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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

"La Ceremonie" (1995)
Chabrol definitely moved away from his New Wave roots as he got older, and ventured into realism here (at least until the ending) with a story of two lower-class women who become friends in the country. Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) plays a maid working for a bunch of snotty, rich people; she befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), an eccentric, sometimes manic postal clerk. It’s here that Huppert finally breaks type, playing an erratic and crazed young woman who hates any and all authority. Bonnaire is also a real find as the dyslexic, shy girl who can’t stand up to her icy and pretentious employers (played by Jacqueline Bisset, and Jean-Pierre Cassel). They too, however, have their own concerns -- they're raising a family and are just coming off firing a maid. A polarizing, wild third act in which all hell breaks loose will divide audiences -- shocking, provocative and almost deliriously violent, seemingly out of nowhere, the finale is likely seen as either the best commentary on lower class oppression in France, or the worst. Considering the sly irony of the denoument -- in which you can practically see Chabrol’s sinister smile across the screen -- we’d call the bold, cavalier conclusion a success at the very least. [B+]

"Merci, Pour Le Chocolat" (2000)
While Chabrol’s ‘80s and ‘90s career as a filmmaker was hit-and-miss, and often the productive filmmaker was ignored when he made an above average picture, at the ripe old age of 70, the director hit a home run at the top of the aughts with classic Chabrol-ian psychological suspense picture, “Merci, Pour Le Chocolat.” Starring well-worn muse Isabelle Huppert, famed French musician Jacques Dutronc, a young (and rather radiant) Anna Mouglais ("Coco & Igor”) and Brigitte Catillo, ‘Chocolat’ chronicled one of Chabrol’s favorite subjects: decaying family dynamics through the lens of a possible switched-at-birth scenario and a family’s deep dark secret. On her birthday, during a random lunch with her mother’s friend, Jeanne, an aspiring pianist (Mouglais), finds out that when she was born a nurse had mistakenly told prominent pianist André Polonski (Dutronc) that she was his daughter. The story and its genetic coincidence is just too juicy to ignore and so the curious Jeanne tries to track the family down. Meanwhile, this family has its own rich and complex history. "Mika" Muller (Huppert), an heiress to a Swiss chocolate factory, has just remarried André (Dutronc). During their divorce and split, André married another woman and fathered his son, Guillaume (the same boy almost switched in the hospital decades ago). After André’s wife died in a mysterious auto accident it was Mika who consoled him and helped heal his wounds. When Jeanne befriends the family through her curiosity and becomes a piano pupil, the disturbed psyche of Mika begins to uncoil, when she feels her reborn family being threatened. The film veers into thriller mode in its third act when Mika’s carefully laid plans begin to unravel, and while it might be a bit too cocoa bitter for some, there’s no denying the picture is masterfully calculated and a thoroughly entertaining ride. [B+]

"The Bridesmaid" (2004)
It all began with a smug, behind-the-back insult: protagonist Philippe chides one of his sister's bridesmaids for constantly adopting random nicknames (now wanting to be called "Senta") only to find himself eventually smitten with lust for this eccentric female. In between his job and trying to keep his family in line, the two partake in ferocious sex, usually followed by lengthy absences and shadiness on her part, which drive Philippe looney. The man is so head-over-heels and desperate for Senta's attention that he seems to either ignore the weirder things she says, or to humor them. This includes, unfortunately, a suggestion that they should kill a person to prove their love to one another. Chabrol's script (co-written with Pierre Leccia and based on Ruth Rendell's novel) fluidly weaves various sub-plots and minor characters in and out, both fleshing out the movie's reality and making the narrative much more satisfying by the credit roll. There's also plenty of praise for the couple: Benoit Magimel, best known for going head-to-head with Huppert in Michael Haneke's incredible "The Piano Teacher," gives an energetic but not showy performance; a reserved job that makes up for Chabrol's sometimes-sketchy directorial choices (Philippe's obsession with a garden statue of Goddess Flora is fine, but him talking to it, sleeping with it, and kissing it is mostly not). Laura Smet's Senta is properly impenetrable, her unpredictable nature providing much of the flick's mysteriousness though never feeling random for the sake of throwing audience members off. Though his latter-day work is spotty, "The Bridesmaid" proved that the old-timer could not just keep up with most young hot-shots, he could upstage them with relative ease. [B+]

"L'ivresse du pouvoir" (2006)
Using a ripped-from-the-headlines premise (based on the "Affaire Elf" scandal, even though the opening coda overtly claims the film to be a strict work of fiction), this late-era drama by the prolific filmmaker studies the legal prosecution of a corrupt corporate chairman, the accompanying tangled politics, and the hardened judge who sees it all through. It's yet another pairing for Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert, this time analyzing both her character's dedication to the case and the toll it's taking on her life (mostly affecting the relationship with her husband, a man obviously insecure with her powerful position). As Jeanne Charmant-Killman, Huppert drills the accused suit throughout the flick, sending him to jail and digging up some serious dirt involving money and mistresses. But the mighty, invisible hand of government interferes, planting moles and even going as far as to impair Jeanne's car brakes to prevent her from furthering the case against their wealthy cohort. These are some serious opponents, and that's only the beginning. There are plenty of opportunities here for serious drama and thrills, but the filmmaker instead opts to play every moment casually. This works when restraint is called for, but when a character study refuses to hone in on anything, even the commanding presence of Huppert starts to lose brawn. There's some odd sexual tension between Jeanne and her husband's cousin which works surprisingly well, and there's even something amusing in the bureaucrat meetings as they suck on awkwardly-long cigars to an overwrought score. Even so, the picture never feels like it's going anywhere and all plot points feel like a trifle rather than legitimate obstacles or weight. It's topical and competent, much like Alfred Hitchcock's "Topaz," but it's similarly (dare we say it) shrug-worthy. [C]

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


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