support her family. Based on a true story, "A Story of Women" is about the difficulties of being a woman, and especially a mother, in a man’s world. Chabrol deftly handles the historical drama genre and never turns Marie’s story into a black-and-white case of right and wrong. Her character may be cold and greedy, but it’s made clear she doesn’t deserve her ultimate fate and while we admire her for her love of life, we also despise her for taking advantage of a loving husband. It's probably Huppert’s best role with Chabrol as she’s playing perfectly to her type and really holds the sometimes melodramatic story together; she fully deserved the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival that she ultimately won. And if Chabrol feels a little uncomfortable with the strains of making a more realistic film than his New Wave roots might urge, he makes up for it with beautiful shots of poverty-ridden small town life in France. [A-]

"Madame Bovary" (1991)
Chabrol got all the elements of the adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” right, except for one thing -- he forgot to find an actress who could play the Emma Bovary found in the novel. If you haven’t read the book, you might appreciate Isabelle Huppert’s performance, but she’s completely too serious and harsh to play the incredibly silly and naive Emma. This film is a great example of a director using his favorite actor even when they might not be the best person for the role. If only the acting -- and that includes the predominantly male supporting cast including Jean-Francoise Balmer as Dr. Bovary -- weren’t so atrocious, then we could focus on Chabrol’s perfect recreation of 19th century France. Emma accumulates ferocious debts after marrying a small town doctor, and Chabrol goes all-out with the costumes and set design. Every piece drips with splendor, and juxtaposed against the mediocre streets of a town on the outskirts of France, Emma’s eventual downfall from overspending is foreshadowed in every shot. But “Madame Bovary” may be about an unsatisfied woman, which was one of Chabrol’s specialties as he got older, however no amount of beautiful cinematography and art design can save the blatant miscasting of Huppert. [C-]

"Betty" (1992)
Perhaps Chabrol's most nihilistic effort and most depressive statement on human nature, 1993's "Betty" is a study in not just a character's self-destructive tendencies, but her wanton desire for self-immolation. Featuring an engrossing turn by Marie Trintignant (daughter of Jean-Louis Trintignant) as the broken-down titular lead, Betty is an annihilative, young alcoholic seemingly hellbent on drinking herself into oblivion. At a nightclub she is rescued from seedy admirers by Laure (Stéphane Audran), a sympathetic fellow alcoholic who recognizes another lost soul and decides to take her in after hearing her stories of victimhood at the hands of ruthless high society. The film then circuitously fills in the blanks of Betty’s backstory as Laure tries to bring her back to at least a functioning state of alcoholism. The truth is Betty is her own worst enemy and then some. She cheats on the bourgeois husband who plucked her from poverty and introduced her to affluence, and then is faced with a grim divorce settlement, under which she must give up complete custody of their children and get paid a moderate stipend for life, or, penniless, face a bitter and merciless custody battle. Out of options, Betty settles on the only path she knows and returns to the bottle. But more disquieting is the revelation that alcoholic or not, Betty is a cancerous force who cannot help but ruin herself and those around her. With an appetite for destruction like an unquenched lust that must be sated, Betty soon sets eyes on Laure’s lover -- almost because she can. Laure flees and Betty discovers that she has greedily destroyed the last person who actually gave a damn about her. Depressing and bleak, but powerful. [B]

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


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